Is it really new news that women are being sexually coerced and harassed at work? I’m glad that people are finally waking up to this and declaring their solidarity and support (AKA men). Because women and trans people have been dealing with this forever. Yes, we know it goes on, in most every industry. It’s not only people in brightly lit hotel rooms smelling like the Academy Awards. It’s nearly everywhere.
When I lived in Santa Cruz, California I was sexually harassed almost whenever I went downtown. I would stroll down Pacific Avenue, sunlight in my hair, smelling like ylang ylang or sandalwood, in my tank top with my tight muscles. I got whistled at; I got too many strange, unsolicited comments. “Smile, honey” was shouted at me more than once. I smiled sometimes, certainly (before the command to do so, not after). That’s kind of my baseline, grinning at strangers. It’s where I’m getting the creases on my face, near my eyes. But for these dudes standing on street corners, it was not enough.
I was waiting at the bus stop near the Food Bin, a natural foods store I liked to frequent. Three dirty, wiry older men approached me. They smelled like musty beer and old smoke, the usual things. I felt my heart turn busy, sharp. I was alone and it was night. I was sweating, of course, but pretended I wasn’t. I’ve done that countless times since— it’s what we do as women, in all kinds of ways.
I looked them in the eye, just like I had been taught to do from my self-defense instructor. She had been attacked on a street much like this, not far from where I was standing. An acquaintance—a dear friend of my dear friend, Maya—had recently been drugged and raped by a guy she just met who said to her, “This drink is going to blow your mind.” They had been flirting, she liked him.
One of the men crept up close, putting his face near my face. I made my body as big as five-foot-four-and-a-half can get, while moving slowly towards the streetlight. “Are you scared?” He circled me. Staring me down. The other men watched, jeering. “Leave me alone” shouted a voice that sounded like someone else’s. One of the other guys hissed, “Chill, girl. You should chill.” They kept walking.
Those men probably never thought about that moment again. I thought about it every time I stood at a bus stop, whenever I was walking by myself after dark. When I first moved to Santa Cruz, I tromped a mile through the woods to McHenry Library without a thought, even past midnight, my headphones blasting Ani DiFranco. After living there less than a year, I learned it was safer to study at a tiny white dormitory desk, preferably alone, in my room.
So many women have endured far worse.
All of this causes me to worry deeply about what it will be like for E. as she gets older, when she gets out more in the world on her own.
Walking down the street, making friends, getting a job, and eventually, dating—she will face judgement and sometimes, discrimination.
My daughter has a unique face. It seems clear to me that she has a genetic difference, but maybe, depending on the light, angle and Instagram filter, she can sometimes pass as a typical kid. I know she’s beautiful, she’s amazingly beautiful. Her easy toothy smile, her gentle, blue-grey eyes. People often say to me—countless checkout clerks and strangers in parking lots, “She looks sleepy.” But no, that’s just her eyes. That’s the way that they are.
It’s probably best to keep comments about other people’s appearance to minimum. Just in general. Unless it’s an undeniable compliment, and even then, if it’s a stranger, tread lightly.
I’m fully onboard, theoretically. My girl’s got her own look and that’s okay. In fact, that’s awesome. My daughter is a badass and an iconoclast without even trying to be. That’s my favorite type of person. I don’t know if the world needs another white girl that looks like Barbie (but if you look like Barbie, you’re beautiful, too. I’m not here to judge anyone).
And sometimes it still feels heavy, even though I don’t want it to. I know that E. will stand out, yet not in the ways that I thought she might. The feeding tube, her funky swagger (from her orthotic ankle braces), her eyes that have half of Minnesota thinking that she needs a nap.
You can say that doesn’t really matter what someone looks like, but then, really? Can you prove that? In terms of access, of privilege?
How about for a person of color in America right now. Because people are being terrorized—yes, terrorized in our country—not actually because of how they look, but because some people are racist. Utterly racist. Which of course is based on looks. At the drugstore, driving to work. Being pulled over, searched, arrested. Threats—and the reality of, deportation. Look at the statistics of who is in jail and tell me that it doesn’t matter what you look like.
All of this cannot change fast enough. We need to make it better, together. There’s so much work to do.
Regardless, my daughter E., who lives with a disability, will someday be a woman. Which means she’s going to have to fight for everything she will ever have.
Except for my love.
I will love her in the way that she deserves to be loved. With pride and appreciation for her deep, bantam, one-of-a-kind beauty.
It’s not easy; it’s a tough world out there. But my baby, she’s brave and she’s gorgeous. Inside and out.