Under the Radar

Back when M decided to shave her head, I remember thinking that there might be an unintentional perk to the whole bald thing. Maybe, I thought, losing the super-attractive flowing locks would postpone possible romantic entanglements.

It turns out that this wasn’t the case at all. M has had a “boyfriend” for months now, and the only reason why I put this in quotation marks is because the relationship consists almost entirely of texting and group outings. I was clearly underestimating middle school boys, or at least one clever middle school boy, who is not so focused on hairstyle that he doesn’t notice M’s overall awesomeness. And that’s all I’ll say about that, because I know M has no desire for me to share any other information with you. Sorry, folks.

But the short hair gets interesting reactions. Around the time that she got a little trim, M mentioned,  “Yeah, Mom, women in, like, their 20s up to your age are always saying how much they like it.” After she called my attention to it, I noticed how true this is. Women gush about her hair, even when I restrain myself from bragging about the charity angle. We’re talking frequent, fervent compliments. Which has made me think about why their response is so supportive. I think it’s because it would be so easy for her to go for the sort of cookie-cutter conventional prettiness that so many of us women craved in middle school. Turning her back on all that is a bold choice.

But beyond that, as we navigate early adolescence, I’ve been feeling particularly grateful for M’s style these days. Along with her uniform of jeans and t-shirts, M’s short hair makes it easy for people to mistake her for a boy.  Anyone looking carefully would realize that the shapeless soccer t-shirt is paired with decidedly feminine skinny jeans, and that the punky hair-do is framing bone structure that’s all girl, but she easily “passes” as a boy.

I’ve been thinking of it in those terms because right now I’m reading The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, by Jenny Nordberg. It’s a fascinating account of girls pretending to be boys for a variety of reasons. For many of them, puberty ends their life as a boy, and they’re  pushed into the much more constrained existence of an Afghan woman. In one scene, a young woman who is old enough to drive has been pressured by her male relatives to start wearing a headscarf. She’s driven around with uncovered, short hair without any trouble, but once she’s clearly identifiable as a woman, the other drivers honk and jeer at her, boxing her vehicle, and generally try to punish her for having the audacity to be a woman who drives. Once she finally gets clear of them, she rips off the scarf so that she can fly under the radar again.

At our annual elementary school Halloween parade, there are always several 5th grade girls who’ve hit puberty, and some of them are wearing costumes that would be fine on a younger girl, but suddenly look awfully tacky. I always feel so bad for these girls! For some, their bodies have moved on without them. And of course, some of them are super excited to have actual breasts to show off. It is super-cool to finally get some breasts. The same costumes that are adorable on one body that transform into something else entirely on another body, and it’s unfair. It stinks. Some of these poor girls have no idea that they’re in for a societal smackdown, an encounter with male ickiness.

Sexual harassment’s been a hot topic lately (Jessica Williams on The Daily Show   repeatedly, that woman in NYC video and its Funny or Die white man spoof and the latest, Elon James White‘s  #DudesGreetingDudes). I guess it’s a good thing, if it’s helping people (nice men) to understand how bad it can be.  There’s also been plenty of talk about dress codes (the most recent was a protest that had all the boys wearing short-shorts, but there have been plenty of other incidents lately), and it sure doesn’t help that clothes that aren’t teensy and tight can be pretty hard to find. But it’s heartbreaking to think of all of those girls who are dressing themselves, looking in the mirror happy and confident, and then they’re stepping out into a world where they’re judged and abused and made to feel ashamed. And the truth is, locally, dress codes are lax, and you can see some choices that are. . . well, not the best choices possible. But then you’ve got to wonder, what’s going on with this girl? There are times I’d love to offer a little guidance, but I’m not in charge of them. And schools that are policing girls’ yoga pants rather than telling boys to stop harassing them are ridiculous. Because plenty of us have been harassed in jeans and a plain shirt (like the NYC video, which was unbelievably boring to any woman who’s ever walked around NYC by herself).

Shortly after I started high school, a group of older boys came up with a name for me, apparently inspired by the way I walked. I don’t know: I hurried. My hips rolled. I don’t know what it was. But it went on for years, and I hated it. I had girlfriends who were jealous. Every once in a while, on a good day, I’d feel flattered. I was a lowly freshman, and older boys, guys who could drive, knew who I was. But usually it was awful. There was a long lobby to walk across between classes, and guys would congregate and yell. I’d get off the school bus and try to decide whether I should stand stock-still nearby to avoid walking or leave as quickly as possible, knowing that the faster I walked, the more I’d entertain. Or I’d be away from school, unguarded, and then someone would be there, looking and talking, and it felt like nowhere was safe. It made me embarrassed and self-conscious, but I generally kept my sobbing about it to myself. Girls weren’t sympathetic and adults literally said “Boys will be boys” to me. It made me feel bad about myself. Before that, I was relatively happy with my body, comfortable in my own skin. Heck, I liked my walk. But those assholes made me feel awful about it for years.

It’s depressing that my girls are heading into this territory. With all of discussion about it and plenty of brave women fighting back lately, it makes it feel like things could change for the better. Eventually. At some point. But not soon enough for them.

So for now, I’m grateful that M’s short hair and baggy soccer shirts help her fly under the radar.


  1. Big Sister

    How is it this awful teenage story is complete news to me? I’d like to think M & J are strong girls with supportive friends, teachers, family etc. to give them the security to look a boy or boys in the face and fiercely shame them for their behavior. Confront the bully! They are always cowards underneath.

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