The True Feminine
“I am not sugar and spice and everything nice.
I am art.
I am a story.
I am a church bell, gonging out wrongs and rights and normal nights.
I was baby. I am child. I will be mother.
I don’t mind being considered beautiful, I do not allow that to be my definition.
I am a rich pie strong with knowledge.
I will not be eaten.”
I was in 7th Grade. Self-conscious, shy, and unsure. Trying to be nice to everyone so everyone would like me and want to be my friend. Insurance against others doing the worst thing middle school girls can do — “talk about me”. That was 1970s code for what we now call bullying. The whispers as you passed, overtly hostile stares, the cruel hierarchy of cafeteria seating. I worked so hard to stay under the social radar, not to be noticed, while at the same time wishing I was “popular.” In English class, my favorite class, a place where I felt competent and safe, I was walking back from the teacher’s desk in a room full of classmates I thought of as friends. Not all of them close friends, but certainly all known to me, and in my small town, known to me for years. One boy who was always nice to me stepped into my path, and said “You have big boobs,” with a direct look and such an air of giddy victory, such intensity of purpose, I immediately understood this had been planned. Perhaps he had drawn the short straw from whatever pressures of middle school tyranny he also navigated. Perhaps he volunteered as proof of his willingness to do anything to be part of his group. And maybe he was just an adolescent asshole. He looked into my eyes to drive home his dominance, to see my reaction, and my certain acquiescence to the male power he was raised to expect. First I froze, feet held fast in disbelief to the dirty gray carpet. The din of the classroom closed around me in a claustrophobic metallic cavern of overpowering clamoring noise. Then came the hot sweeping tide of humiliating embarrassment. There was laughter from his friends, who I thought were also my friends, and they tipped back in their chairs, one foot braced against their desks in easy arrogance, high-fiving each other. He looked at them, victorious. He’d just made a three point basket. All net.
I think it was a dare, but it doesn’t matter. I was hot and sweating and desperately trying not to cry. He looked in my eyes and instead of admiration for his strength, saw the pain he’d inflicted, and he flushed, and looked away, ashamed. His discomfort in no way ameliorated the damage he’d done. It has been four decades since this happened. I can still feel every single awful second of that encounter when I allow it, like picking at a scab. It was then, in that minute, in that classroom, in front of the friends who laughed, and the ones who kept silent, that I began to hate my body. Hate it for how vulnerable it made me. A bulls eye for harassment. Like every woman in every society around the world. A fellowship of shame.
Do I want to tell this story? It lays me bare in a myriad of embarrassing ways, even though it’s the story women everywhere share, and certainly mine is “better” than many, in that I was never beaten or raped. But I am angry that I feel the embarrassment. And in the telling, why am I the one feeling exposed and sick with anxious shame all over again?
I’m in high school and invited to go on a trip to the Caribbean with a friend. We travel with her parents and a group of her father’s business associates and their wives. My parents trust them, happy for me to have this opportunity. My friend and I get on a shuttle at the resort to take us to dinner, but there aren’t enough seats for us all, and I alone am left without a seat. One of the men, a prominent executive at a local business in the community, says I should sit on his lap. I don’t want to, but I do. I don’t want to be the only one standing in the aisle. I don’t want to be a problem. I am always cooperative and a good girl, and I don’t want to stand out. And I am 15 years old. The whole way there he looks at my breasts and makes comments about me sitting on his lap. I am horrified but lack the confidence to tell him to stop. His wife sits mute beside him, looking straight ahead. It frightens me that she refuses not only to step in and stop him, but even refuses to see what is happening. I feel my face burning as I try to ignore him and pray for the short trip to end. I want my parents and to be back at home. I don’t want to be here with these people. I feel dangerously alone. But here I am. And I can’t leave. I am the one embarassed. And angry at my powerlessness. And so ashamed.
