In regards to women’s bodies, there are three things you can always count on as being true the majority of the time.
- Any photo of one in an ad or national magazine or blog has been PhotoShopped in one way or another. If it hasn’t, the fact that it’s PhotoShop-free will be boasted in a headline because the practice is so common. Sometimes the PhotoShopping is totally innocent, but even teeth whitened by the stroke of a mouse count toward a technologically enhanced body.
- There’s at least one embarrassing period or unmanageable-boob-growth story associated with that body, likely under lock and key in the attached brain.
- It’s been harassed.
That last point became dishearteningly clear last week as women across the world posted “Me too” on their Facebook pages and social media accounts, essentially marking themselves as unsafe in a patriarchy.
Me Too is like the Feminine Mystique for 2017. One voice leads to ten leads to 10 million who reveal, “I had this experience too. I’m not alone in feeling this way.” There’s solidarity, awareness and opportunity for change in numbers. Just look at what’s happening in Hollywood. The macho, manipulative mighty are falling and it’s glorious.
For the record, #metoo; however, I didn’t add my experience(s) to my Newsfeed.
Something about it made me feel used again? As if to join the chorus on social media, I was selling out my stories. I know some women tried to express this sentiment in their posts–it’s not our jobs to change the injustices caused, by and large, by men. Plus, I don’t like feeling pressured to expose something–my sins to religious zealots or my rapes to eager feminists.
I’m sensitive to how easily other people can take stories of abuse or harassment and mold them into whatever storyline makes most sense to their own expectations. This is where “Well, what were you wearing?” or “Why did you stay after he hit you?” et al. come into play. Something about Facebook and its shifting demographics (at least on my feed) made sharing on that platform feel dangerous.
I have too many experiences to share. Being a woman in 21st century America is the best that being a woman in America–hell, the world–has ever been, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t unwritten rules and bullshit boundaries we find ourselves coming up against on a regular basis. Like dogs with electric collars, forced to stay back, hold back, stand back. Shocked into submission.
And I’m still trying to figure some of these experiences out. There are situations I know felt wrong, but I’m still uncovering the layers of why.
An example. A recent one. I ordered an Uber to take me home after working late at the office one night. It was as dark as nearby Lake Michigan and I didn’t feel like walking to the train. Uber seemed like the safer option. Until I got in the back seat.
The driver, a man in his mid-thirties with a doughy frame and a face like a cloudy moon, began by asking me what I did for a living. Why was I just leaving work?
I’m a writer.
I hoped my downward inflection and the glow of my cellphone in my hands helped pass along the hint that I didn’t want to talk.
From there he launched into a long story about how he writes erotica. Because he has a sick mind, he said. And, man oh man, you just won’t believe the vile, disgusting, sexy shit he thinks about sometimes, he said.
Naturally, all the hairs on my arms are reaching toward the door handle. I’m at attention, all things go, ready to jump out the door if I have to. Suddenly, the act of riding in an Uber feels incredibly stupid. I don’t know this man. I don’t know this car and how its lock system works. I don’t even really know this city and if he’s taking me in the right direction.
He continues, talking about how angry he is that no one seems to read or even like his erotica fiction. Internally, I’m pissed. Fuck this guy. Doesn’t he know this would make me, a woman, a customer, who is ultimately completely powerless in this situation, feel threatened? Is he a socially inept idiot or someone I should be scared of–someone who knows exactly what he’s doing?
My next reaction is what’s really interesting to me today, many months after this happened. I didn’t act pissed at him. Instead, I did the opposite. It was as if my brain flipped onto survival mode, lighting up something evolved through female ancestors who’ve dealt with generations of dirty dicks.
That means, essentially, that I stroked his ego. As I quickly texted my Uber ride to Justin so he could track it (thanks Uber!), I told my driver this all sounded very interesting.
Tell me more!
Oh, wow, that’s great that you keep writing though!
