The Thread: Grown-Up Little Girls

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When I was a child, I was often told by well-meaning adults that I was wise beyond my years. I think it was a compliment. They meant I was mature, or that I didn’t seem nine years old.

I read a lot. I think that was part of my perceived maturity. I read mostly adult fiction, smutty romances and thrillers when I could get my hands on one without too scandalous a cover. Danielle Steele when I couldn’t. Dean Koontz for the suspense of information, the creeping feeling of tiny white hairs on the back of my body suddenly alert. I had this vocabulary, and  sense of self. I had a way of being charming and funny (though really, my younger brother was much funnier than I was and always got all the credit). I lived inside the word “precocious.” I heard it a lot, and I was it a lot. And I thought it had everything to do with Mary Poppins, and nothing at all to do with sex. What did I know; I was nine.

I was a little girl and all I wanted was to grow up.

Now I’m grown, and I’ve been told by culture at large that my goal should be the opposite. Girlish figure, youthful skin, age-defying beauty. I’m thirty-eight years old, and I’ve internalized the idea—a male-gaze measure—that I am “too old” for mini skirts, over the knee boots, fast fashion. I look at my face and notice the fine lines.

And even though I was looking for it, I passed my moment—that brief, impossible moment when I was not too young to have sex with, but young enough to pass for underage. I understood that once I passed that moment, I was forever on a downslope, shifting toward middle age invisibility, sailing off for my “last fuckable day,” as the Amy Schumer skit so aptly skewered it. Still, I perceive that I am less desired the older I become. I was too young for my own cognition before. It’s like I have never been right, never been acceptable, never been pleasing as is.

When I was younger, I wished to please men. I thought when I was older, I might know how.

I had breasts and hips before the end of elementary school, which mortified me but meant I was constantly mistaken for older. I wanted to be friends with the boys, same as ever. I wanted to fit in with them (I was the only girl). I wanted to pick scabs and catch footballs, ride skateboards and fart and laugh. I wanted to be the same as before, when we were all just children. But puberty is irreversibly cruel.

At the same time everything about me was going soft, the boys I’d palled around with for the previous decade (literally since we were babies in playgroups) were metamorphosing, too. They looked a lot the same to me, but they thought differently. All of a sudden, I was valuable not only as the girl, the only girl, or their friend, Marissa, but as a body to be touched, to be coveted, to be kissed. I was a prize to be won in a recess pickup game instead of a player. I was a trophy.

I suppose I found power in the trophy life. I believed that if someone wanted me, I had value. I trained all my instincts on capturing gazes, and eventually, I got pretty damn good at that game.

This meant that when I was twelve, and I had a “boyfriend” who was seventeen, who whispered in my ear about how I couldn’t be twelve because “you feel at least fifteen.” I believed him. I understood something—or thought I did—beyond my years.

I had been hearing that I was jailbait for years. When I think about jailbait, here is what I see: an old-timey jailhouse with bars around cells, and I, a teeny tiny worm tied in the middle of the room. Hooked on a line, maybe. I can’t see the detail. I think of fish bait, and a cartoon jail, and the word falls apart on me like nonsense.

But it wasn’t nonsense when they whispered it to me in the middle of my attempts at saying no, at having boundaries, at making my way out of bathrooms and back rooms—quiet places where men took me, caught me, found me, pinned me. Abandoned kitchens, guest rooms, pool houses, backyards.

I used to hear power in the word. Jailbait. Someone would want me so badly they’d risk jail? I was so attractive in some way, they’d risk jail to touch me? Jailbait nearly became a compliment. It nearly became an aspiration.

In my jailbait years, I cared so much what men thought of me. It felt like power to be wanted, desired by the men who’d run the world one day. I believed in the strong woman behind the man; I watched it happen domestically, in small ways, all of my life. The way my grandmother’s grace and beauty smoothed over my wealthy grandfather’s socially awkward demeanor. The way my mother steered our household. It was obvious to me that behind every powerful man was a brilliant woman, probably more brilliant, honestly. That every Bill had his Hillary. That every king had a scheming, vicious, whip-smart queen who really ran the world. The thing was, she ran it from the shadows, a Queen Margaret to his bumbling Henry VI. She was never allowed to step into the power position directly, not without punishment.

 

While I was not the first in my family to attend college, I was the first in my nuclear family to graduate. My mother went, but never finished; my dad was a tradesman. My school’s graduation speaker was Congresswoman Barbara Lee. I went to a women’s college, and my mother, thinking of my future and the speaker, said in the car on the way to the ceremony that I could even run for office one day.

I laughed, could barely believe what she was saying. Me, a congresswoman? No.

It wasn’t that I had no interest in politics, or that I didn’t think I could do the job. It was, as I told my mom, because I’d “done too many bad things.” I had skeletons in my closet, big ones. Drugs I’d done and men I’d had sex with. I was far from perfect. I could never put myself out there to be judged.

