There are many notable firsts in a young woman’s life, but a frontrunner on the formative short list may be the moment you realize you are desired by the opposite sex—with a look, a catcall, a gesture, or worse. We’re curious about this moment. We want to know whether it was pleasant or terrible for you, and at what age it transpired.
As moments go, this one can go any number of ways—but unsurprisingly, according to a Reddit thread asking women this very question, it mostly goes pretty gross. That is to say, it starts early (most often between 10 and 15) and is decidedly not accompanied by anything like innocent, burgeoning sexuality or desire for the girl, but rather arrives unsolicited alongside leering, grabbing, staring, or catcalling. It is, more often, something that happens to girls that they spend a lifetime sorting out, navigating, reconciling. Here goes.
I was probably eleven or so. I remember sitting at school in a science class and some guys used to throw pens and other shit on the ground next to me so, naturally, I would lean down and pick it up for them. It took me a while to understand why they were laughing when I would do that. Turns out, they were stealing glances down my shirt. I just remember the laughing making me feel so uncomfortable.
I used to play Dance Dance Revolution a lot when I was 11-12. Good enough to be coordinated at it. I used to think all the guys that would hang out at the arcade were watching me play because I was good or they were waiting their turn. Nope. It’s because I developed early and they liked watching my boobs bounce. It was mortifying when I found out a few years later after I befriended one of them.
Sound familiar? Because there’s only one bazillion more such anecdotes where that came from.
When I was twelve a fourteen year old came up to me on the first day of school and said (whilst staring at my chest) “wow you uhh... definitely grew over the summer” I thanked him, thinking he was talking about my height. I walked around all proud for the rest of the day thinking I was getting noticeably taller...
Ha! It reminds me of my first time in the context of this thread. A school mate came up to me - I was maybe 12/13 - and said point blank “I’m inviting you to my party because you have big boobs.”
I have no idea what I replied, but I remember the moment with utmost clarity. And.... I just realized I actually still kinda know the guy, peripherally. I wonder if he remembers that moment too?
Wait, it gets creepier, as in this anecdote from BattleReady about her step-uncle:
I was 12. I remember I was doing yard work for a step-uncle when he would constantly casually make “Huh” sounds and stand directly behind me when I would pull weeds. Suspicions were confirmed when he took me to lunch at the mall and offered to buy me tiny dresses and low cut shirts. I stopped associating with my step family after that as that’s all they ever did.
Suspicious_Uncle chimes in with a bit of useful context:
Contemporary literature is huge on this theme. I’m an English major and I constantly read about coming of age for young women and how confusing/stressful/scary it can be and not in a cliche way. More than often its older men and relatives making sexual advances on them and taking advantage of their confusion/unawareness at their young age. Junot Diaz writes a lot about stuff like this and how it affects different girls in different ways, notably in poverty riddled and minority communities, though not exclusive to them. It really is interesting learning how girls are forced to grow up and become sexually aware of their surroundings by age 14.
And what better summary of these experiences than a reader-inserted excerpt from Tina Fey’s Bossypants into the thread, which addresses this head-on:
I will just post what Tina Fey said on this topic. Funny and sad at the same time. Mostly sad.
When did you first feel like a grown woman and not a girl?” We wrote down our answers and shared them, first in pairs, then in larger groups. The group of women was racially and economically diverse, but the answers had a very similar theme. Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them. “I was walking home from ballet and a guy in a car yelled, ‘Lick me!’” “I was babysitting my younger cousins when a guy drove by and yelled, ‘Nice ass.’” There were pretty much zero examples like “I first knew I was a woman when my mother and father took me out to dinner to celebrate my success on the debate team.” It was mostly men yelling shit from cars. Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty? If so, it’s working.
For many girls, the attention came alongside puberty, or more specifically, “getting boobs,” and especially for girls who developed early, as commenter Your_Friendly_Server recounts:
I developed a little earlier than many of the girls I went to school with. My first experience was actually not with the boys in my class, but with my teammates’ fathers looking at me differently, and hugging me a little bit too long after I made a nice play. I didn’t go to many sleepovers in primary school. Still gives me the heebies.
If these were isolated incidents, it would be one thing, but taken together they show an onslaught of attention from an early age for most women that doesn’t abate for decades, and some women find themselves scrambling to stave it off to no avail, as the TheAwkVege notes:
For me, it was a progression.
As an awkward and attention-thirsty thirteen year old, it was kind of nice to feel pretty the first few times. . . but then the comments don’t stop. I used to be extremely friendly and kind, but I attributed this behavior to the inappropriate advances, so I stopped. They didn’t though. So it still must be me, right? I stop smiling at strangers, but nope it didn’t stop theirs. Then I stopped making eye connect. The thing is I just didn’t know who would be creepy and who wouldn’t, so I stopped it with everyone. When that failed, I began to dress way more conservatively in an attempt to feel comfortable simply walking into a Wawas. A single incident isn’t that bad, it’s the fact that for many women, it builds up like water torture.
Donning giant shirts and big hoodies to hide developing bodies is a recurring theme, none of which remotely stems the tide of wolf-whistling, stares, and the like. To wit:
My sister-in-law did a similar thing. As soon as she realized she was getting boobs she wore a hoodie. All the time. This wouldn’t be that notable except that we live in south FL. She would wear a heavy black hoodie in 95 degree Florida weather. Needless to say she didn’t go outside much.
I developed sooner than many of my peers, around eighth grade. I remember coming back to school after the summer and having a classmate tell me he noticed I’d “totally gotten boobs.” And from there on out, my life would never be the same. Before I’d even gotten a handle on how I felt about those boobs, I would soon learn how every one else felt about them, what they allegedly meant about me and my willingness to experiment sexually. Unsurprisingly, this also coincided with a lifelong affection for androgynous clothes—guy’s jeans, ill-fitting shirts, bulky sweaters—the only clothes that seemed to allow me to control my sexual representation and take the attention of my sexuality. I dressed this way easily until I was 25.
Sex appeal for a woman, it’s safe to understate, is notably fraught. It’s a power you learn to long for yet simultaneously loathe. It is paradoxical at every turn: You can crave the adoration of men while being made deeply uncomfortable by it when it happens. You can long to be considered beautiful while wishing to also be invisible. And what feels good, attention wise, can turn on a dime when lines are crossed, especially depending on who is doing the crossing.
One upside of the reddit thread is that a conversation emerges alongside these anecdotes about the importance of teaching men and boys how to experience their own sexual awakening and desire for girls/women in a way that doesn’t depend on tricking or harassing them, invading their space, or making them feel ashamed. And also a way of talking with girls about this event in their lives without shaming them for merely existing with a body that will transform whether they want it to or not.
Chocobean’s got it:
Do you mean that children need positive encouragement for expression of their sexuality and to be modelled and explicitly taught how to engage the opposite sex in a respectfully, consensual manner? If yes then I wholeheartedly agree.
Such experiences are so commonplace for women that it’s sometimes hard to remember how powerful they can be. To me, the strangest result of these experiences is that you end up with a narrative about your own appeal that you didn’t even write for yourself. That many of us unwittingly live out a surface sexuality that is dictated by how we’re perceived by others, often from an early age, rather than how we actually feel inside, and one that may persist for a lifetime if you never scrutinize it. Thus the early developer feels highly sexualized and in turn may become promiscuous because it’s expected.
But that’s just a theory—tell us what happened to you.
Image by Tara Jacoby.
Contact the author at email@example.com.