In my family, we have a famous Zoo Story. This tale occurred when my mom brought my two younger sisters, our cousin, and me to Lincoln Park Zoo one day. I was around 11 or 12 years old, my sisters were 8 and 6 years old, and my cousin was 5. The story is famous in my family because it entailed a series of disasters building into a scatalogical crescendo, all related to kids losing control of their bodily functions. Out of 4 children, one peed their pants and one got the runs. I won’t say who did what to protect the privacy of my family members (plus we all still argue about the facts of what constitutes an “accident”), but I will say that at the end of the day, much of our group was carrying home soiled underpants in a plastic baggie.
We tell this story laughingly all the time because pee and poo stories are hilarious, and it was such a disastrous trip that none of us ever forget it. But more than just bodily functions went wrong that day. It was also the first time I ever experienced being sexually harassed.
In Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, she described being in a conference breakout session with a group of other women and getting assigned the topic of discussing the first time you ever felt like a grown-up. She was shocked when they began sharing their stories, and nearly every single one was about the first time they were catcalled on the street or talked to in a sexually explicit manner by a stranger. There were no sweet and endearing coming-of-age tales about getting a first job or going on a first date; everyone in the group equated becoming a woman with the first time someone leered at them from a passing pickup or commented on their bodies in their bathing suits. The average age that this occurred was around 11-13 years old. My story fits right in with all of their examples.
As I remember it, I was wandering alone in the gift shop off of the koala bear exhibit. My mom was in the bathroom with the younger girls, most likely dealing with getting somebody out of pee-soaked underwear, wiped clean, and shooting a hand dryer at their bottom. Koalas were among my favorite animals (along with kangaroos, so predictable for a kid whose name begins with the letter k). I also felt a special tie to koalas because I had previously won a contest at school where I listed out more facts about Australia than any of my other classmates. For this, I was awarded a free t-shirt from Olivia Newton-John’s fashion line with Koala Blue, which had just opened at our local mall. (Perhaps the fact that they were advertising by giving away free t-shirts to nerdy grade schoolers who had memorized the encyclopedia entry for Australia was an early foreshadowing of the swift failure of the novelty boutique.)
Anyways, I really dug koalas so I was excited to be browsing their themed merchandise. I was standing near a shelf of stuffed animals when I noticed a group of slightly older kids hanging out nearby. One of them stood out as the ringleader. In my memory, he was slightly chubby and had an outgoing demeanor. I shrank back behind a display of koala keychains, preferring not to be seen. I was alone, a nerdy encyclopedia reader who didn’t feel like coping with a group of aggressive eighth grade boys. But like a cat sniffing out a mouse, they noticed me immediately and headed over. At this time, I wore thick, pink acrylic glasses and there’s a good chance I was growing out a perm. I was not the looker of the sixth grade class. But my outward appearance didn’t have much to do with what happened next; those boys sensed my timidity and they felt the power that that gave them over me.
The chubby ringleader, who in my memory appears as Russell from Fat Albert, started making loud comments about my butt in my white jeans. Prepubescence had not been kind to me; I went from a skinny kid to a pudgy tween and was already self-conscious about my body. I pretended not to hear, staring into a koala-emblazoned t-shirt as though I could disappear into its sunny Outback landscape. Finally, the boys began to walk past, but as the ringleader brushed by, he reached out and pinched my butt. It was a very light touch, almost a quick flutter as if he were fearful of following through on it. I felt my face erupt in a lava field of aghast blushing. Though I had done nothing to provoke (or fight off) their taunting, I was awash with shame. The fear had paralyzed me, like in a nightmare where you’re being chased but your feet are stuck to the ground as if encased in wet cement. I hated that they had gotten away with something. I stood there mortified, humiliated, and surrounded by koala stuffed animals, a blatant symbol of my once-innocent childhood so on the nose that if this scene were cinematically staged by Michael Bay, even he would say “Nah, the toys are a little too much.”
Eventually, my mom, sisters, and cousin reemerged from the women’s bathroom, their day’s mishaps cleansed away while I was still reeling from mine. And for some reason, I decided not to say anything. I had glimpsed the future of what it’s like to be a woman around a group of men, to feel unsafe and scared. I felt dirty. And I didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe I was afraid that somehow it was my fault, or I was too embarrassed about not having done something. Whatever the reason, I tucked the secret away to a back corner in my mind.
I didn’t talk about it for a very long time, despite that day being a popular cautionary tale in my family about how many children a single adult should take on a trip to the zoo. When I first mentioned it to my sister, the second-oldest kid in the story, she was shocked. “Wow, all of those years of us talking about that day, and you never mentioned that part,” she said. “That must have really stayed with you.”
I’ve lived in Chicago for my entire adult life, and I’ve dealt with enough catcalling, street harassment, and attempted groping to steel myself to it. I know that it can happen anywhere, at any time of day or night: walking down the street, riding the bus, running in the park, hanging out at a music fest. Sometimes I can laugh off the more absurd, harmless situations. Sometimes I fight back by yelling or picking up my phone to call 911 at the public masturbator. I’m a grown-up and I can defend myself; my feet no longer feel trapped in cement shoes, my tongue tied in fear. While I still hate encountering random harassment, it doesn’t make me feel scared or helpless anymore; it just makes me pissed off. I know that it’s not my fault and doesn’t have to do with what I’m wearing or how I look that day; shit’s going to happen no matter what. But I hate that almost all women have to first learn this life lesson when they’re 11-13 years old and just want a stuffed koala bear.
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