I was 12 years old the first time a grown man hit on me. I was walking to the mall with my friends and wearing my favorite outfit: a pretty purple form-fitting top with lace trim and a pair of jean shorts. A man with a shaggy mustache leaned out of the passenger side window of a moving car. The driver–another grown man with just as little decency–slowed the car to a crawl and turned down the volume of his radio. The passenger said, “Damn, girl. Check out them tits.”
Disgusted, I crossed my arms and curled my lip, turning as far from him as I could.
“Why you wearing that outfit if you don’t want me to notice your tits?” he said. The two men cackled and sped away. Pedophilia is hilarious, apparently.
Nearly 30 years later, my 10-year-old daughter asked if we could have a talk. She’d noticed that her body was changing. The adorable baby fat that once lived on her tummy seemed to have migrated upward, forming two little breast buds on her once flat chest. And she was nervous. What did this mean? Would other kids notice? What would the boys think?
I wanted to tell her not to worry. Her friends loved her for her infectious laugh, her silly stories, and her amazing ability to cheer anyone up. Nobody would care about her breasts. But thinking back on my own experiences, I knew that wasn’t true.
The man in the car wasn’t the last person who thought my little girl body was fair game as a topic of conversation. There was the boy in my seventh grade religion class who interrupted the teacher to ask how many guys had f—ed me. The manager at my first job, in a mall food court, who told me that I was hired for my boobs—I was 15. The customer at that same job who told me that my men’s dress shirt, bow tie, and green full-body apron really showed off my sexy body. The boy in my high school who untied my bathing suit as I was jumping into the pool.
When will something like this happen to my little girl? My endurance of sexual harassment began soon after my breasts developed. Will it start this way for her? Or will the bullies and reprobates have the courtesy to wait until she’s in high school?
I had a choice. I could comfort my little girl and let her go on in blissful ignorance for a little while longer. Childhood is so short, and I don’t want to do anything to hasten its ending. She deserves to be a little girl for as long as nature allows.
Or I could prepare her for the inevitable. We know from the #metoo movement that the vast majority of women have been sexually harassed or assaulted at one time or other. In fact, a 2018 survey by Stop Street Harassment found that 81 percent of US women have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives. The same report found that 51 percent of women have experienced unwelcome sexual touching and 27 percent have been sexually assaulted. Maybe my daughter would be better off if I just told her the truth, and gave her some tools to defend herself?
I chose an in-between path that I hope embraced the best of both options: I told her, There will come a time when other kids will notice your changing body. Some of them might not say anything at all. But some of them will talk about it. They might tease you. They might think they’re entitled to an opinion about the way you look or the things you wear. They might make you feel good, and they might make you feel bad. But know this: If anyone ever says or does anything that makes you feel uncomfortable–even if you’re not sure they meant it, or you don’t understand what it means–come to me. Together, we’ll figure out what to do. I’m your mom, and I’m always on your side.
I’m far from an expert on this subject. There might have been other words. Better words. A mom with different childhood experiences would’ve probably chosen some other path. But at that moment, sitting on the sofa with my still innocent little girl, I saw noticeable relief in her eyes. Mom always knows how to fix things. I only hope I can live up to that promise.