Please note that this essay centers around the experience of being raised as a cis woman. Since I am white, it is not meant to reflect the nuisances that racism adds to sexism and how they interact with and compound each other.
When did it start, my acute awareness of how different it meant to be a girl? At first it wasn’t noticeable. My sister and I played coed soccer.
I ran faster than most of the boys over poorly sodded fields, and we shoved and tumbled over each other. I didn’t understand why the recreational league where we played was split by gender after we turned five.
Maybe it started in kindergarten (because I don’t have memories of Pre-K), when my mom told me the boy who kept chasing me around the recess yard liked me. He would chase me and trap me against the fence almost everyday. I remember hiding under the slide to avoid him because it made me so anxious. We never talked to my teacher about it, and the boy eventually grew bored and stopped.
On holidays, relatives always told my mom how beautiful her two daughters were, but that’s where the conversation ended. We didn’t talk about our interests; every conversation started with how pretty we were and then ignored us for the rest.
I remember when I got my period for the first time. My stomach hurt for the entire soccer practice, but I still punted all of the balls over the 15” fence for the boys in another coed league I had joined to run after. I didn’t understand the rust I found in my underwear when I got home, and I made my babysitter lock the bathroom door and turn the bathtub on as she explained it to me. I didn’t want my sister to find out what had happened.
The constant reminders of how I should present myself to others also started in elementary school.
My mom told us to keep our legs together or put them down if we were sitting with our knees to our chests. It was unladylike.
The school dress code told us no tank tops, no shorts shorter than 2” above the knee, no skirts shorter than 2” above the knee, no leggings, no yoga pants, no ripped jeans, no undergarments showing, no straps showing, no shoulders showing and no stomach showing. I didn’t even know what a bra was at that point despite my mom owning a bra store.
My mom and grandma both said that the dress code was necessary, even in elementary school. Some girls would wear something too small, too provocative and cause a distraction. They would wear shorts too short, and their butt would hang out.
Or they’d wear a tank top which would show too much of their shoulders and chest and that small fold of fat in between our chest and arm would show. The hypothetical girl, they insisted, needed to be stopped.
I didn’t understand how we could cause any more of a distraction than the Yugioh cards, Beyblade battles, football games, soccer games, slime, Silly Bandz and more that dominated our classrooms, but I did as I was told. If I didn’t, I would’ve been forced to anyway.
I’d be called out of class and have to wait in the front office until my mom could leave work and bring me a change of acceptable clothes. I remember crying in the dean’s office as she explained to me why what I was wearing was wrong. She always seemed annoyed when I cried.
I got so used to it that I began to feel weird when I would wear what I once considered normal shorts.
I felt too exposed, like I was being watched for being too revealing or that I was going to be told off for wearing too little.
When a fourth grade classmate told me my legs were too hairy, it made it even worse. Her comment didn’t mention any of the boys in my class whose shorts exposed their legs and subsequent leg hair.
I tried shaving for the first time that night without telling my mom, and I cut my leg badly enough that I had to keep it propped up for a couple hours.
I wore jeans almost everyday to school, walking to and from my house in the heavy air of Louisiana summers and in pants that weren’t designed for our climate.
My girlhood ended when my mom warned me about playing in her friend’s son’s room, when she told me explicitly why to be careful.
For years we had played together on his computer, but my mom had always instituted the rule that the room door had to stay open. She thought he was too interested in someone at least ten years younger than him.
Girlhood ended when the actions I didn’t think make sense finally had a connecting reason. It ended when I realized I had been given different rules.
It ended when I realized I had to live with an extra level of caution, with more awareness of how I acted and presented myself so as not to take the blame for others’ choices.
It ended when I realized my body was not strictly my own, at the whim of others’ perceptions and desires.