After the Trump video released last Friday, writer Kelly Oxford tweeted about her own experience—at only 12 years old—of having a strange man grab her crotch. While she may not have expected more than a few friends to respond to her invitation to “tweet me you first assaults,” she has now received hundreds of thousands of stories (a million on Saturday night alone), and the tweets are still pouring in, under the hashtag #NotOkay.
I find myself among those unwilling to join this conversation openly. Not because I do not have such memories in my past, but these are encounters that I either have already shared or have reasons to hold private still. So I am thinking instead about the ubiquity of not only sexual violence in girlhood but also the threats of such violence—and how these twin forces shaped the early years of so many women I know, and continue to color our daughters’ experiences today.
With all that in mind (both the said and the unsaid), I decided to revisit and revamp this piece I wrote a few years ago:
My Body Is a Car Door
He and I are drinking coffee together, sitting
each in our own maturity and marveling
the kids these days!
when he says:
“I always thought puberty
was so much worse for girls. Breasts, menstruation—
like living inside an alien.
Boys have nothing that compares.”
“Boners,” I retort.
The agony of my girl’s puberty was in how other people changed.
How the soft swellings of once-rawboned flesh turned
my whole carcass into something
The surface indignities of new hair and acne were nothing
to the way puberty made my body
into an IPO.
Do women ever comment on boys’ erratic laps, I wonder,
the way men detail young girls’ bodies? As if without their attention
we might not notice our own shape beneath our clothing:
My father’s coworker, noting how my knees don’t touch
even when I stand my straightest:
“Yknow what we say about bowlegged girls!”
(I am twelve. I don’t know.
I stand less straight the next time I meet him.)
My favorite ninth grade teacher, who becomes
my less-favorite ninth grade teacher the day he asks
about the decal on my tshirt, the one with images of my favorite seabird:
their always quizzical expressions, their improbable blue feet.
(I shrink under the smirk he gives when I reply “blue-footed boobies.”
A grin that says the shirt across my chest is a joke we are sharing—
two chums looking over the body of a third.)
My friend’s parents had an understanding: Men open doors.
On weekends when I joined them in the car,
her parents talking together in the front seat
she and I whispering together in the back—
when we reached whatever restaurant, her father
stepped out first, then opened each of our doors in sequence.
Inside the car, we the females waited release in silence.
My friend and I would exchange impatient eyerolls
the silliness of it all
but I knew enough not to comment aloud. Knew how a giggle
might turn this charade suddenly serious
and fierce. A lesson first learned at home:
“It’s all fun and games until someone loses
his manhood in the comment of a child.”
When pubic hair first began to sprout across my crotch
I cut off the ever-regrowing tangle, using—in my recall—
blunt-nosed kid scissors, the kind designed for construction paper and safety.
(Though more likely I filched my mom’s good hair-cutting scissors,
impossibly long and pointy, the ones she used to trim my head
into its neat Dorothy Hamill.)
At the pediatrician’s, when I slid off my panties to stand
in tubby nakedness showing off the deforestation between my legs,
the doctor raised her eyebrows in a question to my mother.
Only when I explained how I did it myself
that hair’s all itchy and weird
did she relax, exhaling a tension I hadn’t noticed before.
For a long time after I wondered: what other answer
she might have waited for
We are still sipping coffee, he and I,
when I say:
“There is nothing about growing
into a young woman’s body
so alien or alienating
as how public a property
we suddenly become.”