Written on the body

How misogyny and hypersexualization disrupt the freedom of young girlhood

January 25, 2013

Something we face as women: the struggle for control. It is this desire to completely own ourselves. Many times we don’t realize it until the struggle for it becomes real and constant. My personal writing took on an obsession with my own body by the age of 13 and held on until perhaps a year or two ago. I did not write about flaws as much as I wrote about my desire to control something that should be mine, but was not. In many ways, I felt trapped in my limbs. This body keeps me from feeling free, I thought. I don’t want it. The body was not my own, but something to be determined, sculpted, identified, or manipulated by the world, and the men specifically, around me. My thoughts were my own. Everything else was up for grabs.

I feared age not because of looks, but because of innocence. I feared it because of lost moments I knew I should have had and lost moments I did not know were mine to claim. When we discuss the aging process for women, what we often discuss is how this affects the agency and power a woman can possess through her physicality. Ageing means losing this power that is given to us by birth and cruelly taken from us by time. But this concept is built on a reality that is structured through stages. There is childhood and then there is adolescence and then there is adulthood. And although many of us see these ages, what we see is not always what we learn should be ours.

I was 16 when I was eight. It was not a matter of how I thought I looked or how I felt. My age was thrust upon me by the world in which I lived. These experiences are not unique to me. I felt 8, but I was 16, and there was no convincing the men around me on street corners and in stores. When one is that age, one believes that this attention is their fault. What have I done to deserve this kind of cruel treatment? What have I done to no longer feel like a young child? But in the end, it is not a matter of what the young girl has done and more so a matter of what we accept and take from the lives of the girls around us.

Latoya Peterson’s original essay, “The Not Rape Epidemic,” continues to stick out to me, nearly five years after she re-posted it to her site Racialicious, because the themes ran through my memories of the loss of childhood and continues to run through the stories I hear today from other women. She wrote:

Yes, we learned a lot about rape. What we were not prepared for was everything else. Rape was something we could identify, an act with a strict definition and two distinct scenarios. Not rape was something else entirely. Not rape was all those other little things that we experienced everyday and struggled to learn how to deal with those situations.

In the past, I’ve written about young girls, black girls in particular, “putting on the snarl.” This is a concept born out the memories of my youth and the way I see young girls around me in my family or on the street. There is an anger, a seemingly inexplicable anger, that rises to the surface and is in full force by the arrival of teenage years. It is not just anger to be angry. It is also frustration and confusion. It is the reckoning. At some point, I think, these young women learned what the next days, years, and decades will mean to them, and they are angry.

The innocence of childhood is not just an ignorance of the functions of the world. It is also an innocence of freedom. As a child, one often doesn’t realize how much freer they are then they’ll ever be. Although this is not the experience for some children, pleasures during this time should be simple: good food, good friends, and good fun.

But ageing is the loss of this freedom and the gaining of more responsibilities and complications. For young women “putting on the snarl,” perhaps is a reaction to what has been lost. That we see it in girls of such a young age speaks to the taking that is done. It is not done gradually, but by force. It is not done pleasantly, but by selfishness. And once it is gone, it is can never truly be regained. Once one learns that the world sees you as a sexual being, as an object, as property, as the physical, can one ever slip back into the joy of ignorance?

For myself, it began at age eight and fully developed by age 10. At age eight, a teenage boy hit on me inside of a shoe store. “You’re very sexy,” he said, while giving me a foot massage instead of helping me put on a pair of shoes. I did not feel flattered or excited. I was confused. He said he was 16 which made me think that he believed I was 16. I could not process this situation except to understand that this was not what I encountered on the playground or on the t-ball field or in my classroom. This was not a boy I chased during recess. This was not a moment of being young. This was something else entirely. And as the people around me explained what happened, what I understood most was that this was not reality as it had been for me. It was a reality that would eclipse the past. This was the way the world worked.

By age 10, I had grown five inches. I was tall and awkward and uncomfortable. But I also knew it would not stop. Incidents like the one that happened as an eight-year-old girl grew in number. I could not wish it away. Being cornered in stores, being followed, being catcalled, being groped: this was my new reality. Welcome to “womanhood.”

As a young adult, I feared (and continue to fear) that I have not “lived” properly. I fear I have not lived wildly, recklessly, openly, and because of this, I will always regret what could have been. At 16, I knew that I was not doing 16 right. At 21, the same feeling. But recently, I realized my fear of age was not in the act of getting older, but in the fact that my youth was so frequently denied to me. My body had not been my own for a long time. My age mattered little. I was eight, but still. I was sixteen, but still. 

Follow Britt on Twitter @britticisms.