I’m working at an ice cream store the summer before I leave for college. The assistant manager is married and has a young son. He flirts with me and my naïveté. I’m flattered, and feel very grown up. He takes me for supper when my shift ends. I begin to think this doesn’t feel right, but don’t know what to do. I need the job to pay for my books, and I don’t have my own voice yet. I want so desperately to be older and confident and I feel his attention is the indicator of my worth. He kisses me, then tells me his wife doesn’t understand him and he’s thinking of leaving her. I know now I don’t want to hear this. He’s 38 years old and I’m newly 18. I don’t want to be there. I don’t say anything. But hope he will just take me home. Where it’s safe. And I berate myself for being so stupid and trusting. And I am the one embarassed and ashamed. Again.
I’m a first year student at a wide open and progressive liberal arts college. I feel empowered, surrounded by good feminist scholarship and a supportive and accepting community. I feel I’ve finally escaped the bullying sexist oppression of my small rural town. It’s snowing hard, and piling up on the ground. It’s a quiet night and I take my cross country skis out to be with the snow. There are some little boys from town playing in the snow. They throw a snowball my way, and I stop and throw one back. They run over and knock me down and one of them gropes me between my legs. I react with fury and hit him. The other two, I think unaware of what their friend has done, jump back and look at me, surprised. I call them fuckers and tell them to get away from me. The one who grabbed me laughs and they run away. The night is spoiled. I don’t feel safe anymore. I can’t believe this happened to me. I need to tell someone, to share my shock and to talk it through. But in talking to my friends, I’m ashamed. If I hadn’t gone out alone after dark this wouldn’t have happened. If I hadn’t engaged with them this wouldn’t have happened. So many ifs. And, of course, all my fault.
I am working as a waitress at a local restaurant between college semesters. I’ve been running and playing a lot of racquetball. The assistant manager also plays. He suggests we play someday, and I think that would be fun. I think we’re friends. Until I beat him. He gets angry, and asks me why the sweat pattern on my back is so “weird”. Where my sports bra lays against my skin, my shirt is dry. I realize there’s a perfect outline of it on my back. I try to deflect the question, but he asks again. Asking aggressively to embarrass me. And I am embarassed. Again. But this time, also angry. I’m discovering my voice. And limits to my shame, and I’m glad I beat him. I tell him I have to get home and I leave.
I’m married to my husband, and together we have two little boys. My husband values me and my abilities and tells me so often. He’s a life partner in the fullest sense of the word, and a devoted and caring parent to our children. I get used to feeling equal and that nurtures the growing voice inside me. At the same time, the social atmosphere is changing, and women are taken more seriously, mostly because we’ve demanded it. We go to buy a new car; manual transmission because it is much less expensive. I’ve never driven stick shift, so I sit in the back seat while my husband, and the salesman sit up front. The salesman talks only to David about purchasing the car. While David is test driving the car, I ask a question about driving with a stick shift. The salesman glances at David and laughs out loud. Then makes some flat cobwebbed joke about women behind the wheel. I don’t say anything, but when it comes time to bargain for the car, I do the talking, and his tone and the focus of his attention undergoes a noticeable shift. Had I the strength of my convictions, we’d have walked out and told him why, but I’m not that strong yet. I don’t feel entitled to that respect. I’m not comfortable owning it. And I’m ashamed for asking a dumb question.
I think my generation might be the last generation in which girls are largely raised to be “good” and “quiet” and endlessly accommodating, even if it impinges on what’s truly and rightfully good for them. It’s one thing to be generous. It’s quite another thing to allow someone to tramp all over you and say nothing, swallowing it and packing it down, and mistaking silence for strength. I’ve worked so hard for confidence in myself. To speak up for myself. Girls are the target of dress codes that limit what they can wear so boys don’t lose their minds and their self-control. Girls are taught their bodies are dangerous and tempting. Women are vilified for dressing provocatively, or drinking a little too much, and that becomes a convenient excuse for violence and assault. At the same time, the perfect breasts, the flat stomachs, and the smooth endless thighs of Victoria’s Secret models are held up as the gold standard of sexuality and appearance. It’s a confusing and frustrating dichotomy of supreme power and utter powerlessness.
