When I was a young mother, I would sometimes consider what life would be for my babies when they grew up. I’d watch them playing so earnestly at their pretend games, then one day I realized that because I don’t know a woman who hasn’t been harassed, what had happened to me and every other woman I knew would also happen to them. It was upsetting to think that I’d have to explain to them that they’d be faced with being called misogynistic names, yelled at as they walked down the street, possibly touched against their will. These small children who made up games based on variations of Harry Potter, laughing and happy, mostly unaware of the heavy weight the culture would soon be placing on them. I put the thoughts away for later. Then they grew up.
My younger daughter always looked young for her age, that is, until she turned fourteen, and mysteriously began looking older than her age. People would guess the girls were twins instead of nearly five years apart in age. And just as suddenly, she was a target. She could not walk down the street in our small town without men yelling at her from trucks, screaming obscenities, whistling, cat-calling, and creating such a hostile environment that she refused to go anywhere unless I drove her. We lived in the heartland of America, the land of the free, a country that highly values justice and equality, a place that we are reminded daily that people died to protect, but she was beginning to live in a different reality from men and boys, deciding if her shorts were an inch too short, her t-shirt too tight, making a hundred small decisions to try to deflect any kind of unwanted attention, yet, despite some days being covered from toe to wrist to neck in a dark raincoat and pants, she still would be yelled at for what I can only assume is daring to be a young female in public alone. It had the whiff of repressive regime about it, widespread, deliberate.
I tried to explain to people what she was going through, but sometimes even other women didn’t seem to understand that it didn’t feel like positive attention based on her beauty. Instead it felt like she was suddenly on trial for something, the public space no longer shared and open, but menacing now, a place where she has to keep her guard up, not smile at strangers, not wave when someone honks because it could invite further attention. Every interaction had to be recalculated. As a child when someone called to her, it was most likely a friend or acquaintance, but now it could be someone leering, gesturing, or otherwise harassing her. I’ve seen how her once very open Southern manner has, of necessity, become much less friendly, her eyes shifting down in public instead of her usual cheerful, open smile at others, not suspicious, but knowing that being too “friendly female” can sometimes be taken as invitation to hassle.
I don’t know what long-term effect these realizations about her position in society will have on her future choices. What years of looking over her shoulder, tamping down her happy personality, dressing as conservatively as possible, all to shield herself from hostility, will have on her. I remind her that it’s not her fault; it wouldn’t matter what she wore or did or didn’t do. It would still happen. Sadly, I can see the changes in her that it has already wrought, knowing that I cannot protect her, but can only try help her feel more empowered to claim her space in public.