Sexual Harassment, A Way of Life in the 80s
I grew up in a Catholic school during the 80s. Girls, then, protested the bias and unfair treatment at our school because boys could wear any color dress shirt and tie, but girls had to wear skirts and only white blouses. We had our female rebels, and rebellion is a natural part of a young teen’s development anyway. So why thwart it?
The deeper meaning that I never got was that girls were constantly harassed by boys pulling up skirts, snapping bras and using sexist comments on the girls. At this time, few thought of wearing shorts under their skirts. They simply wore underwear.
I remember thinking how difficult it must be for girls to sit with their legs together all day. The moment one girl forgot, everyone was looking, sometimes the teachers would, too. It became clear to me that part of the rebellion was a call to action by these young ladies: “We want to be ourselves, but we want to be safe.”
Adult Ownership of Young Girl’s Bodies
Over 35 years later, not much has changed. Girls are still being unfairly targeted by some adults, administrators, and school systems as if they are the problem. Sasha-Ann Simons reports that African American girls are targeted more than their white sisters for any kind of dress infraction at schools. It has gotten so bad that girls needed to officially protest.
A few years prior, a Nation article notes that girls were tired of how others accuse them of indecency when those imposing on them are often the ones with lecherous thoughts. The scary thing about all of this is that in a culture with a brutal history of slavery, keeping black girls’ bodies controlled was a priority, as was keeping black men from white women.
If you were a white man, rape of a black girl was not seen as rape. It becomes all too clear that both our desire to control the way girls look and our Puritan history, where any nudity or showing of skin is seen as evil, is still haunting girls’ closets, dressing rooms, and store shelves. It’s also trampling on their self-worth.
The obsession our culture has on what girls wear, even beyond the schoolhouse, is all about the control and ownership of girls’ bodies.
The Threat of the New Strong Girl: Breckynn Willis
Then we have Breckynn Willis, a 15-year old girl that was disqualified after winning a swim meet because her buttocks were showing. In reading this story, the whole thing became more outrageous and bizarre. Apparently, an official thought the teen “rolled up” the rear part of her swimsuit to expose more than the allotted amount of rear exposure.
In looking at the diagram of the what a proper suit looks like, I felt more like I was looking a diagram of a NASA spacecraft. Here are a bunch of officials in a room obsessing over what a minor girl’s rear should look like in competition. Maybe the ones with the problem are the adults, not the kids.
Breckynn’s mother that said the suit looks like a 1940s or 50s throwback where no skin whatsoever is allowed to show.
Gymnastics can be worse. The girls are forced to glue their leotards on their buttocks, and they face the same obsessive scrutiny as if none of us ever saw a rear-end before. Will we all turn to stone if we see something we’d see if on a beach?
Fearing Girl Power and Attraction
The whole thing makes me wonder. Are we watching swimming or gymnastics or are we eyeing each child to see if we can find an inkling of skin, something, anything to disqualify and humiliate them?
Maybe such rules are an excuse to look at young girls while claiming the moral high ground. Such is not unknown to psychology. Those that advocate against something sometimes turns out to like that very something.
It turns out that Breckynn did not roll up her suit. Her body was simply shaped that way. She was over-sexualized by the official. What’s concerning is that creating such skin taboo may do more to commodify young girls on the black market than keep them from it.
It’s well known in taboo studies that the more we limit something the more people desire it. Such may explain that despite law enforcement’s efforts to limit child pornography, the crime is growing. So many of the offenders I spoke with said they looked at such images because they needed a thrill, and taboos drive that thrill. However, suppressing girls’ natural physical and emotional development is a form of control.
Why the obsession over what girls wear? Where is this intense panic and fear coming from? I think adults are behaving badly. We must remember that adults have total control over kids, so kids really don’t have any rights. A strong female swimmer challenges such control.
Protection an Excuse for Girls’ Oppression
I am going to say something rather outrageous for many, but please bear with me. So what if a bunch of teen girls roll up their swimsuits or if we see a rear-end or a body part. That is natural behavior. So what if the girls at Catholic school roll up their skirts when they leave home and roll them down when they walk home, something I witnessed every day when waiting for a train.
