“Oh baby girl, you have some big shapely legs, pull that dress down to cover up a little”.
A family acquaintance said this to me outside of my grandma’s house in Maryland after a summer cookout we had. I was standing next to my oldest cousin, looking directly at this woman, who had a smirk on her face as she decided to make a public comment about my body. I knew what she was doing.
I’d never met her before this day; she’d never been around the family. I don’t even think I got her name. But I remember her face and her stance as she vocally observed my body.
“They’re just too much, those legs. Girl pull your dress down a little,” she said with a nice-nasty church woman tone. For the record, I was wearing a shirtdress from Forever21 with platform heels—not that it matters. But yes, the legs were big, shapely and out.
The second time, the reiteration of her comment wasn’t accompanied by a smirk, but rather visible annoyance. This experience was so weird and quick, but also one that kept repeatedly happening to me as a curvy girl and teen throughout my life.
I’d dealt with situations like this in the past, but this one bothered me a bit more. Sadly, the outward and abrupt critique of my body from older men and women was nothing new to me. But I didn’t know what I was encountering as a young girl when this would happen, even though I knew it didn’t feel appropriate. It wouldn’t be until I got older that I could verbalize I was experiencing the societal assertion of power and ownership over Black female body, in addition to the disrespect and objectification.
When I was in middle school, my mom dropped me off at the beauty school to get a press and curl. I had on my favorite Old Navy jeans that had the cutoff fringe at the waistline and the bootcut fringe at the bottom. Walking past two women, I overheard one woman whisper “she needs to cover that up, she knows better.” I was wearing jeans and a tank top, and she was referring to my butt. Per her annoyance with my presence, my behind was offensive and because of that, I needed to wear a long shirt to hide “it” to ease the discomfort my body brought them. I will never forget it.
Black women—and girls— cannot escape the constant criticism of our very existence. From the ridicule of our hair to our puberty experiences of developing faster than others, to having less protection due to the overt sexualization of our bodies from youth, it’s like it doesn’t end. For many of us, there is a daunting feeling that you're “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” actually feel confident and in control of your body. People literally spew hate towards Lizzo and Megan the Stallion because they actually like themselves. It bothers so many people when Black women and girls are aware that their body is theirs.
Culturally, we have internally allowed a community that has been free of consequences when Black girls and women are critiqued, attacked and assaulted, both emotionally, physically and sexually. Street harassment, internet doxing and rhetoric around calling us “fast”, “hoes” or other derogatory names based on our appearance or refusal to acquiesce to an outsider's demand is not collectively looked down on or systematically punished. And let’s not even get started on social media and the constant attack on Black female existence just for tweeting our opinions or posting a picture that erwe like of ourselves.
The problem with this cultural indoctrinated commentary is that it unknowingly strips away the humane ownership that Black girls should exercise over their bodies; and because many of us aren’t raised to believe we are allowed to do so, it creates this community of Black females being objectified, harassed and abused at an alarming rate, without reinforced or feared line of repercussions.
This is why I hate it when I hear people call Black girls “fast” or “grown”. No, they are not. Society, including our own folk, are over-sexualizing them and aren't giving them the protection or space space that they need.
Protection for Black girls and women is not only needed from outside of our community, but desperately within. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research notes that Black women “experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse—including humiliation, insults, name-calling and coercive control—than do women over all.” That lack bleeds itself into the danger that Black girls and women face amongst our own, making it difficult to feel protected from childhood and well into our adulthood. Results of a 2011-2012 National Intimate Partner and Violence survey showed that compared to white women, “45% of Black women experienced sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime."
Which brings me back to the conversation we have about Black girls and the labels of assumed sexual promisicuity we place upon them from a young age, that leads to so much danger well into our adulthood. I often think of the tragic death of 21-year old Clark Atlanta student Alexis Crawford, who after being sexually assualted by her roommate’s boyfriend, was allegedly killed by them both after she reported him to the Atlanta police. She did every thing right after being attacked, and ended up losing her life because of it.
There are many questions we could throw in the bucket that could help us open up the discussion, but I’m beyond interested in just talking about this. For some, it’s a taboo topic; and for others, it’s swept under the magic carpet of misogynoir.
We don’t need to only question why Black girls are assumed to be promiscuous and are treated with less protection, we need to stop allowing it. We need to start by eliminating harmful comments about how “grown” or “fast” a little girl is. We can stop the cringy comments about what a little girls are wearing around their male family members, and instead question the male’s discomfort. These little girls often understand nothing about sexuality and why their bodies would even be judged in such a way. We can also stop shrugging off street harassment, online harrasment and physical abuse against Black females. Everytime I think about how Oluwatoyin Salau was murdered during her heartfelt protesting for Black Lives Matter, I’m disgusted all over again at the lack of protection we have.
So no, that little girl is not "fast" or "grown," she’s oversexualized. And that Black woman is not promiscuous, she’s unprotected.