"It’s terrifying, to be this soft. To be an object. To have had to learn first not who I was, but how I was seen." -Mindy Nettifee
I was probably 15 years old, when I first felt the shift. No so coincidentally, 15 was the year I went from having barely there bug bites, to full on, can't miss 'em, can't find a homecoming dress that fits 'em, boobs.
While there might not be an an exact moment that comes to mind, I think most women could tell you how old they were or what grade they were in when they began to sense that the public at large (and their faith communities in particular) stopped viewing them as little girls, and started seeing them as young women.
And young women, we quickly came to understand, were dangerous.
Dangerous, because now whenever we went to ask our male teachers questions after class, there was an anxiety in their eyes that wasn't there before, as they propped doors open and positioned folding chairs safe distances away from each other. Similar looks of fear came over our soccer coaches and friend's Dads anytime we happened to occupy space near them, even if just for a moment, without anyone else around.
And I suppose I understand that to some degree, because we all know someone, or several someones, who were mistreated as children by someone who was supposed to be a trustworthy authority figure. I understand wanting to avoid suspicion or the appearance of impropriety where children or teenagers are involved.
But there was also an ease that I remember envying, in the way my male peers were able to move about the world and interact with people, that I didn't possess anymore. Men weren't afraid of them the way they were afraid of me, and that made everything from school to youth group to sports, easier.
I spent the summer after my junior year in high school interning at a church in Seattle, a few hundred miles north of my Oregon hometown. It was a sticky hot July evening, and we were gathered with other church members for a time of prayer and worship, when a young staff person approached me (with both of my hands in the air, belting out a praise chorus) and told me that while my outfit was very cute, it was distracting some of the men present, and could I please go worship Jesus sitting in the back row.
The message of my own inherent danger continued, even if it shifted in tone, as I became a young adult and ventured into Christian higher education. My male professors could not or would not mentor me, telling the young men in my classes that they needed to begin patterning their lives similarly, to make it a goal to never be alone with a woman who wasn't their wife or their mother. In student leadership positions, my male counterparts were poured into by male deans and directors who encouraged them to pursue graduate degrees and further leadership opportunities, while I was encouraged in passing, and always at a safe distance.
I felt it in my panic about what to wear on my first day of work at my alma mater, in the stomach ache inducing fear I felt every morning for the first month, because I was convinced that someone was going to pull me into their office and explain how my outfit was causing those around me to stumble.
I feel it even now when I change four times before I go to class, afraid of the eyes of men, not because I think they are animal like creatures with no self control, but because someone told them long ago that I am to be feared. Because the lens they were given with which to see me dictates that I am first and fundamentally a sexual object.
I feel this, in a world of cracked doors and nervous eyes, but I am also aware that somewhere in the future lies my expiration date, when my hair isn't quite so blonde and my chest doesn't sit quite as high, when time has given me characteristics that help men see me more like their mothers or kindly aunts.
After I have grown older, and the male gaze has deemed me unattractive, then, then I won't be so scary and ripe with sinful potential.
But until then, I am an object to be consumed or fearfully resisted, whose own preferences, choices, or wants are never factored in to this particular conversation.
It is terrifying, to be this soft.