The Flasher or Why I am a Feminist

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.

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10 comments

  1. I love this. Love, love it. I said (in my head) a big Amen! at the end. I must say I am slightly terrified of ever having a daughter. There is such a delicate balance in parenting. I, too, feel like I have been deeply impacted (negatively) by things that were said to me with good intentions, for my protection. I would never want to put THAT (the fears you experienced, the twisted truths I believed) on another human being.

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    1. Oh man, I know exactly what you mean about parenting. I wrote a post about it awhile back (The one about catching the Anti-Baby Bug) and a lot of my conclusions came from the same place. I have really great, incredibly selfless and well-meaning parents, and I STILL struggle so much with brokenness from the way I was raised. I often think for those reasons alone, I’m not sure I want to have children because I am sure I would damage in some way. I am terrified of having a daughter, because of what she might learn from me. But I am maybe more terrified of having a son. Everyone says if they are your children you grow to love them in every stage they are in, but there is a part of me that fears I would be disgusted by my own 15-year-old son. I don’t know if I would have what it takes to help him navigate all of that and become a good, gentle man. I don’t know if I would be afraid, even of him, as he grew bigger and stronger than me. I know that this fear is sort of discounting the grace of God over both my parenting and over the child, but these are fears I have as well. And honestly, I think more people should weigh heavily what it means to be responsible for another person – not just providing for their physical needs, but shaping them emotionally and spiritually and all of that – before deciding to have kids.

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  2. I had a similar experience when I was 15. I didn’t leave my house for a month after that except with my parents. So much emotional turmoil so someone can fulfill a sick fantasy. Sorry that happened to you.

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    1. I am so sorry that that happened to you. The thing that really sticks with me as an adult is how many girls and women have had some kind of experience like this that made them believe, through no fault of their own, that it wasn’t safe for them to be a girl. I share this story particularly because I was privileged to grow up in a “safe” environment, and this is still my story. And there are millions of girls who grow up in much worse environments. Sexual violence and violence towards women is a problem and it is a problem everywhere – in Africa and India and Saudi Arabia, but also in America, in our neighborhoods, even in our churches.

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      1. I grew up in a very conservative christian home as well. I still love my parents very much and I feel they did an awesome job raising my older brother, myself, and my younger sister. I was about to say “Things weren’t ‘perfect’, but then nothing is.” , but then I just started thinking … well actually I guess I did picture that things WERE perfect (even with my parents not making much money, and my having to share a room with both siblings). As a sheltered kid… you don’t know any better… my parents didn’t talk to me about sex as I was growing up. I remember watching a tv news report which must have been talking about how someone had been raped, but what I took from it was that someone had had sex… and that now the police were trying to find them! so… sex was illegal, or something.

        That’s what I took from it. I also had grown up with the typical, “Now… it is sinful if you look at a girl’s body like this… don’t lust.. don’t stare… don’t think about it, because that’s just as bad as committing adultery (Matt 5:27-28)” etc etc. This message is ground pounded into the minds of young Christian boys. Don’t do this.. it’s a sin.. .don’t do that.. and I took it all to heart, like the good boy that I was! I remember purposefully focusing on a girl’s eyes (if anything) as I would walk past her… hoping that she would somehow understand telepathically that I was putting all this effort to show her respect. I would never look at a girl’s chest, crotch, etc because I got the message from Sunday school repeated over and over into my psyche. Wasn’t going to happen!

        I became afraid of vaginas… as they seemed to represent everything that I was meant to abstain from at all costs. It caused me to develop a complex… when I got married at the age of 27, I couldn’t get aroused from my wife’s vagina or to the thought of actually having missionary / “normal” sex with her. There had been so much stress, fear, anxiety built up around a girl’s private parts, that I didn’t know how to get aroused by them in the proper way.

        I had seen porn as a teenager, and I was able to satisfy my mischievous desires there…. and I think that became part of it… things needed to feel more mischievous in order for me to become aroused. I felt so much guilt whenever I’d masturbate to any thought. Guilt, shame, guilt, shame, distorted view of the other gender, fear of the other gender… and the list goes on… this totally sounds like the work of the enemy! I am able to see this better now as a 31 year old, but I struggled with all these feelings for basically all my life.

        What I am merely trying to put forward by revealing so much… is that… little boys, even “good-natured” boys… can develop self-esteem issues, complexes about their bodies, guilt/shame complexes which scar them and affect their entire outlooks on life. Reading about how much pain that I, as a representative of the worst of the worst… a white, middle-class male… have caused… is exhausting, and I wish I could hug everyone’s pain away… or let them all hit me until they felt better.

        I’m not some great guy (although my fiance lovingly sees me as one, bless her heart), but I’m also not “the bad guy”.

        I am fired up about being a parent. I am going to air on giving my kids too much information, rather than too little. I’m going to let them make their own mistakes early and later on as well so that I can talk with them as a fellow broken person. I want the opportunity to be a father for a little boy… so that I can let him know that he doesn’t need to feel shame about looking at a female… God honestly made us to appreciate and be amazed by women. I absolutely believe that humankind, being made in His image, is His crowning achievement… and that of that “crown”.. that women specifically were the shiniest jewels on that “crown”. (I just came up with this analogy.. it’s not something I have every said before.. but I view women this way.. that they are truly the very best of what God has made.) And after God made everything, he would stop for a second and acknowledge how freaking awesome they all were… all this to say… that women truly are worth admiring, big time… and that my hypothetical future son will hopefully be able to see women in this same way.

        And I hope that I have a daughter, as well, so that I can teach her to respect herself… and so I can discover, in a new way, how little I know about women… but also, to have the opportunity to love a little girl and teach her how to be loved properly. I know I won’t be able to do everything that I hope to… I’m certain that I’m going to give my future children scars that they’ll carry their entire lives and that I’ll need to live with that. And I hope to teach them how to be able to handle hurt, pain, disappointment and a myriad of other intense experiences… and to be able to continue on by the grace of God.

        And lastly, I hope to be able to teach my children how to laugh and find humor in the midst of sorrow. Much as I am right now… whilst in the sorrow of imagining all the poopy diapers I’ll have to change. 😉

        There’s never us and them… or us vs them. There’s only us… all of us.

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      2. This is really beautiful and compelling. Thank you for being so open and for sharing this. My husband has expressed some of what you’ve shared here as well – so much shame surrounding what are normal, even healthy, sexual desires and so much energy spent suppressing or ignoring these that it was hard to experience them as they were meant to be at the proper time.

        I think your dreams for your future and your family are admirable and beautiful. I think it fits into what I talked about at the end of this piece – “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 love the world you are dreaming into being for your children.

        This has given me some thing to think about and I really appreciate you sharing this.

        Blessings,
        Lily

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  3. Such a good post Lily! I hate that you went through such a traumatizing event like that! I resonate so much with a lot of what you say because I’m always trying to explain to my husband why I don’t feel safe going on a walk by myself in my own neighborhood or to the nearby pond even during the day. I always tell him that he doesn’t know what it feels like to grow up as a girl and therefore always feel like a target for violence.

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    1. Exactly. I hate playing the “You’re a man so you can’t understand” card as I am sure there are pressures and fears we don’t understand about men, but it’s hard to convey what it’s like to feel threatened or even just uncomfortable going about your daily life just because you are a woman.

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