Play Like a Girl, Wary Like a Woman
I taught her to be free. Now I have to teach her to be safe.
My daughter comes running into the house saying, “She told me to play like a GIRL!” Her hair is free and wild with knots that will take a good while to get out. Her face is dusted with the evidence of rugged, outdoor play. The person who scolded her is a neighbor I don’t know so well. Right now, I don’t like her too much either.
“How does a girl play?” I ask my 6-year-old.
“They play nice and don’t get hurt. But I like to play rough and tumble like the boys!” She says. There’s a new crease in her smooth forehead, and her usually sparkling eyes are dimmed.
“Why is that boys play?” I ask calmly. Inside I’m thinking this is one of those meaningful mommy moments, so Get It Right.
My youngest pauses from her tears and looks at me for clarity. I continue, “that sounds like child’s play to me.”
There, I see it! Her eyes begin to sparkle again with her usual confidence.
“You go out there and play any way you want,” I finish. With that, she smiles and hugs me fiercely, small strong arms wrapped tight around my legs. No wings clipped today for this girl-child, not on this mom’s watch.
I want to be mad at the person who suggested to my beautiful and bright child that she play anything less than full throttle.
I want to be mad that anyone still thinks it’s okay to tell a girl she’s got to reign in her exuberance or run a little slower or throw a little less straight.
I want to be mad but I’m not.
Instead I’m celebrating this little win because she came to me and I was there to let her know she can play anyway she wants, like a girl.
“You know, I saw a couple of men checking her out,” my friend tells me. She’d taken our daughters - friends since kindergarten - to the beach. “It doesn’t help that she looks older from behind,” she finishes.
We exchange a look of understanding. My insides burn with frustration. I want to be mad at my friend for shaming my daughter, but I know her words and warning come from good intention.
My daughter is 12 and in the midst of her growth spurt. A year ago, when she hugged me, I could rest my chin on the top of her head. Now we are almost eye to eye and she’s wearing women’s sizes.
I want to be mad at those men for objectifying my tween, but being mad at men in general won’t make a difference.
I want to ask anyone who will listen, why shouldn’t my child, all children, all girl children, be able to wear shorts on a hot summer day without this worry?
I managed to help her grow this far without experiencing the things I did when I was a child. At what point do I begin to teach her to be wary like a woman?
Not yet, dear lord, please not yet.
I’m about six years old, riding my bike with exuberance and joy around the paved path in the park in Costa Mesa, when I see the man oddly out of place. He’s too calm around the noisy clatter of kids cavorting on the play structures.
As I speed past him something about his jerky movements catches my eye. I don’t understand why he is touching himself and facing me, but I know instinctively that what he is doing is wrong.
Later that evening, my mother is horrified when I show her my artistic rendering of the man’s naked parts.
I’m at the beach with my mother somewhere in south Orange County, when I notice the man arrive with his wife and children. They look like a happy family, carrying loads of brightly colored inflatables and plastic shovels and buckets, and I watch with envy because they have what I want: siblings, toys and a daddy.
Soon I scamper to the nearby tide pools, within ear and eye shot of my mom to explore the small creatures and sea anemone who call the crevices and rocks their homes. They sway in concert with one another as the waves roll gently back and forth, and I crouch down in wonder to watch.
I don’t notice him until his shadow casts across my reverie.
It’s the daddy with the cool toys. Why is he staring at me? Why are his privates popping out of his Speedo?
I move away to put distance between myself, his exposed parts and my discomfort. He follows me and this time he touches himself when I looked up from my new tide pool. Instinct tells me to leave.
This happens within yards of my mom, his wife and his children and the giant swath of the Pacific Ocean coastline.
We live in the San Fernando Valley and I’m walking home from school, when I see the man between two parked cars. He’s jerking off in front of me and ejaculates as I walk past.
Grossed out, I run the rest of the way home.
I’m studying with a girlfriend at the library at UCLA. We’re bio majors and prefer the quiet of the “stacks” when it comes to learning. I don’t remember who sees him first, but we nudge one another in warning. A few desks away sits a man who is exposing himself to us, his legs spread eagle and his floppy junk hanging out of his shorts to the side. We roll our eyes, pack up and settle down in another part of the library free of dangling bits.
On campus, the debate rages about date rape and what that means, but society hasn’t yet identified #MeToo or #RapeCulture, and hashtags are a thing of the distant future.
For now, I avoid studying, partying or walking alone, and am glad I graduate from college without getting sexually assaulted.
13 of my college friends aren’t so lucky.
It’s Sunday morning and my daughter is awake and cozy in bed. Her face is sun kissed from the previous beach day, and a strong brown leg pokes out from her favorite blanket. Her light green eyes look at me with confidence and just a bit of sass. She wants me to make her breakfast, and I promise her I will.
“Sweetie, I want to have a little chat with you first,” I begin.
I’m too mad to wait any longer.