Response to a prompt from Elle Beau on “What does the World tell you…”
My life is not my own
The world has always told me it’s shameful to be female. Calling a person “girl”, (or pussy, prissy, sissy, etc.) was the ultimate insult when I was a child.
When I was in kindergarten (KINDERGARTEN!) I was walking down the hall at my school on an errand for my teacher. The principal, an older, white man, stopped me. He made me kneel down on the tiles, while he drew out a wooden ruler. He bent down with his huge, cold, white hand holding my leg, and measured the number of inches between the back of my knee and the hem of my dress. Too short!
Until that humiliating day, that knit navy dress was my favorite. I threw it in the give away box.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy that dress myself at Victoria’s Secret. Mom was a Sears shopper. But the shame was all mine.
At the same school, at age ten, we went to Seattle for the Science Center and Pike Place Market. I was very small for my age, skinny, red hair, glasses, freckles — a dorky mess compared to the pretty girls. Because of this I had become extremely shy and very, very modest in dress. Now, my red hair was cut short. I tried hard to be invisible.
A man came waltzing out of a bar, approached me in full view of everyone, swept me up in his arms and kissed me with all his might. Hands everywhere. No one said a word. In those days, a man could grab any child, and if he acted entitled, he was entitled. Why not pull children off the side of the street and humiliate, bewilder, and indelibly create a thudding mental note about non-autonomy that bangs about in my inner skull to this very day?
Be one of the guys
I became a strict tomboy. Climbing in the trees, playing football, messing with motor bikes and climbing mountains every chance I got. Unlike my “pretty blonde, princess” sister, I worked outdoors with my brothers. Hauling wood. Chopping down trees. Harvesting the hay bales.
I believe that most of this served me well. I didn’t want to be a prissy girl. I didn’t want lip stick, or frills, or mortifying attention from boys. I did not socialize. I hid in my books, becoming the classic nerd and Trekkie. I doubt anyone from middle school through high school knew I existed.
After high school, I left the state as a completely naive girl who had no experience of dating, or popularity, or sexuality. I got my first real job out of state. I had never had liquor before. My new friend Jeanie and I went out to the hotel restaurant. The male chef there knew Jeanie. After being given so much aquavit that I completely blacked out, I awoke, wearing only socks, in a completely strange house I had never seen.
Be able to laugh it off
After finding my way miles back to my Aunt and Uncle’s home, I rested. Then I went straight to the chef. He basically just laughed a lot and told me “not to worry about it.” To this day, I don’t know what became of my physical body during those lost hours. I have only the sense that my body was not for me to control. Of course, I smooshed the whole ordeal deep down in my psyche to never see the light of any day until this one.
As my confidence and self esteem evaporated, I had more experiences like this than I will ever reveal. The world told me, shame is all mine, but my body is not my own.
Today consent and safe work environment is an issue. Not then. Pre-Anita Hill, no matter what part of the scale along which bad actors perform — from cat calls to full violation — it was considered the norm.
My father was an authoritarian who believed women served men, so I wanted to ditch that entire idea and be one hundred percent responsible, (and in control) of myself.
Be in love, but secretly, with a “girly man”
In my first year of college I met my best friend. I had an intense crush. He encouraged me to reveal, and be proud of the body I hid beneath layers and layers of t-shirts, flannel, and heavy, bulky coats. He was more interested in clothes, hair and make up than I was, but I did feel empowered by learning to occasionally dress in flattering ways.
Skinny redheads never think our boobs are big enough, even while we think we’re too fat in the thighs. When I see old photographs, I am amazed at how perfect my body was, and how distorted by sense of self was in general.
Of course, my supportive bestie came out as gay. Without consciously knowing it, I knew he was less predatory, somehow, than all the other males around me. I loved in silence, and he found his man.
He died of AIDS. I will never know the whole story. He, being gay, was never allowed to be open, loud and proud about who he was, either. He hid much, even from those he loved. Of course, bigotry against LGBTQ, is based in misogyny as well. Don’t be a “girly man!”
Be non envious of all the toys and games
Growing up I was taught never make waves. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t complain. Certainly, don’t swear. Stay quiet. Stay small. Don’t even notice that the boys get the sports, the play fields, the skate parks, the free pass to be rowdy, the cheerleaders, the science and math expectations of excellence. Honestly, as insignificant as I was, I did not much notice.
Yet, as I became a journalist, I realized fewer than three percent of my co-workers were female. All the owners and administration were white and male dudes. The aggressive male voices got the best assignments. When females asserted themselves, they were shamed for being bossy, or hysterical, or too demanding, too“bitchy.”
Be a bitch goddess, but never a bitch
For me, “bitch” will never stop being a word based entirely on sexism, even as so many have tried to reclaim its power. It is still weaponized and hurled as less than a compliment in most usage.
Even now, when I try to be a bitch goddess, an internalized, thought police, inner girl goblin shuts me down. Having been successfully taught that cursing isn’t lady like, the inner censor officer will never, ever be quiet.
I internalized what all girls are taught. I guess that inner voice itself is a whiny little bitch.