Updated: Aug 17
When women are not yet women, and girlhood still blooms on their faces, they’re taught that modesty is a virtue.
In my mind’s eye, I see the pitying look on my male teacher’s face as he informed me
that I was at that age where a bra was, unfortunately, necessary. He was a kind man, perpetually old but never aging; in the eight years I’d attended that tiny Christian school, I hadn’t seen him age a day. He watched my sisters grow up, and when it was time for me to enter the world of academics, he watched me grow up, too. So I donned a bra at the ripe age of eight, and because he was like a grandfather to me, I didn’t question why a man was telling me what to put on my body or why.
It wouldn’t be the last time a man told me what I could or couldn’t wear.
I see myself a few years later, being marched back to my cabin at a Christian camp because I’d dared to show a strip of my stomach when I’d selected my outfit that morning. It was a cute outfit, my counselor had told me, but it would distract the boys.
When women are not yet women, they’re taught that a man’s opinion on their manner of dress matters more than their own.
In that ever-constant current of memory, I find myself trapped, year after year, in modesty meetings in my Christian high school. The boys never had modesty meetings. If anything, the female faculty would plan the modesty meetings for chapel days, then deliberately dismiss the boys so they could lecture us on what was proper for us to wear. Jeans and jackets and shapeless shirts. Baggy pants and knee-length skirts. Tank tops were taboo, of course. Rips were instant write-ups. Words on clothes were strictly prohibited.
Of course they didn’t want words on our clothing. After all, they didn’t tolerate any words back from us as they laid down the law.
Sometimes, in the gym, I spare a chuckle when I see the very same girls that shamed us for speaking out against the double standard. The girls who, like the female teachers leading the modesty meetings, beseeched us not to “tempt our brothers in Christ” because “boys can’t help who they are”. The girls who were, eight times out of ten, related to the faculty. Yes, I spare a chuckle when I see those same girls in the gym, wearing nothing but a skimpy sports bra and spandex shorts.
When women are not yet women, they’re told that men are the victims of their own perverted natures.
When women are not yet women, they learn that hypocrisy is a nasty, snarling beast
wearing the skins of their friends, like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.
But women shaming each other is nothing compared to the sort of shaming men will do. If I had dime for every time that my father has stopped me on the way to the gym, snarling that I need to change my outfit, I’d be a wealthy, wealthy woman. Sometimes, he does not say anything. He only fixes me with a disappointed stare, lips pressed in a thin line. Far more often, he tells me I dress like a sleaze who has no respect for herself.
When women are not yet women, they learn that men have authority to lecture them on their appearance.
I’ve had men tell me I look better with straight hair or better with curls. They’ve told me crop tops are trashy. They’ve said I look better with makeup, without makeup, with more skin showing, with less skin showing. They’ve looked me up and down, formed their opinions on me, and felt compelled to share them.
When women are not yet women, they’re indoctrinated with the idea that a man’s opinion matters.
My first boyfriend—if you could call a long-distance pen pal turned text-buddy that—was the embodiment of purity. His hair was cornsilk blond, his skin a sun-kissed gold; and his eyes were as blue as a clear summer sky. In the depths of my memory, he was as warm and bright and pure as sunlight. We’d met at the aforementioned Christian summer camp of my childhood, and he was one of those Sunday school boys that loved God with every atom in his body. He was sixteen, a good three years older than me, but I’ve always been older in spirit. I was drawn to him like a magnet.
When women are not yet women, they’re taught to crave male attention. So when the week drew to a close, we exchanged addresses. For months, we wrote our letters, back and forth, sometimes two a month, sometimes three or four. I lived for the letters; I treasured each one, and when we both acquired phones, I kept them stowed safely away in a box.
When women are not yet women, no one warns them not to mention menstruation.
After his accusations that I must not love God because I casually mentioned my cramping, I left him in the dust. Why was I unholy because I’d shared something so natural? If God deemed it sinful to talk about menstruation, why did He code it into our hormonal makeup? Why was the topic so stigmatized?
A male coworker, at an age at which he should’ve already learned a thing or two about women, once saw a tampon wrapper in the employee bathroom. Rather loudly, he voiced his opinion that women were dirty and disgusting because they bleed.
When women become women, they learn to use their voice.
So I asked him, raising an eyebrow sky-high, if women were disgusting for bleeding,
what was his excuse?
I miss that spitfire. I could’ve used her when the males in my workplace decided that I was a woman and should receive their disrespect.
When women become women, men decide that they are sex symbols and nothing more.
I must have gotten exceedingly lucky when Fate selected my coworkers, especially those of the male variety. When I was hired, I was on the cusp of womanhood, but I was still a child. Their darling, smiling girl. However, once I hit eighteen and word got around, it became hard to miss their hungry stares and their sexual jokes.
When women become women, no one warns them that inappropriate behavior escalates.
He was just a few years shy of forty, with a balding head and pug-like eyes that he quite literally couldn’t keep in his skull. I’m convinced he was dropped, repeatedly, on his head as a baby because there is no possible way that a man can be so deeply misogynistic in the twenty-first century. He took a particular interest in my sisters and I—not because we are all intelligent, capable women, which we are—but because we were too attractive for him to respect us and keep his mouth shut. I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me when I encountered him in the kitchen one day, stalking me on Instagram like a high schooler, ogling my bikini photos, and showing the rest of my male coworkers.