I am asked by a male relative, with a dresser drawer full of Playboy magazines, to please stop breastfeeding my baby at the family dinner table in front of him. He angrily tells me he shouldn’t have to look at that. When I politely refuse to leave the table, I mention those hidden magazines and he erupts in white-lipped rage at me, stabbing the air with his finger in my direction. But why should I eat my dinner cold so his misplaced perspective and weirdly skewed aesthetic is reinforced? My body, imperfectly human, nurtured three little lives and fed them nourishment, physical and beautifully emotional, for them and for me. And for that strength and growth I am thankful. I hold that moment close as the point where it finally gains momentum and begins to turn around for me.
Do I want to publish this? I think I have to. It will worry my parents, distress them that they didn’t know this was all going on in my life, but I would say to them that I am alright, and I hid it well so they wouldn’t know any of this was happening — so no one would know. Shame is so powerful. It might embarrass my children. But I say to them, all of this happens to women all the time. That is reality they need to know. And while it was all painful — each and every bit of it embarrassing and sometimes frightening — it also made me careful, discerning, and gradually more confident in my own worth. I think that I unconsciously learned from it all by enduring. I hope I passed my perspective on to my children when they came along. My daughter is much stronger than I was at her age, and has undoubtedly faced down her own emotional and physical assaults with courage and insight, and even if not, if she has been plagued with doubt and shame of her own, she clearly has learned from it. I admire her assertiveness and her strong sense of her own value. My sons both treat the women in their lives with love and respect, just like their father does. I think it has turned out alright. But how much better would it have been to learn those lessons without such deep shame to overcome, wishing I realized it was never my fault to begin with.
I carried the weight of it all my life, like most women, and it’s only now that I am able to name it and reject it, and begin to come out from under it. But I still have to work to accept and like my body, let alone feel love for it. There is just too much working against that, beginning with the election to the White House of a man who brags about grabbing women by the pussy. Do men and yes, other women, devalue womanhood so much that a man like that, a malignant cartoon of misogyny, can be elected the leader of the free world? Apparently yes. Every day, women are bombarded, deluged, with messages telling them they are less than, and inconsequential. That they aren’t measuring up, and aren’t worth consideration. That they aren’t capable of managing their own lives and that white cisgender Christian men must make decisions about their children, their families, and the health of their own minds and bodies for them. That in return, they should sit down, be quiet, and be grateful that more rational male minds are there to decide and arrange things. That they are wanting and deficient, until it comes to sex. And then women must be available, and not just available, but enthusiastic, uncomplaining, grateful, maybe a little kinky, with perfect bodies and a horrifying proliferation of surgical remedies for simple human differences. Those women who dare to speak out against sexual assaults are almost always doubted and vilified, then condemned for waiting so long to come forward. It’s a terrible burden. And takes enormous will to refuse to shoulder it, and to instead celebrate a true freedom to be our best selves in all our glorious female diversity.
I still hate my body some days. But more and more, I also love this body. I love that it’s strong enough to run 20 miles at a steady pace, powering up long hills and striding out the miles, pushing beyond exhaustion to stretch my resolve and achieve my goals. I love that this body of mine grew and delivered three beautiful babies, that my breasts fed them and helped them grow. I love that this body, indelibly marked by the miracle of those three pregnancies and births is deeply and sincerely loved by my husband, and because of that, is a wondrous source of pleasure. And yes, there are times when I can finally accept a sincere compliment or an appreciative look without denying or demurring, because I work hard to be healthy and fit, and to embrace that emotionally. Every day I look in the mirror and tell myself, “You’re good. You’re so good.” Someday I will know it in my bones and believe it without question, but only then can I stop saying it. It has taken me so long to get here. And I, and most women, still have so far to go. And I am tired.