The Fetishization of Girlhood

I first realized that men look at girls as sexual objects on the day of my kindergarten graduation. Our teacher had set the theme as a Hawaiian luau (yes, cultural appropriation was all the rage in the 1980s). The girls had made skirts of green paper streamers to wear over our swimsuits as well as a lei of paper flowers. I was extremely proud of my handiwork.

But then my father took me out to the backyard for pictures.

While the rest of my family got ready back in the house, he snapped picture after picture. It was no longer enough that I simply stand there and bare my toothy grin. He made me pose this way and that. He reached out and touched my waist, and revulsion rippled through me. He twisted me to the right and positioned my hands. He cocked my hips. He explored what looked best, what position made my body most appealing.

I had never seen him pose and twist and mold my brother like this. I had never seen him do this to anyone. I was forced into poses that reminded me of women in my mother’s catalogs, knees pinched together, hips canted. Women who looked helpless and blank, waiting for men to notice them.

The shutter snapped. Again and again.

I had never felt so used. So ashamed.

I was six years old.

*             *             *

For those of us who grow up in bodies that are labeled female, we learn young that the male gaze is everywhere. And our primary job, in choosing our clothes, our hairstyle, our posture, is to please it. It is the yard stick that determines our lovability, our inclusion in society, and our worth as human beings. Girls learn the male gaze so well that some of them never learn to look through their own eyes.

Instead, they police other girls, shunning them for not wearing the right brands or not flirting with boys or letting their nail polish get chipped. Grandmothers and mothers join in, warning us that no one will ever marry us if we “let ourselves go.” Criticizing our boobs and waistlines, our makeup or lack thereof, our eyebrows, our hair. No inch of us escapes preparation for the male gaze.

Before one of my ballet performances, a ten-year-old girl named Lindsey tugged her leotard straps down off her shoulders and blew kisses at the mirror. She turned her head this way and that, cocking her hips. “What’s that?” She said to the mirror. “Oh? You think I’m sexy?” She threw her head back and laughed.

That day backstage, every single one of us wanted to be sexy. To a bunch of girls, sexy didn’t mean sexual. It didn’t mean liking sex or wanting to have sex. It didn’t mean understanding anything at all about sex. It meant men would look at us and find us worth paying attention to.

We didn’t know this was because as children, we couldn’t hurt them, the way grown women could. We couldn’t demand equality or expect things from them because we weren’t even old enough to give consent. The men who leered at me while I waited with my mother in grocery checkout lines or picked up a tray at a fast food counter were attracted precisely because of my relative powerlessness.

But children know none of this. All we knew was that this was what we wanted because this was what made us important. This was what got attention. And children want nothing more than to be important. To matter. To be seen. Especially by men.

So we lined up in front of the mirror, on either side of Lindsey. And we all tugged our straps off our shoulders and tilted our round faces up to the glass. “Hello, sexy,” we said and giggled nervously. We pouted our lips, smeared red with our mother’s lipstick for the show, and blew kiss after kiss at the version of ourselves men wanted us to be.

*             *             *

And always, somewhere in the background, a man was watching.

When I was 14, my dad drove me to my Graham technique class on Wednesday nights. I put on my black leotard and my black footless tights, and he pinned up my hair. He usually left commutes to my mom, so I thought maybe we were finally starting to bond. Maybe he was starting to care about me.

Every night I’d find him after class, crowded around the door with the other dads. At first, I thought he was proud of me. Graham technique didn’t come naturally to me. I wasn’t great at modern dance, and I knew it. But seeing my father’s face at the door during class, my confidence soared. Surely, he wouldn’t be so interested if I was awful.

Then, one night after class, he watched my classmates stream out of the studio. “They’re all so hot in those tights,” he said to me. “Sometimes I even forget they’re your age.”

*             *             *

Before a ballet performance when I was 15, another girl’s father strode into the dressing room with his Camcorder rolling. He filmed dozens of teenage girls naked. We all knew this was what he’d come for, and he succeeded—before a teacher shoved him out the door and slammed it in his face.

But she didn’t call the cops, and she didn’t confiscate the footage. To my knowledge, there was no penalty whatsoever.

I doubt it ever occurred to the faculty to punish him.

Because most of us, by the time we reach adulthood, have accepted that this is how men act. We don’t demand better. And we certainly don’t punish them for it. We tell ourselves they can’t help it.

When in reality, you have to go to great lengths to prey on young people. He had to leave his seat during a performance, remember to bring his video camera, ride an elevator up three floors, wander down a hallway, push a button to hit record, then choose the right set of doors. It was intentional and carefully planned.

Men who prey on young women—it’s not an accident or an instinct. It’s a sexual predator seeing an opportunity and choosing to take it with both hands.

*             *             *

Throughout the United States, the legal marriage age is lower for girls than for boys. In 16 states, it is possible to legally marry a 12-year-old girl. Most marriages with a minor are between an adult and a minor, rather than two minors, and most minors in such marriages are girls. In many states, children may consent to marriage with the permission of a parent, but—once married—those children cannot legally divorce, separate, or flee to homeless shelters. Worldwide, 12 million girls marry before the age of 18, and education, income, and health outcomes are generally poor for such girls.

As a writer, I find it impossible to think about this subject without referencing Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The point of that novel is not that grown men fetishize girls. It’s that we find it acceptable, even normal, when they do. Nabokov plays a game with the reader to see how far we are willing to tolerate Humbert and whether we ever see it his way: a grand romance between an older man and a willing “nymphet.” It’s rape all right, but Nabokov is testing us. Do we believe Humbert when he assures us that Dolores’s cries of no are followed by sighs of pleasure? Do we believe that Humbert’s disparaging comments about adult female bodies (“polluted,” “big-bodied creatures” with “goose-flesh”) are enough to justify his kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old girl?

