For 20 years of my life, I avoided contact with my private parts unless absolutely necessary. In college, graphic sex jokes flew around me, as they often do on campuses. Each time, I’d look down in embarrassment, hoping the subject would change. I refused to wear tight or revealing clothing because I feared someone would notice my body and—even worse—comment on it. I accepted this as a personality quirk, maybe even a flaw. I didn’t understand it as trauma.
Precocious puberty is a medical phenomenon that affects Black girls more often than their non-Black counterparts. It’s a condition wherein young girls develop breasts and hips at an early age. For many of us, this results in us being hypersexualized as early as 8 years old. Black girls are usually taught to “deal with it,” so we grow into women whose traumas are never spoken but carried in the memory of our bodies for years.
I can admit that, growing up, I wasn’t the most confident child. My knees occasionally buckled together when I walked, and my brother’s faded hand-me downs were a staple in my wardrobe. I was the definition of awkward, but I was able to live my life without judgement. No one bothered to say anything to a skinny child with oversized, pleated pants on, and I liked it that way.
Life continued peacefully until, one day, my mother said the words that seemed to hurtle me into the gaze of everyone within a seven-mile radius: “Kelly, baby. You need a bra.”
In an instant, I went from a child to a young woman—but my age had nothing to do with it. I suddenly found myself lost in the lingerie section of JCPenney’s, trying to figure out why the slim, mature models for “juniors” clothes looked so incredibly different from me. After all, I was only 10 years old, barely even five feet tall, and still had baby fat nestled on my face and belly. I felt silly toting a pile of bras in my arms—especially when it seemed like every nearby woman had something to say.
But time stands still for no man, or woman, or precociously pubescent little girl.
Soon, my situation went from extremely uncomfortable to mildly insidious. Still imagining love as the wholesome kiss that wakes a princess up from sleep, I found myself becoming the object of desire for men much older than me—and nothing about it felt wholesome. There was a hardness in the way strange men looked at me when I went outside. To this day, the fear and unease I felt during those times have been imprinted on my heart. I began to feel unsafe in the presence of men and even of boys my own age.
At school, my male classmates would openly fawn over my body, turning me into a spectacle. Friends told me I should be flattered and not get defensive, but there was nothing to feel grateful for: lists were written on campus bathroom stalls, ranking who had the “best body”; pictures were drawn of me with cartoonish, inflated breasts; I couldn’t even be in gym class without getting ogled at every time I did jumping jacks. My self-esteem shrank with every stare and comment. Girls became jealous of the attention I received, and vicious rumors spread about me wearing two bras to appear curvier.
Eventually, I started to feel disgusted by my body for all the excess attention and negativity it seemed to bring me
Many young Black girls have been caught in the confidence-shattering space between racialized objectification and misplaced resentment from their peers, simply because they have a body. Much like Sarah Baartman, I felt that I was constantly on display for others consumption. People saw my body first, and my soul second.
Years after these incidents, I still felt anxious and uncomfortable in my body, as though I was still my 10-year-old self. I mentally detached from my physical form as much as I could—never changing in front of a mirror, never coming in contact with the more private parts of my body except to clean them. There was a complete shutdown of a very human part of me, because it had been obsessed over by others when I was so young. Other girls who have experienced this kind of early objectification may go the opposite route—becoming hypersexual and more reckless with decisions involving their bodies in order to feel “in control.”
But it all stems from the same desire to escape the feeling that our bodies are not truly ours.
I have vowed to myself that if I ever have a daughter, I will never let anyone freely discuss her body as though she isn’t in the room. I couldn’t control what I experienced in my childhood, but I can make a conscious effort to protect and defend the Black girls of today. No one should have to feel like their body is abnormal simply because it’s growing the way nature intended it to. Luckily, I’ve learned that lesson as an adult and feel extremely loving toward my body now. But to be safe, I still buy most of my bras online.