*Trigger warning: Victims of sexual harassment or abuse may find some content triggering.*
I was 11 years old. I know it was summer because I was wearing a black one-piece bathing suit and my hair was wet. We’d spent the day at the lake with my cousins, my aunts and uncles. It was so hot the ground burned our feet, so we had to scramble to find our chanklas as we jumped out of the truck and ran into the pizza parlor. I crowded around the candy machines with my cousins. I bent over to put my quarter in when I noticed a slight commotion happening outside. My two uncles were arguing with a stranger. I didn’t know what was happening, all I could think about was candy and pizza and the cool air of the pizza parlor.
Later, I found out my uncles had watched a man make an obscene gesture behind me as I was bent over the candy machine. My cousins were whispering about it. I remember my cheeks burning in shame.
Me. I was 11 years old in those yellow shorts that I couldn’t even button up.
Little Girl, Womanly Curves
I was that little girl who developed early. When all the other girls in my class still had skinny legs and a flat chest like a boy, I sprouted breasts and round hips. My thighs were plentiful, as was my backside. It made me want to shrink inside myself. Boys pointed out my size. Some teased me. So did the girls. When you are the same height as your fifth-grade teacher — about 5’4″ — I guess it’s hard not to.
Everyone felt it was their right to make comments about my blossoming body, including my family. My uncles teased me about my weight (when a young girl develops early, it’s easy to call her “chubby” instead of curvy). My cousins teased me about being “the biggest” of us all. My mother subconsciously controlled my burgeoning femininity and sexuality by clouding the air with fear. When I got my period at the age of 10, my Nana winked at me and called me a señorita. I didn’t feel like one. I was still a little girl who liked to play with Barbies. Then there were the stares, the smiles, the whistles, the long looks from men — men much older than me.
When you are a young girl with womanly curves that you have no idea what to do with, it’s confusing, uncomfortable, embarrassing, even shameful.
Excuse Me, Ma’am, Your Daughter Is Lying to You
Xixi — almost 12 and sassy as can be in her overalls and jelly sandals — and I were sitting in the car sharing a chocolate bar. It was hot outside so we were enjoying the AC before we had to get back on the road. I told her to take the messy candy wrapper outside to the trash can. My car that drives six kids around is messy enough. When she returned, she had a disturbed look on her face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her, my brows knit together in concern.
“That man over there whistled at me. Then he stared at me walking across the parking lot. Mama, I felt so uncomfortable!” she said.
My neck whipped around to see a 40-something man sitting in a work truck about three spaces down. He had a smirky smile on his face.
“Are you sure? Was there anyone else in the parking lot?” I could feel my blood start pumping in my chest.
“No, it was just me. And he stared at me walking too. And he whistled like this.” She proceeded to whistle.
I didn’t even think — I just I threw my car in reverse and backed up right in front of the man’s work truck. The smirk on his face dissolved. Xixi’s face went white, and she slid down in her seat so he couldn’t see her. What are you doing, Mama?
I rolled down the window and stared him in the face.
“The little girl that just walked across the parking lot. The one wearing overalls. Did you whistle at her? She is only 11! You were staring and whistling at an 11-year-old girl?”
The man played dumb, of course. I can’t remember what choice words I said to him after that (I hope I called him a sick bastard or a lying pervert — probably not) but I was infuriated. The way my daughter shrunk in her seat made me even more so. Why should she be afraid? Why should she feel ashamed? She did nothing wrong. If I wasn’t already angry enough, the next thing he said to me nearly sent me over the edge.
“Excuse me, ma’am but your daughter is lying to you.” He leaned forward and repeated himself emphatically, “She is lying!”
With shaking hands, I drove home. It took me about 30 minutes of traffic to calm down. We went to eat fish tacos. I guess I was hoping that would help me forget it all.
“Thank you for sticking up for me, Mama,” Xixi said, snuggling up close to me. I felt like I had done something right by her. I felt like I had done something right by the little girl in me too.
Maybe It Was Your Fault
The next day I talked to a guy friend about it. I was not prepared for the trigger of emotions. The first thing he did, in my opinion, was pass off what the man did.
Maybe he was whistling at someone else.
He probably had a friend across the parking lot.
Maybe he thought she was someone he knew.
Then…he passed the onus over to me.
You shouldn’t have pulled your car in front of his. That’s dangerous. (Even though I didn’t get out, I merely rolled down my window.)
Maybe you should’ve taken a photo of him and his license plate instead.
Why didn’t you call another person for help?
You shouldn’t have let her walk to the trash can all by herself.
I sat there in tears. But not sad tears. Tears of anger (how dare he question what I did to protect my daughter). Frustration (he will never know what it feels like to feel vulnerable as a woman). Disappointment (I thought he had my back). And finally, rage (all the women who have been victimized in small ways and big ways and how they are made to feel like it is their fault).
It took me all day to process the emotions. So many things came bubbling to the surface. I finally understand the meaning of “triggered.”
Despite the anger and the emotions that came with this life experience, I am choosing to hold on to one thing: I listened to my daughter. I didn’t question her. I didn’t blame her. I didn’t shame her (she shamed herself enough). I listened to her. And she thanked me.