Humbert’s disgust with adult women, and his preference for children, echoes the sentiments of many men online today. From the popularity of “barely legal” porn to the Twitter trolls who try to body-shame women into silence, Humbert Humbert is very much alive and well in today’s America.

*             *             *

One of the first questions from one of my first college professors was “How old are you?”

I had approached him after class for book recommendations. I was doing a research project on language acquisition and hoped he’d have some titles to suggest. We’d never spoken before, and I’d just told him my name moments earlier. He said he’d give me some books if I followed him to his office.

I hesitated, my pen poised over paper. I’d just wanted some titles to look up at the library. It was closer than the faculty offices.

“You coming?” He asked when he saw me hesitate.

I strapped on my backpack and followed him out the door.

That’s when, out on the breezeway, he asked my age.

I was ticked. “I’m 18.”

He smiled. “I bet you get that a lot, huh?” He said. “I thought you looked 16.”

This psychology professor, Bob, then showed such interest over the next eight months that I became the target of campus gossip. He directed lectures to me, locking eyes with me for a full 50 minutes. People turned in their seats to see who he was staring at.

After class, I asked questions about the material, and he strolled across campus with me at his side. I knew this was social suicide. I wasn’t a complete naif. I’d been teacher’s pet my whole life, and it hadn’t exactly made life easy. College was supposed to be a fresh start. That’s why I waited until after classes for my questions with my professors. The less my classmates saw of my intellectual curiosity, the less mockery I’d suffer.

But his strolls across campus with me made things worse than high school even. Classmates clustered along our path and pointed me out, laughing and whispering. One day, he even asked me to bring his keys to him during his next class. And I did. I was in love by that point, so of course I did. I went to his office, grabbed his keys, and walked into his next class, right up to the front of the lecture hall, where I handed them off. And the whispering began among entirely new people.

Bob was closing doors to me, to my chance to be young, that would never open again. Making friends with people my own age became impossible on that campus. So did dating anyone who knew the sordid rumors. Even in a summer oil painting class, his name was brought up, and people watched for my reaction.

I’d always been a teacher’s pet. But now there was a twist, something added to the sting:

Slut.

But Bob told himself, and me, that he was just being a good, involved educator. He was rooting for me. He got to feel good about it all because, hey, I was 18.

He wasn’t doing anything wrong.

*             *             *

Twenty years later, it astonishes me that some men actually believe there is a magic line between childhood and adulthood where five months before, you’d be doing loads of damage but now, because there was a birthday, you won’t hurt anybody.

Bob saw the isolation that his attention created for me. He walked into the classroom every day to find me with my nose in a book while everyone chatted around me. He watched my peers point me out and whisper and laugh on the breezeway after class. It didn’t take long for me to get a reputation, even among other professors. I doubt Gary, an English professor who propositioned me years later, would have been so bold if there hadn’t been Bob first. Their offices were two doors apart, and Gary watched my visits with envy.

Then, after my first year at college, I came to Bob’s office in tears saying I had no friends. I was suicidal.

I’d come to him because I believed he cared. After all, this was what he’d told both of us to justify his pursuit, his attentions, his favoritism, his flirtations, his possessiveness. I was 19 now, but for all intents and purposes, I was still a child. I couldn’t rent a car. I couldn’t walk into a bar. And I didn’t understand how to cope with the complicated social nightmare Bob had ensnared me in.

I thought all his attention had meant something. I thought maybe he even loved me. I thought it might be worth having no friends and being treated with suspicion by other professors if it meant someone intelligent and kind loved me. We had long conversations in his office about ethics and psychology and literature. I really believed I loved him.

And then I brought to him all my loneliness and humiliation and depression, an abused child that he’d found easy pickings. And I set it all in his lap. I had begun thinking of ways to kill myself. I had started to formulate plans. It scared me, and I thought he would help. I stood there waiting for his response. Advice. Compassion. Anything.

He shrugged.

The man who’d told me he was my friend, the man who’d written letters of recommendation for me, the man I believed loved me because what else was all this for? He saw me frantic with self-destruction and pain, and he shrugged.

He didn’t offer me a seat. He didn’t refer me to campus services. He recommended no support services at all. He simply clammed up and stared at me and waited for me to go.

I was stunned. It took years for me to realize the truth. And the truth was that I was there to gratify him. From that very first question How old are you? it had always been about him. I had been there to give him what he wanted and to not make any trouble about it.

I wasn’t allowed to have needs. And when it turned I did, he was done. Just another adult woman expecting something in return. How very unfair of me.

*             *             *

A year later, I was sexually assaulted by a man ten years older than I was. We had met on the same campus and, being an international student enrolled in business classes, he didn’t know anything about my reputation in the humanities and social science departments. I had agreed to tutor him and then, after I ducked a kiss, he shoved me against a tree and stuck his hand into my underwear. Another year later, I was married to him.

This was a direct result of the social isolation caused by Bob’s pursuit. I had begun college with such optimism. But it had all turned to ash. Raised in an abusive and controlling home, I wore my desperate loneliness, my inexperience, and my susceptibility to gaslighting on my sleeve. Men like Bob picked up my scent a mile off. 

To men like him in my teens and twenties, I was just a body. A young body they wanted to have around, like a piece of furniture or a nice car. They never stopped to think of the consequences for me. It never occurred to them that I already had a history, and that I was so easy to manipulate because I’d been groomed by abusive parents. Their choice to prioritize their desires rubbed salt into an already old wound. But they couldn’t have cared less. For them, I was only ever an object of desire.

I didn’t get to be a person.

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