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Originally published on For Harriet and republished here with their permission.
Like most fathers, mine would do anything possible to keep his little girl safe.
One of the ways he kept me safe is by teaching me how not to become the prey of young boys. He told me not to wear tight pants once my hips came in. I also couldn’t wear tops that were fitted or had low necklines once I developed breasts.
I had to make sure all the markers of my femininity were de-emphasized, so boys didn’t look at me or think I was “fast.”
From the ages of twelve to fifteen, a week didn’t go by that we weren’t debating over how appropriate my clothes were.
We’d be rushing out to church, and he’d make me go change my shirt because it didn’t cover my butt. Or I’d be going out to a party, and have to change my pants because they were too tight. Shopping for clothes was tragic, as everything he bought me had to be a few sizes too big.
At first, this was merely a frustration because I just wanted to wear what I wanted to wear. But over time, having to change my clothes all the time began affecting the way I thought about myself.
I took his comments about what I could and could not show on my body to mean that there was something wrong or shameful about my changing body and shape.
I wanted to be able to feel good about the way I looked, but having to hide and disguise my body made it very hard.
Puberty was already a very confusing time – between periods, hormones, and finding hair in new places. Adding body insecurity into the mix was a lot to deal with. I didn’t think I was ugly; other girls my age were dealing with changing bodies, too.
And my female family members would make positive comments about my body filling out. I realized that all these things were a part of my growing up, but I still wasn’t prepared for the negative consequences of my changing body.
My father’s shielding of my body via conservative clothes is what showed me that my body’s existence could be used against me.
I don’t resent my father for having these rules, because in some ways I’m sure my clothes kept me from receiving even more unwanted attention than what I already did.
But even with wearing looser pants and crew neck tops, boys still looked at me, simply because I was a girl. And when I did sneak and wear my tight jeans, I didn’t do anything “fast,” because I wasn’t into boys like that. And I certainly wasn’t thinking of sex at that age.
But many parents, like my dad, feel they don’t have a choice but to teach their daughters to try to hide their bodies. Otherwise, how else can we be protected from boys and men who may objectify and sexualize us?
Most boys aren’t taught not to objectify a woman or that the mere existence of a woman’s body is not an invitation for them to touch or abuse her. Instead they’re taught persistence and to “never give up” even when a girl says no: “She’ll come around. Just give her some time.”
Boys are fed messages from the media, telling them that if a girl is wearing a short skirt, she wants to be touched and harassed. Boys are told that when a girl says “no” to their advances, she doesn’t really mean it. Women just don’t know what they want.
Most boys and men never learn they don’t have a right to a woman’s time, body, or space. As a result of this ignorance, girls and women are forced into hiding our bodies and feeling ashamed for simply existing.
Due to the difference in how we raise boys and girls, it becomes the job of women to dress the way we would like to be perceived by males.
Since boys think a short skirt means, “Yes, you can touch me,” we have to wear pants. But then we have to make sure our pants aren’t too tight, or else that could mean we want them to see our asses. We also have to make sure our tops aren’t too tight, so that we don’t draw attention to our breasts.
We must make sure we don’t wear too much makeup because that may mean we’re seeking out a man’s attention. But if we only wear oversized clothes and never do our hair or makeup, we’re not putting enough care into our appearance, and thus, men won’t want to be with us.
You see how confusing all of these rules can be?
Society has been trained to judge a woman’s wants and needs based on her appearance, so then our existence and worth is dependent on how we are perceived by the male gaze.
The way I’m treated is always my fault because of how I present myself. It is never the boy’s fault for making assumptions about me or my body.
Even if it’s 90 degrees out and I’m at the beach, it’s perceived that I am wearing a skirt because I want a man to have access to my body.
Because of these assumptions, my father chose to protect me. But since I’ve become an adult who buys her own clothes and doesn’t live under his constant watch, I’ve stopped concealing my body and being ashamed of the way I look. I have learned to love my womanhood.
Even when it’s not easy. When I worked at a retail store in Midtown Manhattan, I would often get off of work late at night. One night, on my way home, two men reminded me of the shame that comes with being a woman.
During my two-stop ride on the A train, these men hissed at me, pointed at my body, made remarks about things they would do to me, licked their lips and laughed with each other about what types of things they knew I would like.
All this happened during a five-minute period in a full subway car while I stood wearing a black crew neck top and pants.I rarely take the train at night alone now and always have a form of self-defense on me. Because of my gender, these men believed I should be subjected to their gross harassment. It was a humiliating experience.
That night, I remember wishing that I didn’t want to be a woman.
When things like this happen, it’s hard to maintain pride in your body and womanhood, when they constantly bring you unwanted attention and the threat of physical harm. However, instead of being made to feel ashamed and victimized, women should feel empowered by the way we have been made.
Instead of hiding behind clothes and repressing my womanhood, I have decided to embrace it. While I continue to protect myself from harassment and objectification, I no longer hide my body. I tell the men around me that women’s bodies are not made for their gaze.
I have a little brother who I am trying my best to teach that women’s bodies are not his property. Instead of encouraging him to “go after” every girl he likes, I make sure he knows the importance of mutual respect.
These may seem like small things, but they can make a difference in the way he views and treats women. I also tell my story to men who think their actions are harmless, reminding my male friends who like to approach women in public that their attention is not always wanted.
I now know that my womanhood is nothing to be ashamed of. My body and my clothes do not determine my desires, self-respect, or self-esteem. Regardless of how we choose to dress, what we choose to cover or uncover, women deserve to love ourselves and our bodies without shame.
SaVonne Anderson is a 20-year-old feminist and social activist from Newark, NJ. She is currently studying at Fordham University and writes at www.SaVonneAnderson.com.