“Count to ten, take it in, this is life before you know who you’re supposed to be, at fifteen.” Like most things, Taylor Swift knows how to perfectly describe the intricacies and innocence that comes with being a tenth grader. She says it perfectly: you don’t know who you’re supposed to be at 15. Even though we may think we’ve got it all figured out, we don’t. No one does. Heck, at 20 years old I’m still trying to find my place and find my purpose. I was a bright and confident child, but at 15 I was still growing up.
When I was 15 I also experienced my first sexual harassment. And while it may sound melodramatic, the incident truly changed my outlook on my self and the world around me.
When I was 15, my mom took my brother and I to Florida to visit my grandparents. We did all the things your average 15 year old would do in Orlando: drank butter beer at Harry Potter World, fed birds at the zoo, and went on a shopping spree at Hollister. It was the end of an era of innocence where my eyes bore no makeup and my heart bore no cracks. I was less than 100 pounds and could hardly fill out the top of the striped bathing suit I bought at Target the day before, but I was excited to wear it to the beach anyways.
Long story short, after a few minutes of playing in the waves on the beach near my grandparent’s house, it became apparent that a man was taking pictures of me. Cowardly, he sat nestled in the grass at the top of a slight hill above where my family and I had marked our spot in the sand. He had a beer in one hand and a cheap silver flip phone in the other. I remember my mom telling me to cover myself with my towel and go sit in the car while she approached him. She found dozens of pictures of my bikini-clad pubescent body on his phone, as well as hundreds of pictures of other girls like myself. I felt dirty, cheap and used, wondering if it was my fault for wearing a two-piece. I sat in the back of the car trying to make myself disappear and cried the whole time.
The only apology he offered was that he “didn’t know I was 15.” As if I had been over the age of majority it would have made it okay that he took pictures of my body without my permission. I imagined where those pictures could have ended up and felt sick to my stomach thinking of him looking at them. Looking at me.
Before we left, another family came up to see what all the commotion was about. My mom explained the situation and I will never forget what the woman told me, shaking her head.
She smiled and said, “It sucks to be beautiful, doesn’t it, honey”.
But I didn’t feel beautiful. I felt ashamed. I felt embarrassed. We called the police when we got home but they told us that what he did was not illegal. I’ll never know how many other underage girls he caught on camera.
My first harassment taught me that an old man saw value in me because of my chicken legs and flat stomach. It taught me that men will care about me if I’m not wearing a lot of clothes. It taught me that I should feel good about being objectified because it means that I am “beautiful.” It taught me that, as a girl, being beautiful is what matters above all. What’s worse, is that it taught me all this in one of the most formative years in my life.
Unfortunately, my story is one of the least scarring amongst many others. Earlier this week, the Twitter hashtag, #FirstHarassment, started spreading like wildfire following an incident involving a 12-year contestant on the Brazilian version of MasterChef Junior. The contestant, Valentina Schulz, was subject to disgusting online harassment by men who thought it was funny to make jokes about the young girl as a sexual being. Men took to Twitter with inappropriate comments like, “About this Valentina: if it’s consensual, is it paedophilia?” A feminist blog entitled Think Olga was startled to action, and soon created the hashtag #FirstHarassment, encouraging women to share their stories in order to raise awareness about the issue. And women did just that, as can be seen on the Twitter page here, abundant with activity.
These stories are hard to read, but they are important. They are emotionally charged because they hurt. Harassment is not a compliment; it’s a threat, and that needs to be understood.
Harassment teaches girls that the easiest way to gain attention and affection is to be physically attractive. I am so lucky in comparison to the stories of so many others, and this is what scares me the most.
The man who decided to zoom in on my pixelated chest never knew about the heart that rested beneath it. He never knew that I loved to write and that I wanted to change the world someday. All he saw when he looked at me was skin and bones and thought that they should belong to him. But women don’t belong to anyone but themselves.
At fifteen I experienced my first harassment, and it was certainly not my last. It’s hard to walk down a city street and not be catcalled or eyed-down uncomfortably. It’s a scary world that we live in where 48.5% of the population is not allowed to live up to their full potential because of the chromosomes they possess, and I hope that someday things will be different. But we can’t do this without making it clear that this is a genuine social problem, and not just a creepy story to share with your friends. I will never forget my first harassment, and I encourage you to try to think of yours.
Never forget that you are more than the skin you are in, and what’s truly beautiful can never be captured on camera. You may not have known it at 15, but I’m telling you now.
Information obtained from bbc.com