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.
Late elementary school: The humiliation of a boy popping your bra strap. #YesAllWomen
— Tex Bard (@Texbard) May 28, 2014
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.
I had to hunch over & wear baggy clothes at 12 to hide my breasts. I was taught it was my job to control others’ behavior. #YesAllWomen
— Johanna Bocian (@johanna14) May 26, 2014
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.”