I will never forget the summer I came to understand that my body could be an object of sexual desire for men. It was four months past my 12th birthday. I was well over a year into puberty and my twiggy, child-body had stretched and expanded into a dramatic hourglass. By 12.5, I was within two inches and 25 pounds of my full adult height and weight.
I loved this new body. My feminist, hippie childhood had prepared me well. I welcomed each change with glee. I relished my mother’s shock at her baby needing bras instead of undershirts, and grew confident under the protective chatter of family members who simultaneously celebrated and fretted over my maturing mind and child-woman body. It was an exciting time, bursting with fresh hopes and discoveries. I grew aware of my body in new ways, enjoyed puzzling over the changes in the bathroom mirror, then giggling about them with my similarly developing friends.
San Joaquin valley summers are notoriously unforgiving. Rays of heat deluge every surface, then rise from the pavement in serpentine waves. Fruit ripens and humans wilt. One look at me bursting out of last year’s summer clothes, and my mom and I headed out to the closest strip mall.
I combed the racks in search of cool cottons and lightweight linens in the pastels I loved. In our single parent household, my natural-fiber tastes stood in heated conflict with our polyester budget. I found very little to my liking. “Try this,” my mom said as she excitedly handed me a black and neon-green monstrosity. Never one to bite my tongue, I scowled and told her I didn’t like it.
“Try it! You’ll like it when it’s on.”
I stood in front of the mirror and put on the black, spandex biker shorts with thick, neon green stripes on the sides. They hit two inches above the knee and clung stubbornly to my new curves. I put on the equally fitted, matching tank top. I came out and modeled dejectedly. “It looks great on you!” my mom assured. Feeling a little down at the way poverty restricted my options, I changed into my clothes and put the short set with the clothes to be purchased. In the interest of dramatic flare, I’ll say that Don Henley’s “End of the Innocence” played portentously as we left the store that day. It could have! It was a popular song that year.
The next day my mother suggested I wear the monstrosity to the grocery store. It wasn’t terribly uncomfortable, but it was significantly tighter than I usually preferred. My mother, bless her heart, saw the womanly curves displayed so clearly by that outfit, but in her eyes she was just looking at her little girl. The streets were nearly empty as we walked that hot day, but there were people in the grocery store. My mother may have looked at me and saw her little girl, but men and boys saw something else. By the time we’d finished our purchases and made our way to the parking lot my mother hovered over me, eyes narrowed and muscles tense, like a lioness protecting her cub. She’d noticed what I would so often miss over the course of my life, wandering around nearly oblivious to the reactions of strangers, so caught up in my introvert thoughts. Men were looking, lusting.
“Ey! Ey! Hey, wait a minute. What’s your name?” A deep voice called out to me across the parking lot. I turned to see an adult man calling to me.
Me? I was confused, but my mother wasn’t.
“Excuse me, who are you talking to? Are you talking to my daughter?”
“Yeah, she’s beautiful.”
Mom has the look now. The look that moms get, the look so stern she doesn’t need to say a word. He stops walking toward us. He stops speaking.
“This is MY daughter and she’s only twelve-years-old.” She says the words slowly, enunciating each word so that he understands.
“Twelve? I thought she was about seventeen.”
“How old are you?” mom demands.
“I’m 27,” he boasts.
“Yeah, well she’s a child. You need to turn around and keep walking.” He turned around. He kept walking, but he looked a few more times.
My mother’s actions that day and the reactions of her friends as she told the story later that evening sent me a very clear message about living in a female body. I had the right be a 12-year-old girl dressed much like that 27-year-old man on that hot summer day. I knew that men should not be trying to “talk to” girls and if they’d mistaken a girl for a woman, they should shoulder the adult responsibility of admitting the mistake and moving on. As hip-hop legend KRS One reminded us in ’87, “The girls look so good, but their minds are not ready…I’d rather talk to a woman ’cause her mind is so steady.” No matter how sexually appealing a girl looks to a man, a girl’s mind is not ready for the complexities of a sexual relationship, especially not with an adult man. My body was mine and I had the right to walk around on a hot day, without shame. It was poverty that drove me to the less modest choice, but no matter the motivations I knew that I had a right to walk the streets without harassment. Even if I had been 17, I’d still have been legally too young to be his romantic interest. But “jail-bait” was a term I’d learn the next summer.
That summer a crop of new football players moved into our apartment building. Seventeen years and up, freshly graduated from Florida high schools or a year or so into junior colleges, they had been recruited to play for the local junior college. I noticed them, but I was shocked when, like the man in the parking lot they also noticed me. They didn’t notice me in the easy, comfortable way the boys in my class noticed. There was something darker, scarier about their fully developed man bodies and deep voices. Their attentions were flattering and frightening.
I raced in to tell my mom that the new football players had been checking me out. She knew she couldn’t hover over me all summer, so she decided to tackle the problem head on. She introduced herself to the homesick young men and invited them to our apartment for some homemade cobbler from the freshly picked summer peaches that’d ripened on trees from our fertile valley. She sweetened the offer with vanilla ice-cream, but she had them at “cobbler.” She told them they were welcome to come up for a home-cooked meal anytime. She’d be sincerely happy to have them. Then she sent them a message that those present were to share with those absent. I’m not sure exactly what she said to them. All that young, male energy in our small apartment intimidated me and spent most of the time in my bedroom. Later that evening, after I’d settled into bed, but not into sleep, a neighbor came up to ask what in the world mom had said to those boys. I can’t quote her, but I know that she’d communicated that I was “the most precious thing in the world to her” and then there were gruesomely detailed threats of the castration they’d face if they so much as looked at me the wrong way.
For the next few years those young bundles of testosterone and I co-existed quite peacefully. Some were like protective big-brothers who scared off the frisky boys in my junior high across the street. One did dare to make it clear that he thought I was pretty, but they were all sufficiently terrified of my mother that they focused their energies on the abundance of young women closer to their own age.
The next summer I converted to Islam, and a few months after I found myself–bare-headed, but otherwise covered– in the very mosque that had turned me away in my “immodest” ballerina costume. But that’s a story for Pt.3.