Today, Child had a swimming lesson. But rather than the usual lesson, where she is in a class of 5 5-ish-year-olds with 2 instructors, everyone was participating in a swim-a-thon today. The little ones, like her, were guided along the lane by a series of instructors placed every 5 or 6 meters. At the end of the pool was a man, standing by the ladder, helping them out. Then they walked back to the other end and did it all again. Repeat for 1/2 an hour.
Child was doing great, in spite of not having had lessons in months. Arms and legs a go-go, dodging splashy feet from others, grinning - you know, enjoying herself. I watched from the upstairs gallery for a while. Then I watched from a poolside window. Then I went into the locker room to wait for her to finish her final length.
She came triumphantly (I thought) smiling into the locker room, all teeth on show. I congratulated her on a job well done. I pointed out something specific I had seen her do. I asked her whether she felt more comfortable with arm bands or without. We walked to the showers. She kept grinning at me. Then she said.
"One of the teachers told me I should smile better, so look." She peeled her lips back for an enormous baring of the teeth. I stopped dead en route to the showers.
"The man helping us out of the pool at the end."
Let me stop here for a hot minute. I - yes, I - have been catcalled a few times in my life. And luckily they've never been especially explicit. More along the lines of a honk from a truck driver or a strange man on the street saying "hello" in an overly friendly way. These have been mildly embarrassing, and do not in any way cause me long term distress. I have dodged the worst of what can come in this harassment. It does me no good whatsoever to try to untangle why that may be.
One thing which has NEVER happened to me is being told by a man to smile more. This experience, if the feminist internet is any indication, is practically de rigueur when coming of age. My total lack of encountering this particular harassment made me slightly skeptical of its apparent universality. But I will concede that I often laugh to myself when walking alone, probably appearing like a deranged character out of a horror film, so perhaps that puts them off encouraging more intense smiling.
So imagine my utter shock that my NOT-YET-5-YEAR-OLD was being told by a man who looked to be in excess of 45 to smile better. As I recovered my faculties and ushered her into the shower, I said to her, at full voice volume and with no attempt to be discreet in front of other mothers and daughters, "If anyone ever tells you to smile better again, you have my permission to tell them to shove it."
I helped her get dressed, and we left. On the way to the car, with absolute fury in my tone, I told her that she can smile just as much or as little as she likes and it's no one else's business, certainly not that teacher.
She was well delighted with being told that she could tell someone to shove it. So as we got in the car, I thought I'd better explain what had just happened to her, lest she start cheerfully telling all and sundry to shove it. The following conversation ensued:
Me: Sometimes, Child, there are men and boys who think they're in charge of women and girls. They think they are in charge of deciding things like whether you smile enough, or whether you're pretty enough or smart enough...
Child, in utter indignation: WE ARE SMART ENOUGH!
Me: I know we are! We are. But some men and boys think they get to say whether we are or we aren't. And they are wrong. They don't get to decide that. We decide it for ourselves.
Child: I can smile as much or as little as I want.
Me: Yes. Yes yes. And it's very rude for someone to tell you that you ought to do it more. Sometimes, when they say it, it sounds like they're saying something nice. They might say, "You're so pretty when you smile. You should smile more." But you are pretty whether you smile or not. Because it doesn't have anything to do with what they think. Only with what you think. And that goes for feeling brave or strong or smart or anything else. So if someone says something rude to you about how you should change to look better, you can say something rude back. You can say, "SHOVE IT."
Child: I will. I will say, fudge it!
Me: Shove. Shove it.
Child: FUDGE IT!
At that point, I conceded that she could tell them whatever the hell she wants. As we carried on, I explained that not all men think this way or act this way. Daddy being a good example. She replied by saying how awesome it would be if she and I were Supergirls and Daddy was Superman. It would be awesome.
When we got home, Husband, being the modern liberated type, had just finished the housework. As we came in and ruined it, I told him what had happened. The look on his face. Thunderous doesn't even begin to describe it. He mouthed "What the fuck?" to me. I told him what I told her about shoving it. "FUDGE IT," she shrieked.