I wasn’t at fault for being sexually harassed in sixth grade, no matter what I looked like
I wasn’t what many would call a cute kid. As a baby and elementary school-aged child, yes, I was cute enough. But things were different once I entered middle school and started puberty.
I was overweight, constantly wearing clothes that were much too big and using them as a sort of camouflage for my round tummy and thick thighs. Sporting a weird bob with short-cropped bangs framing my round face, I was an awkward 10-year-old at the beginning of sixth grade.
Though I am way past puberty at this point in my life, I was reminded of my former homeliness when I read Mayim Bialik’s op-ed in The New York Times discussing Harvey Weinstein. While she has since apologized, the attitude she expressed in her article is an all-too-prevalent one.
In the editorial, the actress and neuroscientist addressed the issue of rampant sexual assault, harassment, and rape in Hollywood.
However, her testimony took a strange turn when she mentioned her unique looks as the reason she’s had the “luxury” of not being victimized.
Ms. Bialik credited her modest choices in appearance — choices she has made “as a proud feminist” — for helping her avoid dangerously powerful and manipulative men.
I, like so many other women, was shocked and saddened by her assessment. With her condescending tone towards those who enjoy stereotypically feminine hobbies, her op-ed read more like a lesson on victim-blaming than a condemnation of Harvey Weinstein and other predators.
To me, Ms. Bialik’s appraisal of these situations and her history free from assault made it seem as if she was bragging about not being ensnared by a sexual predator. I know logically that she didn’t mean for her op-ed to be interpreted this way but, more than anything else, her words made me feel like she was judging my 10-year-old self.
Still, I know now that what happened to me all those years ago can’t be blamed on movie star good looks or revealing clothing.
I was walking home from the bus stop one afternoon during the fall of my sixth grade year. I usually spent the long walk happily daydreaming. This afternoon, however, I was very aware of the three teenage boys walking behind me.
I had already learned to be cautious around men — especially groups of them — so I began quickening my pace. Putting distance between them and myself felt really important, even then.
The group was loudly laughing and talking amongst each other — playfully posturing and insulting each other the way young men sometimes do when with friends. I was almost at my street when one of the teens began calling out to me.
I kept walking, and he told me to slow down and come talk to them. I ignored him, but he was undeterred, only getting louder and more aggressive in his shouting. At this point, I heard his friend ask why he was even interested. Jokingly, the second boy asked his friend if he liked fat girls.
I can still hear the malignant laughter that those words were spoken with.
As his friends howled at his joke, I felt overcome with shame and anger. Why? Why did he think it was okay to say those things to me? I was just a kid after all. “Screw you!” I called over my shoulder, but my rage only made them laugh louder. I sped up my walking even more, genuinely panicking at this point.
My speed didn’t go unnoticed. One of them broke out into a jog, encouraging his other friends to join in chasing me. As their steps grew louder, I sprinted towards my house at the end of the street. At this age, I knew enough about sex to know that it could be used as a weapon, and I was afraid that I would be its next target.
I was a frantic fat girl running with a desperation I had never felt before, but those teen boys were bigger, faster. They should have overtaken me easily, but they didn’t. They were toying with me.
They knew what they were doing — that I was scared — and it was fun for them. It was a game.
I eventually got home and locked myself inside. The trio stuck around my front yard for a few moments, but they eventually left. They never bothered me again, but I would see them at the bus stop every so often before we moved to another neighborhood a year later. The boy who had first harassed me would smile whenever he caught me cautiously watching them. It always made me sick.
I wish I could say that this was my only encounter with sexual harassment or assault — but far from it.
And, in a society where 85% of women experience some form of street harassment by the time they’re 17, my experience is far from isolated. The exposure of high-profile predators has encouraged survivors of sexual assault and harassment to take to social media to share their stories using the hashtag #MeToo.
Reading through their stories, no matter where they came from, how different we look, what we were wearing, or how old we were at the time of our attacks, I found that we all share the same thing: None of us were at fault for what happened.
I can only hope that those who think the way Ms. Bialik did will come to understand that girls and women are not responsible for the actions and words that men use against us. No matter what we look like.