In the fifteen years since my college graduation, the thought has come to me again and again, no less in the past two years, with the Women’s March and the political climate and so many women running for office. Each time I consider it (or, someone asks me to consider it) I return to the same fear, the same refrain: I can’t, I’m too fucked up. I was mean. I’ve written too many mouthy feminist things. I assumed that everyone worried about their own indiscretions when they considered a career in public life.

Then Brett Kavanaugh happened. And before him, Donald Trump. And before him, Bill Clinton. And before him, Clarence Thomas. And that is just since the 1990s. American history is rapists all the way down, men whose sexually criminal behaviors amounted to nothing, hindered them in no way. Did any of them pause and wonder if the women they had harmed might come back to haunt them?

Among the many things that shattered in September 2018 was my belief that there was some standard to which people held themselves before becoming public figures. I was worrying about taking ecstasy and dancing at raves. Brett Kavanaugh and his ilk haven’t thought twice about their multiple sexual assaults.

 

I pull up an old photograph of myself: twenty-six and smiling. I don’t wish for a moment that I was her.

She worried all the time about being fat; she didn’t trust her own intelligence; she looked to men and male attention as a barometer of her worth. Twelve years, one pregnancy, and six homes later, I see myself in her face. But the outside doesn’t interest me the way it used to. Fuck anti-aging dogma and the idea that for a woman to get old “gracefully” she has to continue to look the same as she ever did. I’m not a sculpture. I care much more about whether or not I stay ferocious and thoughtful than I do about whether my fine lines show when I smile.

I still have ambition; sometimes I wish for power. As women, we’re usually told that power is youth and beauty. But when I had it, I felt like an object, like a toy whose only purpose was to bring a smile to the face of her male owners.

I wrote before about inhabiting a body that watches itself. I carry two identities around with me all the time: the me that is doing things, and the me that is judging how I look while doing things. It is my consciousness of the male gaze, my internalization of patriarchy. I walk into the room, and I see myself walking into the room. I wear the red dress, and I see myself wearing it. I age and I see myself aging, and I wonder what it means if men stop seeing me.

 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was called the “little girl with the big mouth.” A video of her as a teenager who dared to dance on a rooftop, swinging her hair, made national news. The Fox News crew calls her “Sandy,” a childlike nickname they hope will undercut her authority. For a few weeks in January, a fake nude photo of her circulated. Never mind that she walked her district for months, asking for votes from her neighbors while the incumbent she eventually took the seat from stayed comfortable at home. Now, as a congresswoman, she’s precocious with her big words and her big brain. She’s been told to “read an economics textbook,” despite majoring in the subject in college. She’s been told to listen to Aaron Sorkin of all people, the guy who writes television shows about politics, to respect his knowledge instead of her own. She’s referred to as “young lady” and “little girl” not only because she’s the youngest person in Congress, but because she is the youngest woman. The men would like to see her quiet. They’d like her to be seen and not heard.

Meanwhile, Brock Turner is a sad little boy who’s paid a steep price for his “twenty minutes of action.” Meanwhile, Brett Kavanaugh is just a college kid who likes a few brewskis. Meanwhile, boys will be boys.

Our politicians and pundits call women little girls to discredit them; they call men little boys to excuse them. And let me make it plain: it’s white men who get this infantilized forgiveness most of all. And men regain their adult, objective, powerful personhood as soon as they’re forgiven. Women strive to be taken seriously as powerful adults, but as children we were never presumed innocent. We’re jailbait, Lolitas, temptresses. We’re too convincing in perceived, precocious womanhood when we’re just children. There are swimming pools and splash pads that won’t allow girl children to swim or play with a bare chest, as if a toddler’s child body could be incitement. Once women pass the jailbait phase, we’re hysterical, impulsive little girls, whiny, bratty, undereducated, and in need of a “strong man” to guide us.

The philosopher Kate Manne coined a phrase for the “excessive or inappropriate sympathy extended to a male wrongdoer over his female victim. Himpathy describes a reversal of the flow of sympathy away from her, its proper object, up the social hierarchy to him, assuming that he is no less privileged given intersecting social factors.”

What did it do to my sense of self-worth, spending the first half of my life looking forward, then the second half looking back? When was my powerful moment—why did I think it was only a moment—and how did I not know it was happening when it happened? Was there a day, briefly shimmering, when I was exactly right? Or have I always been too old for my own good, or too young to be taken seriously?

To whom would I be asking those questions? If any man, or every man, is setting the bar for how we should be women, or girls—how we should look, check our power, curtail what we can say, do, or become—we’ll never get the answers we deserve.

As a girl, and as a woman, I have always wanted the same answer: I’m exactly right, right now. I’m defining just one of the countless ways to be a woman, to age, to appear, to exist, to have power, autonomy, authority. I don’t need permission. Little girls grow up, and we can grow out of the lies we were told.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.

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The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.


Marissa Korbel's writing has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch, and The Manifest-Station. She works as a public interest attorney supporting campus and minor sexual assault survivors. Marissa lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler. More from this author →