My changing body made me the object of stares and comments from men far older than my father.
A wanton explosion of breasts and hips greeted me when I turned eleven. Everything that had been flat rounded itself with ruthless purpose until my new body, abundant with turgid flesh, became alien to me. I agonized over this changing body, which made me the object of prurient stares and moist comments from men far older than my father.
When I got home, wheezing and coughing as if I still had asthma, my mother met me at the door in a sleeveless, pink nightgown. Her fat, unsightly arms were crossed over her chest. “You should have stayed at home.” She turned her back and went upstairs before I could think of a response.
I rolled my eyes at a man who demanded, from across the street, that I should smile. “Fuck you, you ugly bitch,” he screamed in response. His fury streaked his face with different shades of red and the muscles in his neck bulged each time he opened his mouth to shriek at me. I hurried down the street so I could round the corner and disappear from his sight, but even with a street separating us, I could still hear him calling out his rage. When I reached the other street, I dipped my head to see if I was showing any cleavage or if my skirt was too short.
A man came up behind me at a crowded bar and slid his erection up and down my back. I threw a sharp elbow into his soft center. He dissolved into the crowd before I could even turn around to see his face. And then I thought to myself, I should have stayed home.
My mother faithfully listens to the sordid news so she can have the ugliness of the world confirmed and delivered with dispassionate precision by broadcasters crowned with inert hair. During broadcasts, she hears stories like:
An unidentified woman needed three blood transfusions after she was shot because she refused to have sex with DeMarcus Woods, thirty-four, an acquaintance who had given her a ride to buy diapers; five bullets hit her thigh, pelvis, and upper back.
Maren Sanchez, sixteen, was killed in her high school by her sixteen-year-old classmate after she refused his invitation to prom. He slashed her throat and body with a knife he brought from home before two teachers could disarm him.
My mother likes to tell me the banality of these stories compels mothers to teach their daughters how to be inconspicuous. It is what her mother taught her. It is what my great-grandmother taught my grandmother. Keep yourself safe by wearing clothes that are loose so that you won’t be a target. Don’t walk home by yourself late at night. Don’t go out late at night. Don’t talk to strange men at night or during the day. Be accommodating to men, but not too accommodating. These words are passed down from mother to daughter like precious heirlooms. It is the gift of fear. Unsaid, they are trying to teach their daughters how to make sure other girls and women are victims, girls whose mothers didn’t teach them how to hide in plain sight.
I tell my mother that this kind of thinking—that how we dress and where we walk will keep us safe—is nearly magical in its delusion. It is rubbing the belly of a bottle and expecting a genie to emerge. It is akin to believing in sorcery or love potions. But there is always someone who knows a person for whom a love potion worked, and there are always daughters mothers can point to who haven’t been hurt because they covered their knees and rested their chins upon their chests when they went out only during the day.
My mother and I were recently looking at old pictures and I came across a photo of me when I was eleven or so; I was startled by how young I looked. In my hazy childhood memories, I look much older, but in the slightly faded photographs I’m still soft in the middle and my face is round and guileless. And my breasts are much smaller than I remember. (Such tiny breasts, I marvel.) The pictures show the face and body of a child.
I try to imagine how the men who looked at me and said things to me could see anything but a child. And then I grow incredibly angry with my mother for all the times she warned me about how I should dress when my breasts were just tiny buds affixed to a body with a belly.
She must have sensed my seething anger because when she leaned over me, her heavy breast brushing my rigid arm, to look at the pictures she said, “When I was young . . .”
My mother drifted off, but I filled in the elision with ease. When she was young, she made a mistake. She deviated from what her mother had taught and she suffered for the one moment she was carefree. I can point out that people we know, and sometimes love, are far more likely to hurt us than strangers. I can tell her that what happened has nothing to do with her and everything to do with the man whose name she may not even know. But myths yield nothing to reason. And truly, what else can mothers do but arm their daughters with myths in a world in which they see, all around them, men ready to devour their young?
Naa Baako Ako-Adjei is a writer and educator living in the Washington, D.C. area. Her work has appeared in Gastronomica and Transition. Her essay, “Why It’s Time Schools Stopped Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird,” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.