I never understood why my mom would always call me back inside once the streetlights turned on. During the summer of fourth grade, when I was 10, all I wanted to do was play outside with my neighbors. We played kickball, manhunt, hide-and-seek. Who cared if the sun was finally going down? I just wanted to be a kid. Why did the fun always have to end when those stupid streetlights turned on?
When I was little, I never liked watching the news. I thought it was boring, and there were never any good stories. But then one night, my father turned on our television to listen as he cooked. I heard that a young girl had been taken from her home during the night. He turned to me and said: “Cuidado la fora” — be careful outside.
My tiny fourth-grade mind could not comprehend how or why that was happening, and why I needed to be careful. Where were the witnesses? Where were the police? Where was anyone who could have helped her? Is this why Mom made me come back inside; and why did I have to grow up in a world where I could not feel safe when the streetlights were on? I stared, mesmerized, at the bright yellow lights illuminating our road before I snapped back into reality.
One of the first days back to school from vacation, in fifth grade, I remember one of my friends was “dress coded,” meaning a teacher told her that her bright blue tank top was inappropriate for school. The teacher demanded she go to our school closet of clothes and select a different shirt. I was beyond confused and, curious, I asked the teacher, “Why can’t she wear that?” She responded, “Don’t you see what’s happening on the news? You have to respect yourselves!” Looking back, I now realize that at the ripe age of 10, I was being conditioned to hide behind my clothing as an act of self-defense. Shorts quickly turned into jeans, leggings couldn’t be worn outside of dance practice, no tops that showed even a centimeter of my stomach, and certainly no staying out past the second the streetlights turned on, because it made me prey to the world.
It would be years before I questioned this world I lived in. One day in my sophomore year I was scrolling through the thousands of memes and selfies on Instagram when I was confronted with pictures of clothing. Not for sale, not an outfit-of-the-day post either. These were articles of clothing worn by survivors of assault. T-shirts, jeans, sweaters, pantsuits, even police uniforms. I realized that clothing wasn’t what made you prey. A plethora of questions all hit me at once: Why were women so blatantly disrespected, why wasn’t our society doing something to protect us, and why was it my job to hide behind my own clothing?
Sometimes now I feel like I’m suffocating, drowning in my own anxieties as I choose my next outfit, take public transportation, or walk home from work. I always comply with the restrictions that have been forced on me. Even at 17, I still sit and stare at the yellow-tinted streetlights. My questions might never have an answer, but I hope that the next generation has the freedom to walk in the streets once the streetlights are on, and wear the clothes they want to wear.