In fact, I witnessed this same behavior for nearly 40 years. Women I’ve asked say that when girls do this, they are not trying to impress boys or some older man. They are simply showing off to their friends. They are growing up, and they need to learn about their bodies, what they look good in, and what they don’t.
It’s not about such behavior being inappropriate. The behavior is appropriate for most adolescents and teens. What is inappropriate is when adults use what we call in therapy distorted thinking to shame girls and to over-sexualized them. It’s not about how girls behave; it’s about giving them a safe space so that they can develop and grow without harassment from adults.
There is a difference between modesty and shame, and we live in a shame culture when it comes to seeing girls’ bodies. We cover our bodies because of shame, not because we are modest, and modesty is a personality trait, not a value. Consider this, many people don’t like those little girls or older girls wear tights. I have even heard some rally against the clothing noting that they can see everything on the woman’s or child’s body.
The Invisible Boy and Too Visible Girl
If we look at boys, we could easily say the same thing. In dance, boys are often shirtless and wear very tight tights. They run around communities shirtless, with nipples showing, nothing but swim trunks. Everything is in plain view, yet I have never ever heard a single complaint about this. Have you ever watched guys on a swim team get out of the water? A lot meets the eye.
Yet, if a mini-dancer shows her belly button or wears black lace, we fear that a 1 million-man army of pedophiles is going to show up and take over the world. I call this the “pedophile default.” We blame a despised population in order to cover our own behaviors.
Yet, even with pedophilia, leading experts like Michael Seto notes in his book that many more like boys over girls, and those that like boys are at much higher risk to offend.
And this is exactly what happened with YouTube. Back when there were comments, many men were making sexual comments about little girls. In one video of a 10-year old female gymnast, many were hitting on this kid and making X-rated comments. Others started calling them pedophiles. The one man wrote, “Everyone keeps calling us pedophiles, but the truth is we’re not.”
That really stuck with me, because, though there is no justification for making such comments to kids, I think we turn to pedophilia, or what we all see as “sick” or “evil” when we don’t know or don’t want to face a more fearful reality.
Girls’ Image and the Teachable Moment
Maybe our real fear about minors and dress codes and minors’ racy attire is that we will find them attractive. That gymnast? Her channel was banned. The only thing showing was her feet. The harassing guys stayed. She commented in another video that she lost everything, every memory from 4-10 years old because she was being bullied. Though she got the channel back after 10 agonizing days, the damage had already been done. She no longer posted. She had a quarter-million followers.
Such was even more solidified to me when I showed a young girl in a rather provocative bikini and asked my students what they thought about the image. A student from Nigeria told me, “Oh, no, she cannot wear that.” I asked her why. She said, “She cannot wear that because the bikini makes her look sexy, and she is too young to look that sexy.”
What I valued in that comment was that it’s nothing an American would have said about a 9-year old girl. We would have said the image was “sick” and should be illegal (it is not, by the way), and that only pedophiles or old sick men would like it. But that is not the truth because such imagery is way too popular across much of the world for it to appeal to only 2%.
We want to control girls because we fear them. We mistake normal development with bad behavior and we fail to distinguish sexuality from over sexualization: from the time they can walk and talk, kids play at being adult.
This includes kids trying to look like adults. It includes them exploring their bodies, what looks good on them, and, yes, defying those darn ghostly Puritan ideals and those adults that treat them inappropriately.
Let Kids Play Adult in Safe Spaces
I think recognizing that young girls or boys can be pretty or even attractive is not a crime or a disorder. It is human nature. This culture has always denied nature in favor of an artificial reality that may appear safer but is far more dangerous.
Youth can be beautiful, but many are terrified and conflate this with child abuse. There is a difference in acknowledging a person’s qualities, whether physical or psychological and over sexualizing them.
Kids will always be kids. Maybe it’s about time that adults start acting like adults. Adults should provide kids with a safe space so that kids can learn to play and compete as adults. That’s what being a kid is all about.
Feature photo: Breckynn Willis, Courtesy photo.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.