Tag Archives: girls

How do we teach her about the Gauntlet?

Good Monday to you out there. Where I am just now, the sun is beginning to shift the shapes outside from silhouette to surety. The walnut tree has lost most of its leaves, and the ones left are yellow and readying to fall. No frost out there when I let the puppy out, but the quality of light makes me imagine late-fall mornings back East, where every roof was painted white and sparkling each morning.

What’s this morning look like where you are?

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This morning  I am thinking about the way we mark our children’s growth — how we celebrate them and mark their passages through the different stages of growing up (or don’t), how we honor and arm them for this world they are entering into (or don’t).

Last week I had dinner with my sweetheart and a couple of friends. Our friends have daughters, while my sweetheart has a son.

We were talking about the daughter of another friend, a young girl (9 years old), who, when she dressed up for Halloween, wore some of her mother’s clothes and makeup. All dressed up, she looked much older than her nine years. We said, She looked so much older. We said, she looked beautiful. And none of us spoke celebratorily or admiringly. We spoke with worry. We spoke with fear on this young girl’s behalf.

We four women told the stories about young girls looking and getting older with apprehension and sorrow. There was nothing celebratory or jubilant in our tone — look at this strong and beautiful little girl growing up! Instead, we shook our heads knowingly. None of us were excited for her. None of us reflected back with joy to the moments in our own lives when we were no longer seen as a little girl, but were instead met in the world as women — that is, the moment that we entered the Gauntlet.

Around that table, talking about that young girl, we turned our eyes down and away from one another. We were thinking, Pretty soon she’s going to be entering the Gauntlet.

You know about the Gauntlet, because either you’ve been through it or you’ve heard about it. It’s the point when girls begin to get attention from older men, when they begin to get catcalls, whistles, shouts, whispered come ons. When passing cars honk and then men inside leave their hissing and pleading tones lingering around the girls walking home from school or to the mall with their friends. When she can’t do her homework on the bus anymore because someone always has something to say about her chest, and so she hold her books in front of her instead. When she begins to be faced with the fact that her worth is supposed to be determined by how many men want her. If she doesn’t appear to appreciate those shouts, if she walks by with her head up, neck unbent and proud, the men have other things to shout and catcall after her — or worse.

This is a time when girls will often dress specifically to hide their blossoming curves, or to highlight them. It’s a rare girl in America, I think, who, after she enters the Gauntlet, doesn’t think about how her clothes reveal or convey some message about her body — and, by extension, herself.

Some of us learn early that men’s attention is valuable and desired. I can remember walking the long blocks from the bus stop back home when I was in junior hight, and being excited every time a man whistled at me from a passing car — that whistle meant I was worthy. The whistle meant I was worthy. The fact that I loved to read and write, or had done well on a test that day, or had come up with interesting questions to discuss in my history class meant nothing against the attentions of a male stranger. That whistle — I believed — meant I had some power. He noticed me, which meant I must be one of the pretty ones.

I didn’t feel this excitement, though, a few years earlier, when I was sexually harassed by a boy in my class all through sixth grade (and continued even after my mom came to the school many times to meet with the principal, teacher, and this boy — male entitlement and tacit community approval are powerful things). I wanted to hide my body, wanted to be invisible, at exactly the moment that my body was making itself more visible.

Jill Scott has a remarkable piece about the Gauntlet, entitled The Thickness — and before you listen, know that this piece contains clear and direct language around sex and sexual assault/rape culture.

Do boys have their version of the Gauntlet? It seems to me that there must be a masculinity Gauntlet through which boys have to run, in which they are expected to conform to a maleness and manhood that devalues girls and femininity, that values violence and action over questions and empathy, that is interested in conquest over compromise — in this Gauntlet, you’re either a man or a faggot, and faggots are fair game.

(Never having had to run that Gauntlet, I wonder if what I imagine rings true with the masculine readers here.)

It is true that every child has to run these Gauntlets alone — as grown ups who love them, we can’t hold their hands all the time. And yet I wonder how we prepare our children for these trials. How do we teach our feminine children to hold themselves up in the face of this test? Surely it’s a rite of passage for all girls: come through the Gauntlet with your dignity, with your love for your body intact, and a clear and vivid surety in your own human worth. Whew.

Did you come through the Gauntlet that way? I didn’t. What if we could set girls up for that *before* we sent them into the Gauntlet alone? What if we stood by the sidelines, witnessing their achievements, honoring their successes, tending to them when they were bruised and sore and scared? What if we made this particular rite of passage more visible?

(Even better, of course, would be if men and boys treated women and girls with respect all the time, if parents taught their children to respect themselves and one another, if kids rewarded one another’s generosity and kindness rather than hostility and revenge porn. Let’s keep working on that, too. )

Not being a parent myself, I wonder how parents of daughters/feminine children deal with this. Do you arm your daughters with knowledge? Or do you say nothing, wanting to preserve their “innocence” for as long as possible?  Do you tell them what to do when they are harassed at school, on the bus, on the street — or do you leave them to figure it out for themselves? How do they know they can come to you if they have questions or are afraid or are curious or excited?

We like to watch movies about kids who have to safely navigate life-threatening challenges — the Harry Potter movies, the Hunger Games, and so many more attest to this. But how do we prepare our real, live children for the life-altering challenges that comprise their tween and teen years? If we ourselves are afraid or ashamed to talk about sex and sexuality, if we are still marked by and ashamed of our own experiences in the Gauntlet, how will that impact the way we communicate with the children that we love?

