The First Time
December 9th, 2018
I was eleven years old. It was a year of firsts -- I had been given my own set of keys to the apartment, and I was walking home alone from school; I was experimenting with training bras, and I was finally getting out of my strictly pants-only closet. My mother had convinced me to wear a dress for picture day. I groaned the whole time I was getting dressed that morning, doing my best to hide how excited I was to wear it. I thought of myself as a nerd, with my glasses and typical T-shirt/jeans/ponytail-for-convenience style, but in my brand-new dress, I felt pretty. Throughout the day I got surprised compliments from all my friends and even a teacher, and with every one I glowed.
My dress was soft, thin, and dark blue, cut in a close crew neck and still smelling like flowery fabric softener even after a day of wearing it. The little white string to tie around my waist matched my knee-high socks. I was wary of the skirt’s length at first, as it didn’t even go to my knees, but I grew more comfortable as the day went on. It swished when I walked. With each step, I turned my head slightly so that my ponytail would swing side to side.
I was proud that, although I was only in sixth grade, my parents thought I was responsible enough to walk the two miles home all by myself. I didn’t know the names of the streets I went down, but I kept track of where I was going with landmarks. I turned left when I reached the clothing store, Something Else on Smith. I was halfway home after crossing the Gowanus Canal, and two-thirds of the way there once I stopped smelling it. At Court Street Pastries I was just three blocks away, and that’s when I heard voices.
I glanced over my shoulder to see a group of teenage boys half a block back, all wearing hoodies and half a foot taller than me. I tried to count them in my head, but I didn’t get past six before one of them smiled. He called something out that I didn’t hear, and one of his friends whistled at me. Gripping the straps of my backpack with white knuckles, I smiled nervously and kept walking. It was the kind of whistle you hear on television, the one that the boys give the cheerleaders when they bend over. I thought it was a compliment and grinned to myself, until the same boy who’d yelled before called out something else. I couldn’t make out anything he said, except for the word bitch. Alarms went off in my head. I knew what that word meant. I heard laughter. I started running. I didn’t look behind me for a moment, and didn’t stop until I was in front of the door to my building. I fumbled for my shiny new keys and unlocked the door as fast I could, then leapt inside and slammed it shut even faster.
I bent over, panting with my hands on my bare knees, my lungs empty, and my mind a jumble of fear and confusion. I stayed doubled over and looking with my head between my legs for a long time. I don’t remember when I got up, but I didn’t move until I was absolutely certain that the boys were gone, that they hadn't followed me home. I stood up, took a shaky breath, and climbed the stairs to my apartment. I felt safer, but the uneasiness hadn't left me. The funny thing was, the more I thought about it, the sillier it seemed. Why was I so scared? Were they even talking to me? They were probably just goofing off. What had just happened?
No one was home yet, so I walked alone to my room. I put my backpack on the floor and stood there staring at my reflection for a long time. The dress and stockings mostly hid my long, twig-like legs. My shoulders were covered by the tightly fitted sleeves. The straps of the bra I didn’t even need weren't showing. My green eyes looked unnaturally wide, shell-shocked. My face looked like a child’s, though I guess from the back…
I told myself nothing had happened. I was being paranoid; I had to get over it. I was embarrassed about what had happened and embarrassed about how I’d reacted, so I said nothing to my parents. They didn’t need to know. There was nothing to know. I took off my dress and crumpled it in my hands, stuffing it into the back of my closet with a resolution to force the incident from my mind. I didn’t like wearing dumb dresses, anyway. I changed into a T-shirt and jeans and put on a sweater, because I was suddenly getting chills.
That was the first time, but it definitely wasn’t the last. As I grew up and got more comfortable with my body, with wearing shorts that go above my knees and leaving my shoulders bare, it seemed like everyone else did, too. Older men look me up and down on the subway and smile, and even in my own neighborhood or near my school I get whistles or comments on what a “pretty girl” I am. I've heard men say “is she even legal?” in reference to a subway ad for lingerie. I've heard “she was fourteen but she looked eighteen” once in person, and that’s far too many.
I’m fourteen now, and no longer a sixth-grade girl running home from school in fear. I may be three years closer to legality, but I am still a child. I am less afraid than I am disgusted, but I'm disgusted that I still have to be afraid if I'm outside and alone. There was a time when I might’ve thought it flattering, but I understand now that it’s not flattery when a fully grown man says I look older than I am, or stares at me and licks his lips. It is weird when someone I don’t even know tells me I have great legs or a swimmer’s body or anything about my body, actually. Catcalling is not a compliment. No eleven-year-old girl—nor anyone else, for that matter—should walk down the street in fear because she’s wearing a dress.