The other day while walking my daughter home from school a man around 50 yelled, “Are you the mother? Wow! Good job, mom.”
Now, I could say that he was just giving us a compliment. I could say he was talking to me, and his comment had nothing to do with my daughter. I could say that he is weird, and we live in LA, and LA is weird. I could say that it was just a joke, and it’s no big deal, and I should just brush it off.
After we passed him, my daughter asked me what he meant, and before I could think about what I was saying, I went into protection mode and told her that his comment was directed at me. But, when we got home, she sat on my bed and looked at me. “Mom, I think that man was talking to me.”
Yes, he was. Of course he was. We both felt it. Even if she didn’t know what he meant, she could sense that his comment meant more than you’re pretty.
“I think you are right,” I said lowering my head. “Did it make you feel uncomfortable?”
She nodded and a weight fell in my stomach. Welcome to puberty. No wonder girls' confidence plummets at this age.
She is 11 years old. She just graduated from elementary school and still plays with small plastic animals. And now along with vocab words, I have to teach her how to protect herself from disgusting men.
I told her that what that man did is called catcalling and catcalling is aggressive behavior and the best action is to ignore it. Usually, men that are willing to yell slurs about you and your body, if provoked, can be unpredictable and dangerous; it’s best to keep walking; don’t make eye contact and stand tall.
I felt so defeated as the words came out of my mouth. Basically, there is nothing we can do, but pretend it’s not happening.
“Were you ever catcalled?” Yes.
“Did it happen a lot?” Yes.
The other day, while taking my lunch lap around the block, a limo pulled up to the intersection and a twenty something boy stuck the top half of his body out the window and yelled at the blonde next to me.
“Hey! Hey! Come with us! I’ll show you a good time.” She kept her head down and stared deep into her phone.
“Hey! I am talking to you!” She didn’t move.
The limo rounded the corner, and the boy started yelling, “You bitch. Fucking Cunt.”
It was 1 pm in the business section of Century City. If you are not familiar with LA, it’s a very nice area with lots of tall buildings and lots of suits and heels making deals and drinking pressed juice. No one did anything. No one even acknowledged that a woman was being harassed.
Puberty for me wasn’t a source of power. Puberty for me was a source of shame and fear. I grew up with sexual abuse. The predator lived in my home. My initiation to my body came through crude comments about what I looked like and what I was experiencing. And my only defense was to turn off and disconnect from the thing closest to me, my body.
It has taken me until now to begin to feel, to be intimate, to let go and to begin to be vulnerable. Obviously, I was sexually active all through my twenties, but there is a difference from being what others want and finding what you need.
My body did not belong to me. And because I couldn’t connect to my body it was and still is hard to roll my shoulders back and stand straight.
The predator lives everywhere. He lives on our streets, in our grocery stores, on our billboards and in our malls. He constantly reminds us what our value is and where we belong. How do I teach her to catch him, see him and to protect herself from him?
How do I teach her that her body is not a source of shame but a source of power and strength? How do I teach her to hear the predator’s words to know what they mean and still stand tall and confident? How do I teach her to protect herself and still be open?
It sucks. It sucks that this has to happen to my daughter in 6th grade. It sucks that it's only the beginning. It sucks that she has to learn about her body in the context of men noticing it.
I want her to be a strong girl, teen and woman. And I feel helpless. It's only going to get worse, and she needs to be ready. She needs to be ready so she can spot it and move past it. She needs to be ready, so she doesn’t believe what they say and can choose to disagree.
I was never taught how to deal with sexually aggressive behavior. I was never taught that it was wrong. I was never taught to listen to my gut. I knew how I felt. I knew that I didn’t like it, but it was accepted. Whether in my home or on my way to school, I accepted it. It was ingrained in everything. And it still is.
How do I teach my daughter to fight, but be safe? How do I teach my daughter to hear it, acknowledge it but not take it in?
One of our favorite poems is called The Wolf’s Eyelash by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. A woman saves a wolf and in return the wolf gives her one of his eyelashes. When she looks through it, she can see those who are true and those who are not. And because she can see those who want to hurt her, she is able to choose to move away from those who are cruel and toward those who are kind.
I hope my daughter finds the wolf’s eyelash. I hope she can see when someone deserves her energy and when someone does not. I hope she can see that the aggression and pain others ask her to hold doesn’t belong to her.
I don’t think the preteen years needs to be a time of shame. I don’t think puberty needs to be a time of fear. If we choose not to accept it, then maybe it can change.
Then maybe in 10 years, another little girl won’t have to ask her mom what that guy meant who yelled at her on her way home from school.