#YesAllWomen, #YesAllGirls

When I was eleven years old, right before the start of sixth grade, my mother told me it was time I started wearing a bra.

It was, at once, an exciting and scary moment. Exciting because—yay! Boobs!—I recognized that owning a bra somehow meant I was more grown-up than before; scary because … well, that strappy boobie prison just looked painful and unnecessary.

Like most girls, I started out with a training bra, and to this day, I still don’t understand the point of that exercise (what, exactly, was I “training” my breasts for?). But I quickly outgrew that one. My boobs just would not stop growing. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed.

My final class of the day was reading (essentially, English class). I sat on the far left side of the room, in the second-to-last row of seats. Behind me was a boy I barely knew (three different elementary schools fed into my middle school, so there were many strangers in my sixth-grade class). For the sake of privacy, let’s call him Bob.

Now, Bob very quickly developed a fun new way to pass the time in class. From the first week of the new school year, Bob’s favorite thing to do in reading every day was to lean forward in his seat, reach his fingers into the short sleeve of my shirt, grasp my bra strap, and let it go with a resounding “pop.”

The first time it happened, I turned around in my seat and harshly whispered at him to stop. He simply smirked in my face, and when I turned around to face the front of the classroom, he leaned forward and did it again.

I tried my best to ignore it, because every time I reacted to a popping incident, it only encouraged him to continue doing it. Over and over again, to the point where there were small red welts on my shoulder from the plastic tag hitting my skin.

After a couple of days of this, I told the teacher what Bob was doing. She looked at me with impassive eyes, then assured me she would “speak” to him. But whatever she may or may not have said to Bob had no impact, because the popping continued unabated.

When I complained to my friends, the general response was, “Well, at least he’s paying attention to you!” or “If he’s doing that, it’s because he likes you.” No one seemed to understand how utterly uncomfortable I was with the entire situation.

One day, after a couple of particularly vicious pops that left my shoulder smarting in pain, I had a brainstorm. If I wasn’t wearing the bra, I reasoned silently, Bob would have nothing to play with! I thought I’d hit upon something brilliant. So I sank down in my seat as far as I could, and slowly slid my hands up my back to the hooks on my bra. Inch by inch, I slid the straps down my arms, shoving them back into my shirt and pulling the whole blasted contraption down my stomach. I balled it up under my shirt and quickly shoved it into my backpack. (To this day, I still can’t believe I actually did this. Desperation is a curious thing.)

Mission accomplished, I sat back up in my seat, feeling a smug sense of triumph. I was certain I had finally figured out a way to foil Bob. With nothing left to pop, he’d soon have to find some other target for his attention. Sure enough, within a few minutes, I felt his fingers creeping on my shoulder. Then I felt them pause, and he started poking my upper back with his fingers, trying to find my bra. And when that didn’t work, he hooked a finger around the collar of my shirt, pulled it away from my skin, and, before I could even think to pull away, looked down my shirt to see what was going on.

Then I heard him snicker.

And the tears began to slide down my cheeks.

From a young age, girls are taught that when a boy hits you, it’s because he “likes” you. Boys show their affection through aggression and teasing, and girls are supposed to be flattered that such masculine displays are directed at them. That kind of behavior is excused as a simple case of “boys being boys.” It’s what guys do. Hitting, pushing, popping a bra strap—it’s all the same, harmless playground stuff.

But it is far from harmless. When a boy puts his hands on a girl without permission, in any circumstance, it is not cute. It is not flattering. It is, by its very nature, an act of sexual assault. It is not the case of a boy “being a boy.” It is a boy assuming a proprietary attitude toward a girl’s body. It is a physical attack. But it is also a highly emotional one as well.

I think back to the girl I was, barely eleven years old, subjected to this torture device of an undergarment, already uncomfortable with the changes my body was facing. To have this boy assume that he had every right to reach underneath the sleeve of my shirt, grasp my bra strap, yank it back, and let it fly in a sharp slap against my skin—it was not innocent. It was not funny. It was painful. It was humiliating.

For the first time (and far from the last in my lifetime thus far, I’m sad to say), I began to feel shame about my body, specifically about these mounds of flesh that had begun to protrude from my chest, the ones that drew so much unwanted attention to me. I squirmed under the leering eyes of schoolboys, the darting glances at my chest from men—some of them my father’s age or older. For the first time in my life, I felt that my body was not my own. I couldn’t put it into words, but even then, I felt threatened by the eyes of men, all of whom seemed to size me up in varying ways. Walking with my head pointed down, my arms across my chest to hide my breasts, became the norm. In my mind, if they couldn’t see them, they couldn’t stare.

This is where it starts. For many girls, it’s the onset of puberty, the beginning of development, which first exposes us to the gender politics that define life in this world. It’s the first time many of us begin to realize that our bodies are not necessarily our own in the eyes of those around us. It’s the first time we learn what it is to fear, and to be wary of walking in our skin. And it only gets worse as we get older.

Snapping a girl’s bra strap may seem like an innocuous thing in the overall scheme of things. But it is symptomatic of the entitlement that many boys are encouraged to feel toward the female body, and when that kind of behavior is brushed off or otherwise excused, it only serves to encourage that behavior—and the mindset it engenders—to continue.

It is that same sense of entitlement that, later in life, leads men to think that they are somehow allowed to yell obscenities at a woman, to slap her or punch her when she says “no,” to rape her because she “wanted” it, to shoot her in the face because she dared to reject a sexual advance.

