Each girlhood is different. What is learned during childhood stays with us and shapes us. My girlhood made me a feminist long before I understood the term.
I think it all started when I broke my leg. At seven years old I was already a voracious reader. I read my mom’s science fiction, my stepmom’s romance novels, and regularly spent my allowance at the used book store. When I got my first library card, I picked a book and checked it out. Then I sat and read the book (I was waiting for my mom to finish work). Then I checked out about fifteen more, so many the librarian chuckled, this great stack of books I could barely carry back to my mom’s store. Books taught me that every single person is different, that everyone is important, and that everyone has a story. Books gave me empathy, a sense of righteous indignation at injustice, and an escape. Some books gave me a fucked up idea of what women were really like, but I was lucky to have that balanced by good women in my real life, and eventually I learned to read stories about women by women for anything resembling truth.
On the first day of summer I was riding my bike down a huge hill and I lost control and sideswiped a parked car. My leg snapped (tibia in half, fibula a compound break) but my bike kept going–I couldn’t stop because it had pedal brakes, but somehow my dad ran out of his house and stopped my bike before it went into heavy traffic. (My dad then took me to a walk-in clinic instead of a hospital, but I can laugh about that now).
Anyway, I had a hip-to-toe plaster cast for a couple months that was so heavy I had to have a sling under it, over my shoulder, just to carry it. I don’t remember having my cast switched to a shorter fiberglass one, but the memory of having that one removed has stayed with me. I had one very tanned, muscular leg with fine though dark hair. My other leg was wasted, pale, weird-looking, and covered in dark, thick hair. People made fun of me and my mom said I could start shaving and I did.
A year later at eight I got my period. I’ve always been what they call an ‘early bloomer’ or ‘early developed’, phrases I hate because they suggest I wasn’t ripe or ready before but suddenly people were telling me I was. Ready for what? I knew, though, and so did they. Women often looked at me with sympathy when they learned how young I actually was.
During that time my mom’s boyfriend began sexually abusing me and that lasted a few years until I told a friend (something I can’t even remember doing) and she told my stepmom. From there everything changed but no one explained anything to me. I was twelve when I was told I had to talk to the police. Since I’d been at my dad’s that weekend, I didn’t see my mom until I was at the police station, and she was there with my abuser, and I thought that she would choose him over me so I didn’t talk. I didn’t take back my story but I said I didn’t want to talk about it.
My mom stayed with him, meaning so did her kids, until I was seventeen. She didn’t tell me she believed me until I was eighteen and I’m still not entirely sure she does. She still works with him, my sister attends his family reunions, etc. I learned that loyalty is difficult to enact.
During the five years after he stopped molesting me and before my mom left, he fucked with my head in a tonne of small ways. Invading my privacy and space, talking to me about my personal journal entries, petty things like painting my furniture and room colours I hated, and basically destroyed my self-worth by constantly calling me sadistic and manipulative and turning my family against me. I was sent to therapy but when I confessed I had suicidal ideations, again things were sent beyond my control and I was put on medication. At the same time my mom was also on anti-depressants. And those were dark days.
Because I ‘developed’ early I was subjected to treatment usually reserved for older girls. Men were always holding me against them and trying to get me to sit in their laps. My body, hair, face, etc, were constantly public property. Men I babysat for put their hands on my legs or in my lap, using my body for their satisfaction.
Starting in third grade I was a slut because I had larger breasts than other girls my age. I was also really mean and violent–I was the only girl who would fight boys and I basically contracted myself out to other girls. The name-calling and rumours were really painful not just because they were untrue but because I knew it shouldn’t even matter if I had done the things people said. Boys only wanted to date me because they thought I would do things with them. Older guys were constantly after me and used my body as an excuse for their behaviour. Do you know how many guys blamed ME for them not bothering to act human? How their perception of my sexuality became a self-fulfilling prophecy?
By the time I got to high school I knew exactly what men are. They looked at me like I was food, and I grew to loathe and fear that look. I began to see myself as they did: an object. My body wasn’t mine, it never had been. Men in cars honked at me and yelled at me and my friends, men at clubs and bars touched me against my will, men were constantly demanding my attention and I was not allowed to deny it. Men I loved hurt me actively and passively. Men had sex with me when I could not or did not consent. I knew men were NOT like women, and yet I was still expected to want to be with them, to find the one that wouldn’t hurt me, or treat me like meat, or deny my humanity by mocking my reality.
I read cosmo, trolled chat rooms, watched and read porn, and learned as long as I kept up a learned facade, men would do anything for me. I got into damaging and abusive relationships, the sex I had became more violent and degrading, I lived in depressions for years. I wanted to punish my body because that’s all anyone else had ever done to it. I have countless scars that in my mind showcased my worthlessness. I controlled my unhappiness by controlling my diet. Anything I could do to hurt myself I did. I became an actress and for a long time I expected to live my entire life like a movie. As long as I was writing my part, I thought, I could fix the ending. I could edit. I wouldn’t have to be real.
Girlhood is a confusing time. People always talk about childhood and adolescence, but we need to stop acting like girls and boys are raised the same. While boys were bringing porn magazines to school, girls were learning how to be pleasing, compliant, acquiescent. When boys have pornographic imaginations and expectations, and girls are raised to be obedient, what the fuck do people think is going to happen?
I can’t count the amount of times I’ve felt unsafe with men. I can’t even say how many moments I’ve had where I’ve thought–he’s not going to stop. I’ve been right about that. Empowering a girl to say no doesn’t carry much weight when boys are taught to not take no for an answer, or pretend to not be able to ‘read’ us. And when girls do say yes, as is becoming the norm now more than ever thanks to porn culture and its ‘feminist’ subsidiaries, they ARE considered damaged, fucked up, at fault. When girls say no, they aren’t believed or the guilt of the perpetrator is mitigated by the victim’s actions. Most of the time when a girl says no and he doesn’t care, she never tells anyone. But throughout my girlhood and subsequent adulthood I’ve come to see that if you talk to any women long enough and she trusts you enough, you’ll learn about her rape or sexual abuse. It’s never the same story, and yet it is.
I consider my girlhood different from my childhood. I loved running around in forests, raising tadpoles, bringing home animals, and building snow forts. I was left to my own devices and I was happiest when alone. I had several groups of girl friends, which I lost every time I got a boyfriend. My family was really poor and moved a lot and my mom did the best she could but she’d never learned to be on her own and she couldn’t have supported us that way. There were a lot of bright, shining moments in my childhood.
The darkest moments, though, were almost all because I had a girl’s body. Girlhood matters to girls and I’m sick of seeing it brushed aside and erased.