My childhood was a bubble of femininity.
I am the oldest of four sisters. When I think of my childhood, I think about each of my sisters and their individual quirks. But I also think of us as one moody, stubborn and energetic unit. During every road trip, soccer game and bus ride to school, I could turn to find one of them next to me.
The bubble of my childhood was a place where nail polish dried on desks and walls — a symbol of clumsy hands. It smelled of the no-tear shampoo rubbed on my head while I sat in a yellow bathtub next to my sisters. It sounded like four sets of feet pacing in anticipation before being allowed to check under the tree on Christmas morning.
It was a safe place inside that bubble.
As we got older, the bubble tried to grow with us as we explored new experiences, whether they broke our hearts or warmed them. But bubbles are delicate and bound to pop.
When I was in middle school, mine burst.
A friend and I begged our parents to let us go to the movies by ourselves. They agreed, and drunk with newfound independence, we giggled our way through the lines to buy tickets and find seats in the theater.
As the theater’s lights dimmed, a man wearing a gray sweatsuit sat two seats away from me.
I didn’t start feeling sick until I saw the rustling near his crotch out of the corner of my eye. I heard muttered words like “hard,” “young” and “innocent.” I felt my face get red. I glanced over, and he was staring at me and my friend with a hungry glare in his eyes that I’d never seen before.
Paralyzed with fear and shock, I stared at the seat in front of me, waiting for him to stop. It felt like an eternity before he got up and left the theater — probably only about 10 minutes later. The movie played on, but I had one image in my mind: him.
Growing up in a house of four girls, there’s a lot to inherit — hand-me-downs, jewelry from older relatives and lessons. Lessons that every woman will come to know during her lifetime.
That day in the movie theater, I learned that being a girl is not always so cute, sweet and giggly. Sometimes, it’s downright terrifying.
And since my bubble burst, I’ve been reminded of that lesson time and time again.
When I walk past a group of men, I feel my chest tighten as I wait to be catcalled and demeaned. When a man whistles while I wait to cross the street, I feel my muscles tense. When he says, “C’mon gorgeous, smile more,” I clench my teeth. When he hurls the insult “Bitch” at my back as I ignore his invitation, I walk faster.
In all of those moments, I am the terrified, skin-and-bones girl sitting in the back of the movie theater who, for the first time in her life, felt completely vulnerable. This was the first time I felt that bubble and all the protection it offered slip away.
I remember my childhood lovingly. There is not a memory I would change.
But that’s simply all they are: memories. And they are no shield for the frankly disgusting things women hear about their own bodies in this leering world. Instead, they’re a comfortable daydream to reminisce on when I tense, clench my teeth and walk faster — a place to escape.
So this essay is another form of inheritance for my sisters to have when their bubbles inevitably pop. Know that, when you hear these things about yourself, they do not sum up your worth. Know that it is not OK for people to treat you like a display in a store they’re window-shopping — never tolerate it.
Know that if you need to run, I can be your destination. And know that you are not a coward if you need to run.
Know that you are brave for being the amazing women you are, despite all of the ways society tries to make us feel ashamed of our femininity.
Know that if your bubble hasn’t popped already, it will. And it will be rude — it will feel like watching the scary parts in movies without being able to cover your eyes. It’s real life, and you will feel helpless facing it some days.
But know that, as a woman, you three are my strength. And that will never change.