I said it cheerily, not flirtatious to give the wrong idea, but not condescending to add to his ire. A tone I have perfected. I was in subtle survival mode. Without even thinking about it, I had done a mental read on what a guy like this might need to hear in order to not be so outraged that he’d kidnap me and perhaps make all his erotic fiction non-fiction.
Isn’t that sad? That I’d have to do those kinds of calculations. That he’d not understand why what he was telling me about his sexual fantasies after I’d put my body’s safety in his hands was so inappropriate.
Goodbye! Have a nice night!
As soon as I got out of the car and into my apartment, I reported it to Uber. I’m still gnawing on how quickly and instinctively I reacted with fake kindness instead of righteous, empowered disdain. All in an attempt to help myself against what I saw as a threat. How had I learned to do that? Would I have felt better about the situation if I called this guy out for being a fucking creep while I was still, technically, in his possession?
My reactions to things like this are very confusing. Another example. Two old ones. I once had blackout drunk sex (I was blacked out but talking, I guess, and he was just drunk), technically what we would call a rape. This reality, however, feels much less insidious and damaging longterm than when a high school classmate molested me in the hallway while I was walking to the bathroom.
Why? In the circumstance of the drunk rape, though terrible, I think there was a misunderstanding more than there was malice. I have empathy for the way a patriarchal culture fucked both me and the guy and our reads of the situation. (Not all drunk rape situations, mind you. This one. I really do think they’re circumstantial and can’t be painted with one giant brushstroke.)
But I don’t have empathy for the classmate who cornered me and reached down my shirt and bra and grabbed my breasts. Why? He thought he could just take it, that he was entitled to it. He had a look in his eyes like he was owed it. He manipulated things so I would take the guilt so he didn’t have to. “You think you’re such a free spirit. Is that not true?” And he was known for doing this. To lots of girls I went to high school with. In fact, a breast grab was pretty tame. I was “lucky.”
What’s revealing to me as an adult is that, if you read between the lines, it’s clear none of the girls who experienced this in high school, myself included, felt like we could tell an adult. By 14, 15, 16, we had picked up enough clues to deduce that we were on our own with this. Alone. We didn’t even really talk to each other about it. Beyond that it happened and “what a creep.” Even now I can think of adults who would tell younger me, and girls like me, to “get over it” or some version of “it’s your fault.”
No. It’s not my fault. And I have higher expectations for adults now–of women too.
In my professional life, women have helped me, mentored me, given me promotions based on merit and skill, not because I asked for it. Recently, a woman who heads up HR at a company I was writing for told me flat-out that the hourly rate I was asking for was too low. She said I deserved more and I should ask for it.
Boom. Who run the world? Girls helping girls.
I’ve also had a self-professed feminist female boss laugh in my face when I asked for a raise. In some women’s efforts to take down “the man,” they become it themselves.
Emulating power is a cop-out way to take power. But I get why this happens. Let’s go back to high school, shall we? Toward the tail end of it, I worked at a chain restaurant with half-price happy hours and booths that your skin would stick to if your legs would sweat.
An example. Caught up in the hyper-sexual atmosphere of our kitchen (any kitchen), I smacked a hostess’ ass before our shift started. She was older and, clearly, didn’t find this funny. The next day, our manager gave the staff a lecture on sexual harassment and said that he’d had recently gotten complaints of inappropriate behavior.
Oh shit, though he didn’t call me out by name and never talked to me in person, I knew this was about me and smacking a grown-woman-just-trying-to-do-her-job’s ass. Instead of apologizing, I doubled down, telling myself the standard lines of unaccountability: It wasn’t my fault. It was just the culture of the kitchen.
Yikes. There’s truth to that. Not the whole truth though. And not a truth that’s truth enough to be an excuse. How many times did I see a similar story posted this week by my female friends who work in the restaurant and bar industries? Did it make it any less harass-y because I was a woman? That I was only 18? I didn’t feel right saying “Me too” when it was me, too, who had harassed someone.
