Every time I hear a story about a young girl engaged in risky behaviors, I feel an urge to reach her in some way. Anecdotes about my past and the hard lessons I learned about womanhood and self-love always swell just behind my teeth, awaiting the brain signal that would springboard them from my tongue or inspire me to pen an open letter to the young women my grandmother would’ve call “fast girls.” Only, the world doesn’t really need any more open letters, and I’d rather be more of an advocate than a mentor for those girls. That works for me because I was once a “fast girl” myself, hurtling toward an uncertain future at warp speed.
Mini memoir of a Warp Speed Girl:
I survived Washington, D.C. in the ’90s with all of my fingers and toes, no crack addiction (if you grew up in Washington, D.C. during that time you’d know that this was no small feat), and no chronic or incurable illnesses. What I do have is a chemical batch of craziness that trickled down from my father’s side of the family tree like sugar maple sap. Other than that, I’m OK. I even managed to get hitched and give birth to a strapping boy with a penchant for video games, pizza, and Regular Show. So why revisit my past at all? Because under all my layers of spackled-on adulthood, I’m still bothered to my bad-girl core by what young girls have to contend with today. I’m especially bothered by this:
We still don’t explain sex to girls in a holistic way, and we barely explain it to boys at all.
While it’s true that most millennials who attended public school likely sat through talks on the mechanical functions of their anatomy, enduring shoddy videos in which teens with bad hair held hands and stared deep into each other’s eyes while the narrator explained that what they were feeling was “natural” and brought on by their “changing bodies.”
What those videos don’t explain is what peeing after an episiotomy feels like. Or about how a video or picture sent to a first love can easily end up on a revenge porn site. When I was in school, we didn’t delve into any discussions on body shaming or self-worth at all. In all fairness, the first on that list is not that important, but the last bit? That needs to be in every pamphlet.
By the time I was eleven I did not like my body, teeth or hair. My glasses and large feet were also vexations for me. The more my body changed, the more I was consumed with an overwhelming desire to feel comfortable in my own skin. These feelings are important for me to admit, because these insecurities founded my severe case of body envy which later caused me to seek ways to compensate for my looks. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t called unattractive at home. But outside those walls I faced a lot of scrutiny, and I think this is true of most girls. And because I was a quiet girl who grew up with five siblings, my family missed any signs that would’ve told them that I was in search of validation. Signs that a young girl is searching for praise and acceptance are not always easy to spot, which brings me to my next point.
We don’t talk to girls until after we notice their behavioral problems.
You may think the girl trying to wear press-on nails at seven, the girl who’s rolling her shirt up to show her midriff, lip syncing and dancing to her favorite music videos in her vanity mirror–you think that’s the kid who’s going to have some problems. But I wasn’t that way at all. I was getting good grades, playing advanced flute, and wearing fanny packs and pigtails as I rode a bike with tassels on the handlebars. But, I was still curious about sex. If anything, I’d say I was sheltered. After all, my most malleable years were spent in a household where sex and sexuality were only discussed in the context of marriage or what was considered indecent or haram.
Despite being a black Muslim kid, my scenario at home wasn’t particularly unique. In The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, author Joan Jacobs Brumberg talks about the current disconnect between daughters and mothers in the Western world, and how that divide has grown from crack to chasm in a short span of time, tempered by what she refers to as Western civilization’s adoption of a Victorian set of ideas that stemmed from the period’s interpretation of religious literature. These were ideas which, in short, were put in place to foster girls from “menarche to marriage” without any mayhem in between.
Since women were already exclusively relegated to the task of monitoring their budding daughters, the way that role metastasized over time in the face of stricter societal standards for women eventually put mothers at odds with their own daughters. This is from centuries of women absorbing the rhetoric from male-driven teachings that cast a negative light on sex and changes to the female body, thus making it difficult for mothers–and fathers–to have meaningful discussions with their daughters. Proof of that damaging rhetoric, one that says…
- sex is dirty and unforgivable for girls
- therefore girls who engage in sex early are dirty and unforgivable
- so we might as well use and condemn them for the sexual objects they purport to be…
…is still in use today. It’s actually the skeletal structure for today’s rape culture in America, but that’s a post for another day.
It’s also true that some parents are just busy. (My hope is that every parent of a little girl will un-busy themselves after they read this, though.) I’m the middle child in a lineup of six children. There was always a lot going on in my household, but between riding my bicycle and reading Chronicles of Narnia books, it would have been helpful for someone to sit me down and explain some of the racy things I was seeing, hearing and feeling. Maybe twenty minutes is all it would’ve taken to arm me with the tools my young mind needed to understand that a nineteen year old boy was not supposed to be my “Secret Touch Boyfriend” when I stayed at my mother’s friend’s home at ten years old. Perhaps a check-in from a responsible adult could’ve buttressed me with the confidence and savvy I needed to help me understand that waiting for me to turn fourteen to have sex with me was not, in fact, a chivalrous thing for a 23-year old man to do. But, that line between predator and prince was never drawn for me.
In truth, we see girls being exploited and accept it as a cultural norm.
If a young girl dresses in a way most deem risque, is vocal about her sexual exploits and enjoys multiple partners most of the time, she becomes a girl who ceases to be regarded as a child. Further, she’s likely to be demonized for behaviors she exhibits but may not fully understand yet. So, she simply becomes the fast girl on the block, and the girl no respectable mother allows her daughters to associate with because they feel she is deserving of all the consequences that come with her choices. But what if that girl is twelve? Thirteen? Our tendency to project adulthood onto female children just because they engage in irresponsible behaviors is a societal failure.
We condemn girls without trying to understand what they may have been through.
I don’t believe girls leave the womb with the intention to sell themselves, reveal themselves, and give themselves freely for the purpose of filling a void. That cannot be true because you can’t fill a void that isn’t there yet. Molestation. Rape. Body envy. Mental health issues. Peer expectations and participation. Absentee parents. Abuse. Any one of these things–or a cocktail of them– could steer a girl toward mismanaging her sexual appetite and emotional needs. I say all this in defense of fast girls, or rather, in explanation of them.
Many young girls want to be like the women who we celebrate most.
A woman choosing to become a sexual actor in her world is not surprising. We live in an image-driven society, and some women choose to use overt expressions of their femininity as they would any other resource. And though the latter is a decision women tend to execute when they’ve reached physical maturity, the ideas that influence that choice is formed far beforehand. It’s learned behavior. Unfortunately, while little girls are working out what it means to be young women they often find themselves caught up in a whirlpool of mixed messages. While there were aspects of my childhood that made it hard for me to understand that I actually had a say in my corporeal purpose and ownership of my body, even girls who didn’t experience the trauma that I did can still get caught in a similar cycle of self abuse if they feel like no one’s on their side.
So my call to action is simple and based upon what I’ve seen and what I now realize I truly needed back then. Talk to these girls. And when you talk to them, don’t do it in a voice that makes them feel like you’re fresh from the convent. Don’t use shame as a tool. Remorse for self-harm and destructive behavior is natural, but don’t push it on them as the suggested vehicle for their reform. Instead, offer attaining self-purpose and value as a goal to pursue and assure them that those goals are in reach despite what they’ve endured. Be the dissenting voice against a world full of girls, boys, men, and even women who often collectively categorize our most vulnerable, misled girls as trash. As unworthy. As unloved and incapable. They’re not. I certainly wasn’t.
“I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories… water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.”
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés,