I was eight years old the day I saw the flasher. I was riding my bike home from a friend’s house around the corner from mine. I was in the height of my American Girl days*, wearing a dress and an apron and lace-up boots, my hair in a thick golden braid that fell all the way down my back and kissed the bike seat, pedaling down the sidewalk on my pink bike with the white tires, pink streamers flying from the handlebars. I turned the corner onto my street and was surprised to see a man in a tan truck parked on the street in front of my friend Paige’s house. We lived in a quiet neighborhood with lots of kids and no through-traffic. There weren’t many strangers around. I was even more surprised when he got out of his truck and I realized he wasn’t wearing pants or underwear. I thought maybe he was going to pee on the side of the road. (I had a brother, after all. I knew boys did that sort of thing.) I sped up and passed him on my bike. He stared at me as I went past. His eyes were bright blue.
I was too young to know about exhibitionists. Of course, I knew that people weren’t supposed to take their clothes off in public, but it never occurred to me that the man was doing it on purpose to show me his penis, much less that this was an actual crime. I can’t imagine how disturbed my mom must have been when I came inside.
Me (more confused than bothered): Mom, I saw something weird on the way home from Emily’s. This man got out of his truck and he wasn’t wearing any pants! I thought maybe he needed to use the bathroom, but he never did.
Mom: What? Where? Did he say anything to you? Did he touch you? What did he look like? Is he still there?
I still didn’t understand what a big deal it was until the policeman showed up. My mom, obviously fearful for me and the neighborhood of kids we lived in, had called the police to report the incident. The policeman asked me to describe the man. “Dirty blond hair, scruffy face, gray t-shirt, no pants. Bright blue eyes,” I recited, heart-pounding because I was talking to a policeman, etching that face into my memory forever.
For years after the incident, I had this fantasy of the man with the bright blue eyes outside of my window, trying to peek in so he could see me when I changed my clothes. Taking baths became a sort of torture. In the bathroom was a high transom window far above the bathtub, but in my mind, I saw the man with the gray shirt and the bright blue eyes on a ladder, leaned against the brick outside, peering down at me while I bathed. I perfected the art of the 90-second bath, jumping in and out with barely enough time to get wet. My mom couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her doll-carrying, dress-up playing, tea-party hosting girly-girl who suddenly never wanted to take a bath. I don’t know why I never told her what I was afraid of, but I was eight and children aren’t logical.
I grew up in a very conservative household in a very conservative school and church environment. I developed early, suddenly sprouting breasts while I was still a child. These two facts together meant I was taught from a very early age about modesty. Keeping myself covered so that I didn’t attract attention to my body. My mother dutifully explained the basics of my anatomy, of what was happening to my body and why and the very simplest version of what sex was. (I didn’t believe her for a while. I remember feeling bad that she would tell me such a weird lie because it made me feel gross to think about it.) I continued to take record-breaking showers, convinced that the man with the blue eyes was only more interested now.
It was several more years before I learned the words for what exactly I was afraid of. I knew that I was afraid of men, but I couldn’t name my fears – of sex, of being raped or molested, of lewd remarks, of stares that made me feel dirty. And as I grew, a rising fear that my own body would betray me. I was weighed down with the heaviness of it. Sick with the shame of having breasts.
It wasn’t as though it was all I thought about. I played and read and sang and did my homework. But at night in my bed I would pray, “God, I know I told a lie today, but I’m sorry. Please don’t let me get raped.” It wasn’t exactly that I thought God would punish me for bad behavior by letting me be raped. I just thought maybe if I didn’t behave well enough, I couldn’t guarantee that he would protect me.
I lived a relatively privileged life and still, there were years I spent in daily fear that I would be harmed, simply because I was a girl-child. I grew up looking at my body with shame and with fear of what it might possibly attract. And I never understood this as being fundamentally wrong. It was just the way the world was.
I am a feminist because I don’t think little girls and grown women should live in fear of their own bodies, afraid that they might attract violence simply because of their anatomy. I am a feminist because I believe that women should be free from the fear of bodily harm, of discrimination, of social injustice, and of inequality in all of its forms.
But I am also a feminist because I believe men should be free from the stereotype that they are some sort of sexual animals, always poised to attack. Men should be free of having genuine kindness towards women judged as an action with ulterior motive. And men, too, should be free from the fear of any form of bodily harm, discrimination, social injustice, or inequality.
I don’t particularly like the word “feminist” because I think it’s too small of a word. It doesn’t reach far enough. I am a feminist, but not because I only believe in equality for women. Equality cannot be FOR someone at the expense of someone else. I am a feminist because I believe in the right of every human being to have equal access to health care, education, job opportunities, adequate food, clean water, adequate shelter, and freedom from bodily harm. I am a feminist because I believe in fighting for and insisting upon equality for all who are marginalized, be they women, minorities, orphans, the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, or anyone else who is treated as less than a valued human being by society.
I want to delve into all of that. But right now, I want to acknowledge where it started for me. I am a feminist because 8-year-old little girls should be able to take baths without being afraid.
* American Girl is a popular brand of historical books, (highly overpriced) dolls, clothes and accessories wildly popular with the 10 and under crowd when I was in elementary school. In fact, they are still fairly popular. I had Felicity, in case you were wondering.