I don’t want my first response to a girl’s looking older than she is to be helpless lamentation. How can we celebrate a girl growing older while also being straightforward with her about the Gauntlet and the rest of the world she is growing up into?

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Did you have to go through the Gauntlet as a kid? I’m thinking about that as a prompt for today. Can you imagine how the experience might have been different if you’d had an adult to talk to about what you were dealing with, someone who could tell you how to deal with the bullies and shadiness?

What would you want to say to young ones about to enter the Gauntlet?

Thank you for the wisdom are able to offer to others, both younger and older. Thank you for the witness you are willing to bear. And thank you today for your words.

that doesn’t make me a stupid girl: that makes me human

multicolored graffiti that reads, "Developing a voice"

Developing a voice... (click on the image to see more of Cassidy Curtis's pictures)

Thursday is a VozSutra day, talking about the practice of voice.

This morning I woke up when the alarm went off at 5.24, but then hung around in bed for another half hour, sleeping and wrangling with getting up — thinking of lines of poetry.  The only one I can remember now is something about the bright eyes in our vaginas, or the bright vaginas in our eyes. I think it was the latter.

I dreamt of writing a thoughtful-yet-blistering post to facebook (dear god, it’s time for a break when I start dreaming about facebook! that’s terrible!) about transguys taking their shirts off in public. There’d been a whole bunch of photos in a row, guys posting about what they’d done that weekend, and look, I got to take off my shirt, now that I got my surgery and look, you can’t even see the scars, and it was so nice to feel the sun on my chest, finally — and I was just livid, because of the willingness to do this, to share this celebration with all of their female-bodied compatriots who would have been cited or arrested at the same events if they’d taken their own damn shirts off without putting fucking stickers or tape (or something else painful to remove) over their nipples. (It may have been that I had exactly this feeling at Oakland Pride this weekend — just maybe.) Livid because of the willingness, too, on the part of some transguys, to say that transitioning has nothing to do with male privilege. And yet those photographs, that experience, in this country: male privilege. In the dream, F! was worried, didn’t want me to be too something — and so I was thoughtfully crafting this message that wasn’t too angry, but was still clear and a bit angry, but didn’t make anyone uncomfortable, and…as you can imagine, I didn’t get the damn thing posted before I woke up.

What’s this about — this fear of just saying what we think, when we, at the same time, think someone else will be offended.  As female folk (and even here I freeze — is it just female folk? am I being too gender-essentialist?) we’re socialized to be polite and cautious about what we say: don’t lead anyone on, don’t upset anyone. And so we grow up learning to swallow so many things, in so many different ways — we learn how not to speak the things that will upset someone. You know all this already.  The question is, how to unlearn that swallowing.  How to spit it back up and out?

Writing is a help, for me — putting it down on the page, in a notebook, in a thick messy scrawl, with as much intention and emotion as necessary. I remind myself that I don’t have to share it with anyone, and for a very long time, I didn’t. I just kept on going to the cafe, ordering my large bowl of french roast coffee and sitting in the back corner or up front, by the window, just writing in the notebook — trying to figure out how to get it all down, how to say it all the way it felt in my body.

And then, little by little, I started sharing this writing voice with others — at work, at organizing meetings, at open mics, through characters in stories that found their way into anthologies, and then, lo and behold, just in conversation with my lovers and friends. And it’s still a struggle.  It’s a struggle to say something that I know will upset or offend somebody, it’s a struggle not to waver with kind of, I think, don’t you? or try to give voice to every side of an issue at the same time — everyone likes you if you don’t take a clear side, is what I’ve learned, if you just kind of look like you’re leaning toward their side when you’re talking to them. That’s a skill girls learn, I think, and maybe some boys too, something trauma survivors learn, over and over: the ways not to appear a threat, not to appear to have a mind of our own, not to say something that will set someone else off.

I understand the ways that using caution around voice is a self-protective mechanism. And I hold within me the aftermath: that choking, that wishy-washiness, that unreasonable (for me) terror that upsetting someone else means my physical safety is threatened.

For many years, I literally could not have an debate or argument about something I felt strongly about — I’d get so angry, and afraid, too, that I just couldn’t speak, couldn’t find the words I wanted; my mind just went blank. I despaired of ever being able to articulate, extemporaneously, my feelings about, say, violence against women, or rape in movies, or incest anywhere, or queer assimilation or… and, of course, I’d be talking to people who could remain dispassionate about their opinion, which we at my undergraduate institution were supposed to be learning how to do. But how do I stay unemotional about battery and intimate partner violence? Who would want to? Why keep the facade of objectivity, when there just isn’t any such thing as a non-subjective perspective or viewpoint?

I could, of course, easily preach to the converted, and maybe that helped.  The writing, and the talking with folks who shared, and added to/expanded, my feelings and politics and analysis on a particular subject. Listening to other folks talk, folks who could both embody emotion and clearly navigate complex terrain, also inspired me to believe that it was possible to do.

And these morning blogs are another part of that practice –to write what I’m thinking into the computer without too much forethought or editing, sometimes even just stating an opinion without apology: the gall. I learn to be willing to be wrong, learn that it’s not the end of the world if I change or grow, complicate, my opinion. That doesn’t make me a stupid girl: that makes me human.

So, here’s a prompt: Is there something you’re really upset about or affected by right now, something you’d like to find the words to articulate? Can you give yourself 20 minutes in the notebook with that today, letting yourself not make sense, not complete your sentences, get really angry or sad, if you want, or even contradict yourself… this isn’t for anyone else. This is writing work, and it’s your own powerful practice.

Thank you so much for being there, for reading — and for your writing!