I’d again like to note the fact that I was eighteen years old. Roughly half his age.
The disgust I felt in that moment prompted me to set my socials to private, but the damage had already been done. For the next week, he asserted to me that purple was his new
favorite color, undoubtedly referencing the pale lavender bikini I’d been wearing in the beach photo. I loved that bikini, its color, its fit. But in that moment, I wanted to burn it.
Inappropriate behavior escalates.
One day, he asked me casually what my favorite flower was. Tulips. It had always been
tulips. Then, he asked if my boyfriend ever got me flowers and promised that he’d buy me tulips every day if I was his. I nearly asked him if he put in that much effort for the mother of his child, whom he was engaged to at the time, but I held my tongue. He then proceeded to swear, authoritatively, that he would steal me from my boyfriend, as if it was set in stone, a done deal.
Inappropriate behavior escalates.
When women become women, they notice that men are entitled to what they think is theirs.
The memory is cloudy. I remember that narrow hallway, the gleam of the metal tabletop, the shine of the silverware, the forks and knives, as I rolled them into their neat, compact bundles. I remember the rows of silverware I had already rolled, forming a pyramid of metal and paper. I remember the look on my female coworker’s face, the way her smile vanished, leaving only a blank, horrified gaze.
I remember the words, but I can’t recall his tone or his expression, as he told me, “If you’re around me, and you’re drunk, you’re getting raped.”
When women realize they are women, it is not when Mother Nature pays them a visit in
puberty. It is not when some relative winks at them and tells them they’ll be a heartbreaker
someday. It is not when they are told not to tempt their brothers in Christ.
When women realize they are women, it is when they learn how unwilling men are to respect them as human beings. And, in that moment, they become acutely aware of what it means to be a woman.
Thank God that my mouth has a mind of its own, as my brain was still reeling, marveling at the fact that he had genuinely just spoken to me like that, a young woman half his age who had never once entertained his flirtation. That he would use the word rape just as casually as he would the words brunch or birthday party. And I told him, feeling a chill in my bones, a numbness the crept from vertebra to vertebra in my spine, “I think so little of you that I don’t doubt it.”
My response alone should’ve been enough to suggest how improper his comment had been, how disrespectful to me, not only as a woman, but as a human being. When my female coworker demanded to know why he would make such a joke as if sexual assault wasn’t every woman’s fear, it should’ve been enough. The bulk of my coworkers informing the boss that he’d crossed the line should have been enough. Why wasn’t it enough? Inappropriate behavior escalates.
After I fled the hallway, the next hour passed in a blur. I actively avoided him. However, I still had a job to do, so I dared to return to the kitchen. And, with a devilish grin on his face, he pointed to the cup in my hand and asked me if he could drop a roofie in it.
When women are not yet women, no one tells them that they are just objects to be the brunt of a man’s joke.
When women are not yet women, they are taught that men’s jokes are always funny. I did not find his joke funny. But of this event, the thing that really sticks with me is the discussion I had with my middle-aged male boss about his employee’s behavior. He had another coworker join us in his office, the same woman who had been beside me as the degenerate scum jokingly threatened to rape me. Although I appreciated her presence, I knew the gesture was intended to give him a witness lest he become the next target of my wily accusations. She was a statue in the corner, silent and observant, as my boss looked me dead in the eye and defended the scum who had joked about raping me. Over and over, he justified the man’s actions.
When women are not yet women, no one teaches them how to speak up.
There I sat, mute, the words I’d rehearsed again and again spinning through my head like a top, never quite reaching my lips. There I sat, while my boss informed me me that sexual jokes were common in our workplace and that they had never bothered me before. There I sat, while my boss told me that, by posting photos of myself on Instagram, I was asking for people to gawk at me. There I sat, as he invalidated my fear and anger.
I should’ve felt lucky, I tried to convince myself. Other women haven’t had the luxury of having a male coworker’s unwanted attentions manifest itself as something as harmless as an unwarranted joke. If I were truly unlucky, he might have assaulted me in the back alley instead. Yet, that isn’t enough to prevent me from being haunted by the knowledge that I live in a world in which middle-aged men can pass off a threat of sexual assault as a joke with impunity.
When women become women, they learn that men are not held accountable for their actions. Why wasn’t he held accountable for his actions? When I was not yet a woman, and girlhood still bloomed on my face, I was taught that modesty was a virtue and that a man’s opinion on my appearance mattered more than my own. I was taught that men are the victims of their own perverted natures. I was taught that a man’s opinion matters, and that I am meant to crave their attention.
When I became a woman, I learned to use my voice, but not when I truly needed it. I learned that men view me as a sex symbol and nothing more. I learned that inappropriate behavior escalates if you don’t nip it in the bud. I learned that men are entitled to what they think is theirs, and they face no consequences when they try to claim it.
When women—when I understood what it is to be a woman, it was already too late for
me to turn back and reject the title.