Let me tell you an everyday story about one of the many things that can happen when girls are taught to hate themselves.
When I was 13, a man took me up to his apartment while his wife was out, gave me Pernod to drink and tried to manipulate me into giving him physical affection. I worked for this man in the shop he ran below the apartment, and I had agreed to go upstairs with him after weeks of what can only have been careful grooming on his part, following a sustained effort on my part to achieve what I thought was the ideal body size. I actually felt flattered and grateful that he thought I was attractive.
Even getting the job had been a boon. It was common knowledge that only the best girls worked at Roger’s* shop – he had even confirmed this, telling me how jealous his friends were that he got to work with so many “pretty young things”.
This was shortly before he tiptoed his fingers up the back of my leg one day while I slapped his hand away in peals of laughter, my insides burning with the warm glow of approval.
It was definitely before he took me to the pub and plied me with snakebites (an odious mixture of lager, cider and grenadine that was favoured by the teenagers freely allowed to drink at seaside pubs in early ’90s England), my tongue slowly turning bright red as Roger talked to me about his “frigid” wife.
She had just had their second baby and was, according to Roger, no longer interested in sleeping with him. He told me about the sex workers he visited instead, and I listened sympathetically. It felt good to be treated like an adult. To be trusted with such adult secrets, to be looked at with such adult eyes.
It was late afternoon when Roger invited me upstairs to try the Pernod. The summer season was drawing to a close and long, grey shadows were beginning to wrap themselves around his living room. Up to now, Roger had been very careful to make me believe I was his equal and I had responded enthusiastically.
But alone in his house, the power imbalance that had always existed between us revealed itself.
In many ways, I had been easy prey. I was a young girl with poor self esteem and the fervent belief that my worth and value was tied up in how attractive I appeared to other people. I had done everything I could to make my body desirably small, and now it was sitting alone and vulnerable in a house drinking hard liquor with an adult man who was telling me I was “all talk” and betting me I wouldn’t be brave enough to cross the floor to “give him a hug”.
I felt ashamed, because I knew he was right. I wasn’t brave enough to go through with what had been implicitly building between us. I was a little, foolish girl playing at being an adult and I felt like I had let both of us down.
It was years before I realised that what happened (or didn’t happen) wasn’t my fault, and stopped describing Roger as this cool, older guy who’d been the best boss I’d ever had.
The more I think about that period of time, the angrier I become. My absence of self worth (perhaps coupled with the fact my family was due to return to Australia, making me a problem that would also be easily removed) made me susceptible to Roger’s crude charms. But the terror of intimacy overcame my determination to prove my fearlessness. He wasn’t going to force me – but that doesn’t make what happened OK.
Society offers protection against sexualisation of girls up to a certain age, but it whips it away without warning once that girl enters adolescence.
I was lucky that day – and let’s be clear that when the benchmark for luck is not being raped, you’re dealing with extremely questionable parameters – but I shouldn’t have been in that situation at all.
I learned early on that girlhood (which I already understood to be an inferior state of being) was made even more shameful for those of us unable to fulfil even the most basic of obligations that require us to be pretty, deferential and thin. Too many people believe that girls should be nice to look at when you have to pay attention to them, and small enough to ignore when you don’t.
My situation is not the only example of the dark tread that criss-crosses between adolescence and adulthood, but it’s not that uncommon either. How many girls are preyed on by older men because those men correctly identify how desperate they are to feel like they matter?
There’s a lot of resistance to feminism from people terrified of what a world with gender equality looks like, but one of the powerful things it does is reframe girlhood as something that exists even when there is no one else around to look at it.
Society offers protection against sexualisation of girls up to a certain age, but it whips it away without warning once that girl enters adolescence. Then, her body becomes public property and any attempts she makes to fight back are ridiculed or even met with violence.
It isn’t just abusers who behave like this. It’s present in the way men holler out of cars at girls who learn to plow forward, steely eyed and burning with shame. It’s in the way we learn to laugh at jokes that mock our very humanity, because Cool Girls don’t get worked up over that stuff. It’s in the way angry women are told they just need a good dick, that fat women are an “it”, that old women are sour and bitter.
It’s an attitude deeply held across all of society, and if you are man reading this and you don’t believe me, just turn to the closest woman to you and ask her if she knows what this feels like.
I have encountered too many people throughout my life who insist that no one loves women more than they do, even as they turn around and mock women for daring to view themselves as human.
These are the people who contribute to girls’ feelings of worthlessness and dehumanisation. It is these people who make girls feel like they are worth hating.
And it is these people who girls will think of years later when they remember sitting in a living room at 13 years of age, clutching a drink they are too young to have as a man who is decades older than them tells them to be brave.
No one knows better than women what bravery looks like. Stop making us be brave and start supporting us to feel safe.