My expectations of love and romance were doomed from the start. As a child, I lived and breathed Disney movies. The story was always the same: A beautiful princess was in trouble and — shocker — a beautiful prince came to save her. The perfect pair fall in love as soon as they look at one another, and BOOM! They’re set for life. To me, this cliché was reality. It was December 2010, and at 10 years old, I was already scoping my classroom for viable bachelors. I was a fifth-grader ready to be in love.
AJ was a 4-foot-10-inch brunette football player who was in my best friend’s class. In my mind, he was perfect boyfriend material. He was cool and athletic: the perfect embodiment of an apathetic jock. I was a perky dancer, which in my mind was close enough to the classic cheerleader. We were bound to be perfect. I was determined to date him.
I told each of my friends about my crush, all part of my master plan of him finding out and then, of course, asking me to be his girlfriend. Elementary school gossip travels fast, so naturally, AJ knew I liked him by the end of that day. We were dating by that night.
The following Friday was a snow day, which set the scene for a perfect first date. We were invited to sled at my friend Emma’s house, and I immediately started planning strategies in order to make the night flawless. We would share a sled, and it would be just like the magic carpet ride from “Aladdin”. I’d get cold and he’d give me his jacket. Maybe Emma’s mom would make us spaghetti for dinner, and we could share a noodle like Lady and the Tramp. We could even watch a movie and he’d pretend to yawn, then put his arm around me. To start the night off right, I secured the romantic ambience by wearing a shirt that said “Free Hugs” — a flirtation tactic that nobody could deny. There was no room for error.
By the end of the night, everything had gone as planned. It was even more than I had hoped for because AJ had kissed me! It was just as romantic as I had hoped for too, as we snuck off into Emma’s closet, closed our eyes, counted down from three, and leaned in. I was the happiest 10-year-old alive. I was proud of my courage. I knew my brave efforts to put myself out there had paid off. Through hard work and determination, I had turned a fantasy into actuality. My two best friends showed their solidarity and agreed with my sentiments. And just as good friends do, they came back to my house, and we laughed about it all night. Not only was I in love, but I was an EXPERT on all things kissing!
“Was it on the lips or the cheek?!” Lips, obviously. This was the real deal.
“Who leaned in first?!” He did, duh! I was not that bold.
“Did you flick your foot in the air?” No, I didn't. That only happens in the movies.
It was all fun and games until my mom came home. As soon as she walked into my room, she could tell something was up. I saved myself the interrogation and blurted out the good news. My boyfriend kissed me! I expected a parade of joy, a giant hug, a mazel tov.
Instead, I was humiliated.
My mom explained to me that I was 10 years old, and kissing is inappropriate. Could I even imagine what the other fifth-graders would say if they found out? I didn’t even think about other people during my planning process — in the movies, no one else’s judgement matters but of the couple in love. I didn’t think that my behavior could be considered improper. I didn’t think kissing could be classified as such a taboo action. But the more I thought about it, the more anxiety I felt. The once present feeling of solidarity began to fade as my best friend whispered to me, “Some girls may think you’re a… slut.”
I had to keep it a secret because if not, I was destined to be the class slut.
A fifth-grade slut.
I cried the entire night. How could I be so slutty and not even realize it? I was gross. I felt an uncontrollable feeling of emotion come over me, an emotion I had never truly felt before. It was the perfect storm of humiliation, distress, anxiety and embarrassment caused by an understanding that my behavior was unacceptable. It was my first true encounter with the emotion that I would come to know as shame, and I had to get rid of the lingering disgust immediately. The only way I knew how was to continuously deny it even happening, shown by breaking up with AJ and swearing everyone involved to secrecy. No one else could know about what I thought was the first skeleton in my closet.
One of the main things I learned from my dabble in promiscuity is to never to trust fifth-graders to keep a secret, a truth that I was naive to at the time. Just like before, elementary school gossip travels faster than the speed of sound, and by the end of the following Monday, everyone knew about my first kiss. Denying it became impossible. By the end of the week, even the girls from the elementary school in the other part of town knew. Apparently, they didn’t want to be friends with the Deerfield girls anymore. We were too slutty for them.
I was a 10-year-old who already knew shame, who already felt the ostracism associated with sexual experimentation. I was a 10-year-old girl who wanted romance and love and flowers and a boyfriend and an innocent kiss. I instead was labeled a slut.
Thankfully, 10-year-olds tend to forget and move on. Girls started kissing boys regularly as soon as we hit middle school. I quickly became yesterday’s news, and my embarrassment eventually subsided. I no longer felt the humiliating consequences of my actions. Instead, other girls were condemned to the ruthless ridicule associated with sexual curiosity.
My friends have been subjected to any of the following: easy, prissy, whore, prude. Slut.
Whether it’s an experience that happened in college or an innocent fifth-grade kiss, the backlash is inescapable. But I’ve grown to realize that the backlash isn’t worth it. People will always pass judgements; people will always inflict shame. But by understanding this very feeling of shame is defeatable, I have been able to grasp that wearing my actions as armor is the most redeeming form of resilience.
I’ve watched “The Breakfast Club” thousands of times, and one quote always seems to stick with me.
“If you say you haven't (had sex), you're a prude. If you say you have, you're a slut. It's a trap. You want to, but you can't, and when you do, you wish you didn't, right?”
There’s no right answer. There will never be a right answer. No matter the action, or even lack thereof, there will always be the temptation of what seems to be an inevitable feeling of disgust, embarrassment, distress, humiliation. Shame is a collection of unasked-for ridicule, controlling the actions of the curious, condemning the actions dauntless.
And with that, I’ve learned to accept that I will forever be the 10-year-old girl with an open heart, vulnerable only to Disney princesses’ rare side effect of promiscuity.
If that makes me a fifth-grade slut, then so be it.