(content note for sexual harassment, foul language, rape culture)
Last summer, I attended a workshop where we were asked how we knew we were grown up. Was there a specific ceremony that conferred “adulthood”, or did we just wake up one day and know we were adults? At first, I didn’t feel like I had a good answer, except one related to responsibility (mortgage, car payment, etc.).
But then I thought about it a little more deeply, and it dawned on me that I fully understood that I was grown when, in 8th grade, a male classmate got on his knees in front of me in the lunch line so he could be eye level with my breasts while he talked to me, and told me so. Or perhaps it was the time I was at the mall with my sister, and she had to admonish a group of grown men for leering at my 13 year old body (and it was just my body. They had no interest in me as a person with thoughts, feelings and opinions.).
Thirteen year old me.
A lot of women can probably answer the question, “When did you know you were grown?” with a story of sexual harassment or even sexual assault, even if they were just children when it happened. Women and children’s bodies are public bodies, commodified bodies, and consumable bodies. Our bodies are not ours alone, nor are we allowed to grow or change without commentary from those who have power over us.
This recent post by Jessica Valenti on The Nation brought this home for me all over again. She writes about being 17, on a train, and having her ass grabbed, and how her experience is common. She also talks about how scary it is for girls and women when men and boys ogle and grab at us. The actual event is scary, but the implications are far scarier.
The implications are about entitlement and power. When that boy wanted to be at eye level to my breasts while he talked to me, he was telling me something that was very important about the way I could expect men to treat me. He let me know that he could only talk to my breasts because he had more power than me, and didn’t have to address me with any level of respect. The rite of passage was suddenly understanding, with crystal clarity, that men are not obliged to respect women, but that women are obliged to acquiesce to men’s desires.
These days, I am all, “Fuck that,” but at 13, it was a different story. I was confused, and saddened by this revelation. I wanted to be my own person, commanding respect all over town, but I also wanted, desperately, for someone to think I was pretty and tell me so. That shit really matters to teenagers, hell, I don’t hate it NOW when someone thinks I am attractive. But it’s fraught when you’re 13, and I convinced myself that having my boobs stared at in the lunch line was actually flattering. That idea was reinforced for me when I talked to the adults in my life and my friends about it. If he liked my boobs (meaning, he wanted to stare at them), he must like me.
What a terrible rite of passage! Welcome to womanhood, where your body isn’t really yours, men and boys have carte blanche to grope and leer at you, and everyone is going to convince you that you love every minute of it!
I wish the moment I recognized that I was a grown woman had been more like:
“Wow, you’re really smart!”
“Hey, will you lead this project for us?”
“Here’s a giant paycheck for doing work you love.”
“What do you think would be best for you?”
Autonomy is the mark of being an adult, not objectification. Let it be so.