From the earliest moment I can remember growing up in North Philadelphia, I was harassed for my looks. When I was little, I was teased for being tiny, with protruding teeth. The bullying made me cry at night. As I entered Julia de Burgos magnet middle school, a group of kids placed a photo of me and other girls next to each other and ranked us by who was “prettiest."
My life became a series of votes and ratings. All of it made me feel more insecure.
Today, I’m the mother of children who have just passed through Philadelphia middle schools. While I know it’s a tough and awkward age for all students, the #MeToo movement has made me consider the deeper legacy of harassment and bullying of young girls like what I faced.
There are so many of barriers facing women in below-poverty-line neighborhoods, but one that is rarely talked about is the pervasive sexual harassment that chips away at girls' confidence from the moment they enter school. There is catcalling, groping, sexualization, nasty comments, and even assault. I see clearly how my daughter faces more of these challenges than my son. More than two-thirds of high school girls reported sexual or verbal harassment in one 2016 study, and nearly half of middle-schoolers — predominantly girls — had those experiences.
Research indicates that some women are especially at risk: Low-income women are four to six times more likely to experience sexual assault. One study showed that women without a high school diploma are sexually victimized at a 53 percent greater rate than women with a diploma or some college.
Even with the national #MeToo conversation unfolding, it’s hard to see how that is making real change for students in low-income schools, or women in blue-collar jobs. Many of the discussions still focus on Hollywood, celebrities, and high-profile executives, with the solutions geared toward privileged women, like all-women workspaces.
If we really want to invest in gender equality, it’s time to include women from other backgrounds — and start earlier in their lives.
The harassment started when I was 9, in 1997. Boys teased, grabbed, and punched me. Older girls compounded the problem with threats and taunts, calling me a slut, even when I had never even spoken to the boys that sparked their jealousy. I was not special — most girls in my class faced some version of this, including some of the ones who targeted me.
Teachers and parents weren’t aware of it. Most of the times I dealt with it on my own. It had real effects.
The bullying got so bad I couldn’t do schoolwork and feared attending school. By 14, I was pregnant and soon dropped out, taking care of the baby on my own. But even pregnant, or as a new mom, or having obtained my GED and started a job in my late teens, the sexual harassment continued. And in the workforce, I saw other ways that women were forced to remain subordinate.
For much of my teens, I worked at Taco Bell. More sexual harassment claims are filed in the restaurant industry than any other. Most servers are women working for male managers, and like them I worked full-time on $7.50/hour, earning about $15k a year. One time, my manager said in front of the staff that he hired me just to have sex with me. I didn’t say much, brushing it off as ignorance. The managers were mostly men.
Now I work in customer service at a technology company. The management here, too, is overwhelmingly male. This discrimination is echoed in customers who regularly tell me “you don’t know what you’re talking about,” yet listen when a man gets on the phone, even if he just repeats what I said. Taken on their own, each individual dismissive act like this can feel trivial. What many don’t see is the culmination of a lifetime of being treated this way.
One thing we can do as women and mothers is bring up girls to have higher expectations, even as there are more places than ever before for them to be harassed, due to social media.
Perhaps that’s what is different for my daughter: I tell her she doesn’t have to stand for this, something my mom never felt emboldened to say to me. Believe that you deserve better, I say. That’s my part. Will society act to change as well — and start by centering sexual harassment conversations not on the most powerful women, but on the most vulnerable?
Vanessa Davila is a journalist-in-training at The Fuller Project, a nonprofit journalism organization that reports on issues impacting women. @fullerproject