What I Wish I Could Tell the 8th Grade Boy Who Catcalled My Daughter #yesallwomen #raisinggirls
It starts. Only the fourth day of school, and my sixth-grade daughter calls me to tell me an eighth grader whistled at her in the hallway today. She mimics the sound over the phone, then pauses. "It made me feel so weird!" she says. "What do I do?" Oh, lord. I wish I had better advice to offer her in this moment than I do, knowing too well the full extent of how she's feeling now, how she felt in that moment. The weird knot in her stomach. The increase in her heart rate. The sudden thought that, maybe, she should be flattered by this, followed by the more intense, more pressing thought: "No, this feels wrong." The overwhelming feeling of discomfort that made her feel uneasy in the hallway, in the school, in her own skin.
I breathe a sigh over the phone, trying to buy myself time, knowing I don't have any. Knowing her entry to middle school has ushered us into this new, more adult territory where neither of us knows the rules and we're both just feeling our way through. Finally: "Boys can be stupid," I tell her. "Hell, grown men can be stupid. I'm almost 31 and I still deal with this on a near daily basis. He might have thought he was giving you a compliment. More likely, he didn't think at all. He might just have been doing something he's seen other men or boys do. I wish I could tell you something else, because I know what you're feeling. I still get the same knot in my stomach that I got at your age when this happened. I still feel uneasy. But, my only advice is this: The best thing you can do is to ignore it." I pause, not knowing if that's good enough, but not having anything else to offer. "Okay, Mama." She seems able to leave it at that, but I'm not. I can't. I know what she's getting into. I know this isn't going to be a one-off event. "Listen," I add. "I wish I could tell you otherwise. I wish I could tell you to call him out -" "You mean tell him 'uh-huh!' that that isn't appropriate?" she interrupts. "Yes," I answer, "but the truth is, you can't. Or, you can, but in all likelihood it would only make him mean. He'd just do it more, or he'd get his friends to do it, or he'd say nasty things to you. It's much better to keep your head up but turned away. To ignore the whistle, ignore his comments, ignore him. Just keep your head up and keep walking. You'll feel a twist in your gut, you'll feel like it isn't right, but it's the best option you have." She's silent for a moment. "Yeah," she finally answers. "I think you're right. But, Mama, let's make sure that [she names her two brothers] don't ever do this. Let's make sure they know that it isn't okay." I assure her we will, and then we talk for a few more moments. Minutes later, I hang up the phone, wishing more than anything I could find that boy and tell him what he's done, make sure he understands the ramifications of those two seconds. If I could, I'd tell him that he has just punctured a hole in a little girl's innocence. That he has just made her acutely aware of her body as an object, as a thing that other people are appraising. That that knowledge is something she can never forget, that she can never unknow, and that it will forever impact the way she looks at herself, sees herself, perhaps even values herself. That he has just, in those two small seconds, turned her body into a foreign thing, something she will spend the rest of her adolescence, if not her life, struggling to feel comfortable in. Of course, I can't find him and tell him this, and knowing - as I do - how all this works, I understand that it probably wouldn't even matter, that it might even make it worse. So instead, I'll do nothing, and as much as I hate it, as much as I wish it weren't so, I will - as I have - advise my daughter to do the same. Unfortunately, it's safer that way.