I am a feminist to my core.
I know, I know. That “but” negates everything that was said before it, right?
Here’s the thing, though. My oldest niece just turned 13. I was able to stay in denial about this for a rather long time, because she has always been tiny for her age, and until recently, she still looked like a little girl. She is still in a transitional phase, but very recently she seemed to go from “little girl” to “teenager” overnight.
And she’s beautiful. I say that not just as a doting aunt who would think she was beautiful no matter what. I mean, I am a doting aunt who would think she was beautiful no matter what (and smart, and opinionated, and passionate, and strong, and kind as well), but I also see how others look at her. She’s always been exceptionally pretty. She gets smiles and compliments from strangers constantly. When she was younger, it happened so frequently that I would actually be a little offended when people didn’t comment on what a beautiful child she was.
She’s aware of the attention she’s always gotten, and even comments about it at times. It’s been a delicate balance in our family of affirming these messages without overemphasizing the importance of beauty and letting it go to her head, and affirming that what’s inside is always going to be more important at the same time. It’s okay to be pretty. It’s okay to enjoy being pretty. We want her to be confident. But we also want her to know that her looks are not where her value lies.
But it gets far more complicated now that we’re entering the teenage years.
My own experiences were a bit different. I wasn’t exceptionally beautiful when I was her age (or at any point in time). I was cute enough, I suppose, although I didn’t think so at the time. But even so, I had experiences that make me fear what the future holds for my niece.
Unlike her, I started developing very young. I got my first training bra when I was 9, and needed to wear one consistently by the time I was 11. By 12, I thought of myself mostly as being fat, although, looking back, it’s possible that I could have been better described as curvy.
I was in 7th grade the first time I noticed that I was being looked at differently. I had a favorite mix-and-match outfit that I felt accentuated my best features and made me feel grown up, and, yes, a little sexy (although my understanding of sex at the time was rudimentary, and not even something I wanted). It was an Esprit outfit that consisted of navy blue leggings with a white flower pattern, and a white boatneck tunic that I wore pulled down off one shoulder. In warmer weather, I alternated the tunic with a ribbed white cotton top that was form-fitting and short, and fully exposed both shoulders. (If I recall correctly, my mother hated that top.) The way it fit left little to the imagination, and I loved it.
Of course, what I wanted at the time was attention from boys my own age. That was not what I got.
One afternoon, I was wearing that top, sitting in the backseat of my family’s minivan, and at a red light, I looked over at the car next to us to see the driver, a man probably in his late 30s or early 40s, staring at my chest. It was the first time I knew I was being objectified, although I didn’t know that word for it at the time.
I had no idea what to feel. There was undeniably a part of me that was flattered. It was the first time I really felt the power of my femininity, this knowledge that I could draw the attention of grown men.
It was also terrifying. I was fully aware that the way this strange man was looking at me – a middle-schooler – was inappropriate. And I felt responsible for it. As if, because I wore and loved this top that flattered my curves and made me feel beautiful, he was entitled to ogle my body. As if ownership of my body was no longer fully mine.
That was the first time. It wasn’t the last. Most of the attention I got, all the way up to college, was from older men whose interest felt intrusive and predatory. And as a result, even now, I have trouble trusting men who show interest in me.
I wonder how things might have been different if I’d gotten that kind of attention from boys my own age first, boys whose interest would have been appropriate and normal.
And now, I’m watching my niece grow up. I’m watching her experiment with makeup (which is, thanks to YouTube, no longer trial and error process that it used to be – she has already mastered the smoky eye and is more skilled with eyeliner than I am with nearly 25 years of practice). I’m watching her experiment with clothing. Skinny jeans and skater dresses and form-fitting tank tops. It all looks fantastic on her.
I had Glamour Shots done when I was 14. In one of the shots, I’m looking at the camera with bedroom eyes. When my mother saw the photo, she looked at me like I was an alien and asked, “Where did you learn how to do that?”
I see my niece’s selfies on Instagram and want to ask her the same question.
Of course, I know the answer, because I remember. It wasn’t necessarily something I learned, although I could have truthfully said I’d seen it in movies. But it was more instinctual than that. I remember how confident and powerful that gaze made me feel. I knew that photo was me at my absolute most attractive.
I don’t want to take that feeling away from my niece. I don’t want to shame her for it.
At the same time, I understand the apprehension in my mother’s eyes when she looked at that picture now. Maybe even, with my background in child protective services, more than she did. I’ve seen the darkest corners of humanity. I’ve encountered the predators who live there.
Is it wrong to want to shield my niece from that? Is it wrong that I want to wrap a blanket around her and lock her in a tower if it will keep some 40-something perv from looking at her the way that man in the next car looked at me when I was her age? Or doing something worse?
And yet, I despise that kind of talk.
Because what I really want for her, and her little sister, and her cousin, and for all women and girls everywhere, is for us to be able to exist without having to worry about how we are being perceived. For us to be able to present ourselves in ways that make is feel confident and attractive without it being an invitation to be objectified. For us not to feel complicit in harrassment or abuse we may experience because we wore something that made us feel pretty. I want us to live in a world where the rallying cry of #yesallwomen is not met with a response of #notallmen (because we women already know it’s not all men, you morons, but for our own personal safety, we have to assume you’re one of “those” men until you can prove otherwise), but is instead met with, “We understand why you feel this way, and we will do better, and we will add our voices to support yours.”
I want my nieces to live in a world where a man who brags about groping women’s crotches without their consent is arrested instead of elected president, where we care more about a rape victim’s safety and emotional wellbeing than about her rapist’s potential swimming career or parental rights, where power and money are not a license to exploit and abuse women.
In the meantime, don’t mind me over here building this tower.