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.

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