Opinion

I Was 10 Years Old the First Time I Got Catcalled

This piece was written by Solange Hacksaw, one of SPICY’s guest contributors. Solange is a student, poet, and writer whose identity as a Trinidadian immigrant informs much of how she sees the world. Coming from one of the most diverse islands in the Caribbean makes her even more passionate about diverse storytelling, cultural diffusion, and having empathy and understanding for those around her.

A few months ago, Calvin Klein recruited pop singer-songwriter Billie Eilish for their #MyCalvins campaign. Unfortunately, the ad has become another example of the age-old trope of sexualizing young girls.

Eilish revealed that she wears baggy clothes to prevent people from passing judgment on her body because they cannot judge what they cannot see. “Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath,” she says. “Nobody can be like, ‘she’s slim-thick,’ ‘she’s not slim-thick,’ ‘she’s got a flat ass,’ ‘she’s got a fat ass.’ No one can say any of that because they don’t know.”

Billie Eilish is 17 years old. Yet, I am still not surprised that these are fears that determine how she crafts her image. Her behavior is not a solution to the problem; it is an unfortunate symptom of it. 

I was catcalled for the first time when I was 10 years old. 

I was grocery shopping with my mother and I was wearing shorts, a tank top, and a short-sleeved hoodie. The man sitting on the curb decided that my clothes and prepubescent body were enough to pique his interest. 

I thought nothing of it at the time, besides having a strong desire to stay extremely close to my mother as we walked inside the store away from his winking eyes and kissing noises. That moment taught me that my body was not really my own. Yes, I have the choice to do and wear what I want, but being a woman comes with terms and conditions. It is a life where I can decide to wear shorts on a hot day, but I also have to deal with the fact that my choice can (and usually does) result in unwarranted attention from a 30-year-old man sitting outside a grocery store. 

I often wonder what it would be like to feel truly free in this world. I wonder what it would be like to be able to walk alone and night and enjoy the cool breeze on my skin and the look of the stars in the sky, instead of worrying whether or not I will make it home safely. I wonder what it would be like to wear my favorite dress and not have predatory stares coming at me as I walk down the street. 

Unfortunately, my story is more common than not. In 2015, women used the hashtag #FirstHarassed to recount the first time they experienced sexual harassment. Most of those experiences started during puberty, with some being as early as 8 years old.

A study by Cornell University and Hollaback, an anti-street harassment group, found that across 22 countries, 84% of women were harassed before the age of 17. More than half of those women also reported being groped or fondled. 

Moreover, in the United States, women of color—particularly brown and Black women—are more likely to experience street harassment and are more prone to violent instances of harassment. A survey by Stop Street Harassment found that an estimated 40% of Black women experience coercive contact of a sexual nature by age 18, and 1 in 3 Latinx women report sexual violence other than rape. 

I hate the fact that women are forced to be anything less than the full versions of themselves because of the patriarchal system we are born into and forced to navigate. 

When I think of Billie Eilish, I am reminded of how it is to navigate this world not only as a woman, but as a Black woman.  

I am reminded of Nipplegate, a public scandal that vilified Janet Jackson for a clothing accident carried out by Justin Timberlake, who unsurprisingly emerged unscathed and won a Grammy just a week later, while Jackson was banned from the ceremony. 

I am reminded of Amber Rose, Beyoncé, Serena Williams, and Laverne Cox—women whose bodies have been sexualized, criticized, and torn apart by the media and their white counterparts (more often than not, by the ones who ardently identify as feminists themselves). 

From the Hottentot Venus to today’s video vixens, the bodies of Black women have been simultaneously idolized yet demonized. Everyone wants the body of a Black woman, but no one wants to actually go through the world experiencing the struggles of a Black woman.

As a Black woman, you are not forgiven as easily for looking or acting a certain way. (Just this month, an American Airlines passenger was told to cover up her outfit for being “too revealing,” while a white woman passenger wore a similar thing.) Curves are commodified. Your outfit determines whether or not you are too ghetto, too bougie, or worthy of respect. Even your name can disqualify you from an employer’s applicant pool without a single look at your résumé. The list of microaggressions goes on and on. 

In the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, it is important to recognize the micro-level effects of a culture of sexualization. It manifests itself in little ways. We see the effects when a teenage singer feels the need to only wear baggy clothes so people can’t judge her body. We see it when a 10-year-old becomes a sexual object. We see it when girls are forced to become something they are not as an act of self-preservation.