Don’t Tell My Toddler She Looks Like Mae West

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

Recently a friend of mine told me that she’s bothered by men on the street commenting on her four-year-old daughter’s looks. My first thought was, “Oh, people compliment little girls, it’s harmless.” But she did a little imitation of the men—the squinty eyes, the “so pretty” in a tone thisclose to crooning and teeth-sucking—and I believed her. Any woman can identify the tone of a catcall versus a friendly comment, and this was firmly in the zone of catcall. For a four-year-old girl.

So I decided to conduct my own amateur sociological survey. I posted, to our neighborhood listserv, a question to my fellow Brooklyn parents about the comments they get on their kids’ looks when they’re out on the street. Including my friend, I got 11 responses, all from mothers, for about 15 kids ranging in age from 18 months to six years. Nine of the kids were boys and six were girls.

Of the six girls, three had had experiences on the street that I would characterize as negative—either creepy, sexual, or downright cruel. One I covered above—creepy. The second was a mother who reported there is a neighborhood man who always tells her that her daughters, one 18 months and the other 4, look like Mae West. And a third mother, whose daughter is five years old and a “bit overweight,” gets quite a few comments, in front of the daughter, on the child’s weight and what the mother should be doing to address it. Like, “You should take her outside everyday.” Um, thanks, we are outside right now.

The boys got comments too, but the tone of the reports from the mothers did not seem particularly negative and in fact were pretty complimentary—more along the lines of “so handsome!” or “so cute!” The worst it got was for a red-headed boy who was annoyed enough by the remarks on his hair to start wearing a hat.

To recap: My admittedly measly data shows that 50 percent of girls from 18 months to six years old have already experienced some kind of body-shaming comment or a comment with sexual overtones on the street. Great.

The organization Stop Street Harassment sent me the following chart, which shows that of the 65 percent of women who have experienced street harassment, 10 percent report that it started by age 12. Executive Director Holly Kearl said in an email: “I have heard from many, many women who recall it happening around puberty and some even as early as eight or nine years old.”

I suspect that this is the starting point because children are generally allowed to venture out alone at around 8 or 9 years, so sleazeballs, looking for a chance to sleaze, will prey on unaccompanied children. Yeah, so about that free-range parenting—do we let our kids walk to school alone, roam and explore—and possibly have some cretin tell an 11-year-old girl that she has a nice ass? Or do we keep walking them to school to protect them from vile comments? Boys, especially if they’re overweight or non-gender-conforming, are vulnerable too—25 percent of men report street harassment, and for 14 percent of those men it started by age 12.

I spoke to Simone Kolysh, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center; she’s writing a part of her dissertation on catcalling and other “micro-aggressions.” She wasn’t surprised at the early-onset wolf whistling—”unwanted attention from anonymous strangers begins very early.” She also told me that girls in school uniforms are particularly vulnerable: “The elementary school girls, middle school girls—cars of men will follow them and whistle, or wait outside for dismissal. When the girls complain to the school, the school asks what they did to provoke it, or tells them that it’s not ladylike to express anger.”

When I mentioned the overweight child, or the fact that none of the boys were catcalled, she said: “It affects children unequally because of gender, body size and overall presentation. The [only] groups that don’t have to experience any remarks at any age are men who are … gender-conforming.”

I don’t feel especially complimented, here

I’m sorry to say that when my friend described the cat-calling of her daughter, I immediately thought, “Well, she is unusually beautiful” and gave a mental shrug, like the price for beauty is a certain amount of street harassment. But, of course, women who are not unusually beautiful are harassed too. Women in nine layers of winter clothing, scarves and hats—you can just barely tell they’re women—get catcalled. It’s not a comment on beauty, like, say, someone unexpectedly handing you a modeling contract on the street. It’s not a compliment, like I really like that sassy color combination! It’s a way of controlling women who have the audacity to be out and about in public, alone, doing their crazy woman business, like going to the post office or picking up a bag of cat litter. After all, women who are accompanied by men don’t get catcalled. I’d be curious to know if dads, on the street with their daughters, experience the same creepy comments on their daughters’ looks that mothers do.

Let’s have a polite conversation about your bad behavior

So what is a mother—socialized to appease or ignore men’s bad behavior—supposed to do? Kolysh says, “If you felt safe, you might say, ‘Please don’t comment on my child’s appearance.'” This is as much for your kids as the commenter—it teaches them that other people don’t get to define the tone of their interactions, or even if there’s an interaction at all. This would be a new experience for me; I’m not even used to advocating for myself.

But even if you can’t do that, the most important thing, says Kolysh, is to talk to your kids in private about what happened, and let them know that “this is something that happens to girls and women, and that it’s not okay. This is a group process … It’s important to understand that a lot of people have this interaction. The behavior of bystanders is important, too.” Stop Street Harassment emphasizes this group process as well—that anyone who witnesses street harassment should intervene.

When I was younger I was never brave enough to call out my own harassers—I’d just put my head down and move on. But being a mother means doing things that are uncomfortable and even scary in defense of children. So the next time I hear someone comment on the weight of a child, or tell an 11-year-old she has a nice ass, or even some addled old-timer saying a little girl looks like Mae West, you can bet your ass I’d step in.

photo: flickr/dierk schaefer

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