Yes, all women—all girls—are subjected to the constant risk of harassment or harm, in some fashion or function, every day of their lives. It comes in many forms, some of them seemingly innocent—like the popping of a bra strap—but all of them part of the insidious thread of misogyny that winds through the fabric of modern society.

Maybe the first step toward correcting this problem should be not to teach girls tools on how to avoid harassment (as is so often the case now), but to teach boys not to harass or harm girls in the first place. And–just to reiterate–this includes not excusing the type of “boys will be boys” behavior that undoubtedly influences increasingly entitled male behavior in later years.

In other words … don’t pop my bra, “brah.”

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20 Comments

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  1. Great post, well said … an excellent perspective on the unwanted attention a changing body attracts.
    For a slightly different twist, I don’t remember any boys doing that when I was a pre-teen, but I do remember a girl in my class who did. She was the only one I really feared. No one made me feel so unattractive and awkward as she did.

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  2. This post brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me of a time around sixth grade, several of the boys decided it would be great “fun” if they were to grab our purses and dump them on the floor or school yard, the point being to see which girls had maxi pads. They would scream and laugh at the sight of our red faces & tears. I remember one class mate having tampons in her bag. They hounded this poor girl for the rest of the semester, taunting her because now they were sure she did “it”. I felt so bad for this friend, she was miserable. There was nothing I could do then, but I can speak up now. Great discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. :/ I remember things like that happening. So sad, and so pointless. I think it’s hard to understand how hurtful that is unless you’ve experienced it (like many things, I suppose).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That was such an excellent post! I only wish I could be so eloquent. Thanks for sharing your story. I hope it will get some attention from some men/fathers around the world in a good way. I notice a lot of the conversation re:yes all women seems to be in defense of men and accusing all women of over-reacting and other ‘sillyness’, it’s infuriating to me that we still have to put up with all this crap. Yes, ALL of us all over the world are still having to deal with all of that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Sable Aradia, Priestess & Witch and commented:
    I know this story, because this was my story. Except that it wasn’t one boy. It was about seven of them I used to go home every day with welts and blisters on the center of my back; a place that, on my body nowadays, is often locked and arthritic and in pain. I learned to walk with a hunched posture to hide my breasts which I didn’t unlearn until I was in my thirties. I wore baggy clothes too. One day I finally had enough and I took my lunch kit (I was nine and ten) and I let the boy who did it have it right in the genitals. Guess who got brought to the principal’s office? Guess who almost got suspended when she was terrified of that? It’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong. It needs to stop.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing your story and for reblogging this post. I think it’s really important to talk about the ways that we teach girls, early on, to be ashamed of their bodies and developing sexual natures and that we teach boys, early on, that they don’t have to keep their hands to themselves.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. So wonderful that this type of bad behavior is now being called out. Hopefully young girls are being given words like this to tell boys to stop and know they have every right to expect to be treated with better dignity and respect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can only hope that some of this stuff helps us to change what we’re doing and find new ways, less hurtful ways, to help our children. They all deserve to grow up without this sort of thing worrying them.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you for reading. The one regret I have about this entire situation is that I was too passive to speak up again after telling the teacher the first time. I want to say it’s probably better now in schools because of more prevalent “no-tolerance” policies for violent or aggressive behavior … but I somehow doubt many schools would view bra-popping as anything more than a “prank,” even if it is as systematic as it was in my case.

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      1. Maybe not today-but hopefully if enough people speak out like you did change will happen. I think you were brave to speak out that one time- even grown women find it hard to do that-and hopefully some young girl now will get to benefit from you naming her experience and validating it here and she’ll feel even braver about standing up for herself.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Man, this makes me so angry to read. I shouldn’t be this angry, I know – it’s not good for fixing any of this. But I still am. Anyway, you’re right about all of this. It starts early, and we need to fix it early.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading. I have to admit, I’ve been in a constant state of banked anger for the past week, but at the same time, it’s immensely satisfying to see a dialogue like #YesAllWomen emerging in the aftermath of something so terrible. I’m in awe of all of the amazing women who have come forward to bravely tell their stories–some of them so heartbreaking and horrific that they have me in tears. I hope these discussions continue beyond the lifespan of a hashtag. It’s vital that they do.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is heartbreaking. I have a few friend who developed early. To this day, as grown women, they feel the need to cover up. One wears two sports bras to downplay her breast size. They were so affected by all of the attention at a young age and it still stays with them, into their 40’s. It all just infuriates me. My daughter is only 10 and already developing and getting womanly curves. I worry about the attention she’ll get. She wears very loose fitting clothing but one day she won’t be able to hide it so easily. It is disgusting to me that I should have to worry about this with my sweet, innocent 10 YEAR OLD. Thank you for sharing your story. When you describe the way you felt when the boy looked down your shirt, it brought tears to my own eyes.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s so sad that girls have to be so aware of, and so ashamed of, their development. It sets us up for so many body image issues later, as if we haven’t started with that even younger.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you for reading. I read your #YesAllWomen post (“Enough of This Shit”) earlier this week, and I have to say, it really helped encourage me to share this post of my own. Originally, this post was going to outline several events that happened to me through my teenage years–some much more graphic and terrifying than this relatively innocuous incident. But in the end, writing about those other things was too painful.

      I really admire your determination not to let these kinds of things slide, to speak up and speak out to support and protect other women. I don’t know you personally, but from what I see of you online, your daughter is immensely lucky to have you in her corner.

      Like

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