“Excuse me, Miss.” A familiar male voice startled me, and I turned around. The way he began with “excuse me” indicated an apology might follow, but I realized that there was no trace of an apologetic tone in his voice. “You know that long, curly hair like yours is a real turn-on to a guy.” The speaker, a man aged at least thirty, towered over me, dark eyes scanning my body as he waited for me to respond.
“Sir, I’m only fourteen,” I said.
His eyes widened momentarily, but he continued without any further hesitation. “Doesn’t change the truth, darlin’. With your hair and figure, age doesn’t alter the fact that you’re all woman.”
I didn’t respond. The man walked away, leaving me stunned in the gas station where I had simply run in to grab breakfast before school.
“Why do you look so upset, sweetheart?” my Grandma asked as I entered the car.
“Oh, I’m fine, I’m just tired.” Placating my Grandma’s concerns, I mulled the scenario in my head for the rest of the drive to school. I felt uncomfortable, but I couldn’t name why. I knew that man shouldn’t have been flirting with me—that’s what just happened, right? He hit on me? —but I was sure he didn’t mean any harm.
Eighth grade is the time where I began to hate my body. My friends developed much later than I did, as I had full hips and noticeable curves by the age of thirteen. So, in a crowd full of girls who were still padding their bras at school dances and wearing pants from the children’s section, I stood out. If you’ve ever completed eighth grade like a normal kid, then you know that standing out is not ideal (this is especially true if, like me, you are a year younger than everyone else yet noticeably ahead in the worst ways). From changing clothes for gym class to pool parties to sleepovers, I learned how to hide my body from the glances of others. I always arrived early to secure a changing stall. “I might as well use the restroom while I’m at it” became my catch phrase when the changing stalls were taken, but it wasn’t enough.
I decided to let the gas station incident go. It didn’t matter to me, mostly because at the age of (a very sheltered) fourteen, I didn’t know what “turned on” even meant. It was my first year of high school, and I had grades and reading to worry about. Allegiant, the final installment of the Divergent trilogy was weeks away from releasing, and I was praying my pre-ordered copy would arrive early. I had plans to see Catching Fire with my friends. I was young, nerdy, and more focused on FaceTiming my friends as we watched the same show on Netflix so we could discuss it.
A few weeks later, my careers class held mock interviews. From preparing a resume to dressing the part, we had to fully commit to this, as it was thirty percent of our grade. I had no trouble impressing the adults at my school, so I wasn’t worried. That morning, I had carefully selected a black pencil skirt, white blouse, black blazer, and black, patent leather heels. After lightly curling my hair and adding a strand of pearls, I was ready for this interview. It was first hour, so I had clothes to change into afterwards.
Dressed for the interview, I rushed through the halls of the high school to make it to my classroom. I could see other girls from my class sporting the same nervous expression I had on, each of us trying to avoid the glances of the upperclassmen.
“Hey you, with the pearls.” The voice came from a boy in my grade, a football player I didn’t know very well. He transferred in from another school, and until now he had never spoken to me.
“Me?” I said, now facing him in the hallway.
“Yeah, you. Your ass in that skirt makes me hard.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. His friends standing around him laughed and high-fived him, and I walked away, cheeks flushed with anger. I didn’t fully understand what he was talking about, but I knew enough to know that I didn’t like it. I changed out of my interview clothes as quickly as possible; it was late August, but I wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt anyways in an effort to hide my body. I would have taken a heat stroke over another comment like that any day.
My Grandma picked me up from school that day, eager to learn about my interview and what else I had to say. She was saying something, but I was busy thinking about what that football player said to me, and if it was similar to what the man in the gas station said to me.
“Grandma, if a guy tells me he’s ‘turned on’ by me, what does that mean?” I asked, in the same shameless, innocent way a child might ask where babies come from.
“Carson, where did you hear this? Are your friends talking about this at school?”
“No, a few weeks ago a man in a gas station told me that I turned him on. And today at school, a boy told me that he was ‘hard’ because of the way my butt looked in my pencil skirt.”
I could tell she was stunned, and completely unprepared for this kind of conversation. She sat in silence, eyebrow raised, obviously contemplating the best way to handle this.
“Well,” she began, “those comments were completely inappropriate. I’m sorry that those men said that to you. How did those interactions make you feel?”
“I don’t know. I felt embarrassed, but I’m not sure why, because I don’t really know what either of those comments mean, and I don’t think I did anything wrong. Should I have worn something else?”
“No, it’s important to know that you did absolutely nothing wrong. Sometimes men feel that they have the right to make comments on a woman’s body. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, and it’s never your fault. Unfortunately, short of standing up for yourself, there’s not much you can do because this is just how our society has always been.” Pausing, she said, “So, do you have any more questions?”
“No, I’m okay. Thanks.” Even though I had a thousand more questions, I was not about to get the sex talk from my Grandma. I had endured plenty of embarrassment for one day.
Years have since passed, but I think about those interactions often. Every time a man comments on my body, I compare my reactions to the ones I had those two separate days at the age of fourteen. Some aggressive men have earned a passionate “fuck you,” while I have also pretended as though I didn’t even hear some men. Throughout high school and into college, I learned more about this culture of harassment, and have grown furious over how frequently it is tolerated.
As incidents of harassment from men grew more frequent, I began to read more. I took women’s studies classes, read feminist literature, and developed a deeper understanding about objectification, harassment, and the rape culture that permeates our society. I began discussing this with the women in my life, and I learned that we all have this in common. Every woman in my life has experienced some kind of sexual harassment, but we had never discussed it until I shared my own stories.
A finger intrudes in a swimsuit at a middle school pool party. A hand slides up the back of a skirt in a crowded elevator. A boss never learns to make eye contact. A male best friend grabs the breasts of someone he now considers more than a friend, but he did so without permission. A man comments on the figure of a young girl, still a child in almost every regard. These are only some of the stories from the women in my life, and we are the only ones who still think about it. I knew that man who hit on me in the gas station. He was a firefighter in our community, has a beautiful wife and children, and is respected by those close to him. None of that stopped him. I guarantee he hasn’t thought about that since.
It has been six years since that happened, and I still think about it often. Every woman in my life can tell me about the first time they were harassed. An experience such as that one is unforgettable in the worst ways. In a moment you are diminished to nothing more than an object, the subject of the male gaze. Immediately you are hips and breasts and nothing else. You are scared and uncomfortable, and you don’t know how to respond. You are standing in a gas station, holding the ten dollar bill your grandma handed you moments before this. You are fourteen. You are different now.
Carson Mowery is an undergraduate student at Southeast Missouri State University. She is pursuing a BA in English Literature with a minor in Small Press Publishing. She can be found reading and writing in coffee shops, libraries, and bookstores around Southeast Missouri.