The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Please Stop Saying I’m Trouble
Grace Miner

Once when I was 12, I was playing tag on the playground with my sister and her friend, running around wearing a T-shirt with a big yellow smiley face on it. The friend’s dad said to my dad, about me, “You know, she’s gonna be a lot of trouble soon.” He didn’t know me. He’d never raised teenagers. He just said that because I was a girl, and that’s what happens with girls. We become trouble.

When I was 14 and walking to school, a man followed me down the street for a couple blocks asking, “Can I get a date?” until a woman nearby saw, put her arm around me, and walked with me until he decided to leave me alone.

Another time, I was walking my neighbor’s dog when some guys drove next to me slowly, hissing at me from behind half-open windows as I walked. It wasn’t the first or last time.

Last summer, I was walking with my dad and my aunt when a woman they knew ran into us on the street. “This your daughter?” she asked. She looked me up and down. “You better watch out for her,” she said. “Just look at her hips!” What could I say to that? She hadn’t even been talking to me. I stood there while somebody I’d never met looked over my body and talked about it as if I wasn’t there. I must have made a face because the woman asked me if something was wrong. I shook my head furiously and wished a hole would open up in the ground for me to jump into.

“Look at those hips” meant she thought my body looked less like a little girl’s and more like an adult woman’s. “Better watch out” meant she thought my changing body would attract boys soon, if not already, and we couldn’t have that. Teenage girls have to be kept from sex as if we’re dogs on a leash, because the worst-case scenario is pregnancy. The best-case scenario is we end up kid-free but with our virtue destroyed.

Defining Trouble

One night at a friend’s party, it had gotten late and the lights were off and everybody was half asleep. I sat on a couch at the edge of the room. A 20-something-year-old guy who was sitting next to me reached over, wrapped his arm around me in a creepy side hug, and grabbed my boobs. I stayed frozen for half a second with his arm locked around my chest, staring into the empty darkness in front of me. Then I shrugged him off.

Women are conditioned to feel like we’re to blame for men’s bad behavior toward us. We think: What did I miss? What did I do? What did I read the wrong way? I should have felt angry at these grown men who decided to follow a teenage girl down the sidewalk or grope her in the dark at a teenager’s party. I should have felt disgusted. I wanted to; I mechanically forced the thoughts through my mind: What’s wrong with him? He doesn’t matter. I tried to be annoyed. But it didn’t loosen the tightness in my chest telling me how stupid I was.

Why did shame burn my face when they were the ones who had done something wrong?

When people call women “trouble,” it means that we might start wanting independence, we might start wanting to think for ourselves, and that’s threatening for those who’d prefer women stay quiet and small. It also means they find our sexuality dangerous. We might screw up boys’ lives, distracting and tricking and trapping them with this mysterious siren-like hold that girls have over boys. They aren’t expected to take responsibility for their own lack of impulse control. It’s our fault.

I Don’t “Ask” to Be Assaulted

There’s this belief that as kids grow up, boys will start to want to have sex with girls, and that’s natural. But when girls want to have sex with boys, then our families act like they have to sit by the window with a shotgun.

Sex is something girls are made to feel guilty about having and liking. We are also made to feel responsible for harassment or worse, assault and rape.

Facebook is crowded with posts on self-defense measures for girls who dare to be outside alone at night: Carry your keys between your knuckles (like Wolverine!) so you can stab someone who may jump on you. Keep your phone flashlight beaming in front of you so you can see the shadow of potential assailants sneaking up from behind. Don’t put in headphones because it’ll block out the sounds of possible attackers’ footsteps. We are expected and encouraged to spend time and energy investing in protective gear just to walk around.

Really, when people say “you’re trouble,” they’re saying to stay afraid. Don’t let the threat of violence stop hovering over you like a punishment for even a second. Don’t start thinking you can handle yourself. Don’t think that if something did ever happen to you, that you wouldn’t be to blame. To me, the disempowering message that society sends is that if a girl gets raped, it’s because she was stupid enough to be by herself.

image by YC-Art Dept

People say, “You need to be realistic. This is just the world we live in. It’s dangerous out there, and women need to be careful.” But that’s not entirely true. The reality is that most assaults happen in the victim’s or attacker’s home, not out in the street. The reality is that most times, the attacker is somebody the woman knows.

In spite of this we are brainwashed into feeling afraid, defenseless, weak, and unsafe, looking over our shoulders as we walk quickly, carrying keys as weapons and listening for footsteps.

#MeToo Broke the Silence, But...

There are many amazing aspects of the #MeToo movement, a hashtag raising awareness about the prevalence of sexual harrasment and sexual violence. A flood of women sharing their stories and finally seeing men face long-overdue consequences is powerful. But a hashtag cannot make everything better.

This is a movement on the internet about people in Hollywood, the media, and big corporations that has not trickled down into enough regular people’s lives. Seeing others’ stories and getting the courage to tell your own is great. But when I ask most people I know what #MeToo is, they look at me funny and say, “What is that?” It’s something I hear about when I go into Manhattan or onto certain websites, but not in my Bronx neighborhood, or from people who don’t have internet access.

But even if the movement hasn’t had much tangible impact on my world and the people I know, it’s a beginning; the silence has been broken. For all the things we have been too scared and ashamed to say out loud to be said out loud.

I have not seen it change anything in my life, or in the lives of the people I know, because what we want to change is so deep and embedded.

For one thing, it would take raising girls and boys the same way, with the same ideas about what they are capable of and how much they are worth. It would take not forcing gender expectations on people starting in early childhood.

I remember being at the 99-cent store with my best friend and his little brother. He wanted a coloring book with Anna and Elsa and glittery pink and purple crayons, but his mom said no because those were too girly. When I was in grade school, my teachers always asked for a “strong boy” to push the cart with the computers down the hallway to the other classroom. I always wanted to do it, but I couldn’t raise my hand after she had specifically asked for a boy.

If we could allow everyone to be who they are really are, then we wouldn’t have to feel trapped in boxes, restricted by our own bodies. Women wouldn’t feel ashamed of wanting sex. Men wouldn’t have a pathological need to be in charge, and women wouldn’t be pressured to let them be, to make themselves smaller so men can feel bigger. Survivors of violence would not be blamed for what happened to them, and their pain would be met with understanding instead of with doubt and accusation.

In this better world, that violence would not be as terrifyingly common in the first place. Everybody would be stronger and safer. We would be more honest and more kind, to ourselves and to others. We would be free.

The Water We Swim In

I know this isn’t a story that can be neatly wrapped up. I know tomorrow and the day after that, girls’ bodies will still be taken as an open invitation to comment, stare, grab. It feels hopeless sometimes, like it’s everywhere we turn and so far from ever stopping. In Stephanie Ericsson’s essay “The Ways We Lie,” she says that there are lies that are so big and so ingrained into our society that they are “as invisible to us as water is to a fish.” The lies are all we know, so we think it’s how things are supposed to be.

But it is a lie. They are wrong. Our bodies, our hips, and our clothes are for us. Not for guys following us down the street, not for concerned relatives giving hurtful advice and terrifying cautionary tales. We are drawn together because we know what it’s like to be told we’re wrong or broken.

No matter how hard people try to police and control our bodies, they can’t, because our bodies weren’t meant to be owned.

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