When I was a teen, I was flattered by male attention. Whenever I went out in public, I wanted all eyes on me, and I hoped to “meet boys.” I liked getting looks and comments, whether appreciative or sexual. They made me feel powerful – I had something they wanted, and I had the ability to give it or withhold it.
In retrospect, I had many positive dating experiences, and they led me to feel safe with boys, and later, men. I didn’t feel threatened or harassed. I might have heard remarks when walking down the street, but I never found myself in an isolated spot with a group of predatory men or boys. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, I mostly felt respected, and there was a hint of decorum even in street talk.
In my mind, I was simply trying to look good to attract a boyfriend – my own age – and I barely thought about unwelcome attention. Other girls I knew dressed and acted in a similar way. It was the cultural norm for most of us. One could argue that I looked the way I did to fit in with the other girls, whether or not I actually wanted to appeal to boys. It would have been hard to face their disapproval. But in fact, my closer friends were male, gay and straight. I felt more comfortable talking with boys about common interests like music, than I felt when listening to relationships being slowly dissected by girls.
I am not sure what it says about me that my boyfriend was always my best friend and I didn’t feel much need to have girls around me. I didn’t avoid them but I didn’t cultivate them, as I did romances.
Fast-forward a few decades, and despite all my trials and tribulations, I had many positive dating experiences when I was single, and now I am happily partnered up with my sweetie, Rom.
After the tempestuous teen years, was I true to myself when trying to meet and get to know new people?
I made my best female friends when I moved away from home to take my first job. As library workers, we had common goals and interests, and my world expanded outside of high school and college culture. Because we were all smart and independent women, there was no assumption that we’d only remain friends until we got married and had kids. In fact, I was the only one hung up on boyfriends and settling down, to my peril. Even though I got myself into some unfortunate relationships with men, I was still part of a career-focused group of women, and I am thankful for that. The library was also a female-centric workplace, and that was a boost, too. There was none of the “catty” behaviour among women that you sometimes hear about.
In my very late 20s, I noticed that I no longer looked at every person I passed on the street to see if they reacted to my appearance in any way. All of a sudden, I could just “be,” without seeking approval from strangers.
When I had a child, any lingering self-criticism about my body vanished. Because my body had served me well in producing this kid, I was suddenly at home in my own skin, no matter how much of it. I trusted my physical form, and it no longer mattered whether the gaze of any man was appreciative or sexual or dismissive.
So did I lose the fun of showing off and sexuality and being appreciated for my attributes? Quite the opposite – I grew into them, within the context of trusting relationships. And yes, it took more than one relationship before I felt as expressive as I enjoy feeling today.
Readers who have been with me for a while know that I have little patience for traditional male/female gender roles now. One thing that appeals to me about Rom is that he’s read more gender theory than I have! We like to say we are each other’s favourite person, regardless of our assigned sex. I would love him if he were a woman and he would love me if I were a man, despite that we got together through a typical hetero attraction. We like each other’s bodies, and our own. I feel safe when held in his gaze. I like that we have shared personhood and that we are going through life together.
A more traditional friend might say, “Watch out; he will leave you for a femme fatale!” But in our relationship he could choose to be that, so why go looking for it? 🙂
I am sure we have some female/male dynamics going on somewhere, but I prefer to think of it as Dar/Rom dynamics.
Counterpoint: I fear for today’s teens. Behaviour and talk have crossed a line. Not only that, but online abuse is 24/7, making the private public, increasing violence and shaming. It is sad that because of recent media events, everyone in Canada now knows the phrase “hate fuck.” And equally sad that sexual health information emphasizing consent is often opposed in schools.
It took me a long time to recognize and aspire to safe and healthy relationships, and sometimes I was just lucky to avoid harm. I wish the world were getting better for relationships, but I fear that is not the case.
I hope some of you can tell me stories about your affirming, supportive relationships, or – maybe even better – the ones you see your children developing.
This post was inspired by Lena Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl.
See also: My Gender Story