This is why I think the women who gave tangible examples of when a line had been crossed over and onto their bodies was more helpful than just saying “Me too,” and why I hope these bigger conversations continue. Having examples helps us see how we’ve been complicit, whether we’re male or female; elaborate on the pain it can cause and why; and determine when not to act a certain way again.
Perhaps, though, when thinking about why I balked at putting “Me too” up as my Facebook status, there’s also this: I’m precious about my own traumatic experiences related to my body. In the nursing of our wounds, we have a tendency to make our scars seem different in some way than the scars of others. After all, they felt so earth-shattering to our world, how could someone else possibly understand, even when their story and the scars it left behind are eerily similar?
In psychology and behavioral economics, this is called the endowment effect: We put more value on things that belong to us than we would if the same thing belonged to someone else. Kelley Blue Book lies! My car is worth so much more!
Can it be applied to suffering? I don’t see why not. The old “back in my day we had to walk two miles to school in the snow, barefoot and uphill” is a trope because so many people say something to that effect. Deeming one’s hardships as harder to live through than someone else’s is only elevated in a time when TV shows like “American Idol” or “The Voice” l-o-v-e love a quick hit sob story that can caricature a simple singer into a soul survivor. Watch next week to see if this sad tale gets redemption!
So I guess I fall for it naturally. An example. Miscarriage. I had mine in my office bathroom. Technically, I had it for several days that followed, but it started there. I continued to work despite the pain of my womb exploding. I didn’t tell anyone until it was mostly over.
Why? Ha. Those reasons are as long and twisty, sad and wrong as white Jesus’ dreadlocks. But I can tell you this: It was painful and there was grief, but mostly it was a relief. I didn’t want to have that baby. It belonged to my emotionally abusive alcoholic boyfriend, who, among his sins, gave me an STD from cheating and held me down and peed on my face one night when I refused to have sex with him.
The miscarriage, all that blood, was a motherfucking wake up call to LEAVE. LEAVE THIS RELATIONSHIP NOW. GET OUT. GET OUT. GET OUT.
And I did. That baby sacrificed itself so I could enjoy the rest of my life and develop my own exit strategy from the person who was terrorizing me. I also wonder if it picked up on my anxiety, my worry, my fear, my loneliness, my rage. All of which were growing much faster than a fetus in a reluctant belly.
Before the miscarriage, I remember having this thought: It’s going to be a boy. You know it will be. Boys own your body. It’s not yours. And now another one is going to tear your body up, use it however he wants, and keep his grabby little hand out for more. And you’ll have to love him, give everything about yourself up for him, because that’s what good moms, good women, do.
Obviously this miscarriage is wrought with overlapping piles of shit. Instead of seeing a path to solidarity with other women who have had miscarriages, I think they couldn’t possibly understand. Because I think of my loss as something different than theirs. I feel angry they got to fully grieve theirs, too. I’m jealous of that. Their pain felt worthy because theirs happened in wedlock, the pregnancy was planned, and every other nonsense lie we’ve been made to believe to think someone else is doing life better than us.
Even last week, as I waited for my period to start, a few days late, I began to worry about how I will feel about my body if it didn’t give me blood soon. Will I completely disassociate again? Why, when there are so many women, also in my Facebook feed, who actively want, pine for, crave a child, would my body betray them and try to make one for itself? I just got sober and am living fully in my body more than ever before and NOW it tries to make a baby again? What the fuc… oh there it is. Finally. Blood. False alarm.
My relationship to my body is better than it ever has been. I can write about these sexual violations and unique physical upheavals that have happened to me from a distance because I’ve worked hard to put the space between me and them. I think a lot of women who posted their own experiences on social media last week have as well. Indeed, what you saw then, and what you’ve read here, is an outpouring of naming the the place where the thorn is and trying to dig it out.
In them meantime, we can just keep saying it, in whatever way and wherever and whenever we feel safe enough to, and hope our daughters (and, yes, our sons) don’t have to join the refrain. Me too. Me too. Me too.
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