Things I Learned in Girlhood
Me and my cousins, circa 1983. I'm in the blue.

Me and my cousins, circa 1983. I’m in the blue.

“There are all boys at Stephanie’s (invented name) house, so you can’t turn up like you do here. You have to sit with your legs crossed.”

My mother tells me that this is my grandmother’s advice to my four-year-old cousin who is going to stay with a friend of her mother’s for the weekend. It doesn’t make sense to me. “She’s four,” I say. “She’s supposed to run around and flip over on the floor.”

Our conversation moves on to memories of how some of my other little cousins, now grown, used to climb on furniture and flip over like they were little Gabby Douglasses in the making, I remember that I gave myself an assignment for my time at my mother’s today: look through the photo albums for some Throwback Thursday material. I come across several photos of me between the ages of about three and seven and my cousins—two and five years my senior—sitting with our legs crossed.

Later that evening, I see author and journalist Aliya S. King’s Facebook rant about respectability politics in Black communities. She is furious about our attempt to deemphasize sexuality in girls by over-emphasizing it, by sexualizing them early, and by discouraging precocious behavior deemed “womanish” or “too grown.” Simultaneously, we’ll refer to a boy as “little man.”

I recently attended a creative writing workshop in which the main focus was girlhood (approximately ages 6-12). When the workshop facilitator revealed the topic, I thought to myself, “I wonder if anyone here is transgender. What if a woman didn’t spend her childhood as a girl?” (The thought itself surprised me; it would not have crossed my mind even two years ago. I gratefully attribute this change in mindset to people in the local racial justice community.) My concern didn’t seem to occur to anyone else, and I didn’t want to start the workshop off with a challenge to the facilitator, so I didn’t mention it. Although I’m not sure that was admirable ally behavior, my question to myself lead me to ask myself another question: What did I learn in girlhood about being a girl and eventually about being a woman? Here’s my short list:

  • Cross your legs.
  • Sit quietly.
  • Be careful around boys and men. They are easily distracted into desire.
  • Silence your own desire.
  • Boys have cooties. Men don’t.
  • Dresses and lace = femininity.
  • Curves are your destiny.
  • Large breasts, hips, and butt are normal, and they make for an attractive woman.
  • Teenage pregnancy is really, really, really, really, really, really bad.
  • There’s nothing pleasant about having a period.
  • Aspire to “glamour and glitter, fashion and fame,” the dream house, and the office with pink furniture.
  • Danger is all around you.
  • Be a good girl.
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