Thursday, February 23, 2006

I'm Not Going Back

I was half-joking when I said that after my first day of junior high, because I knew there was no way it was going to happen, but I was dead serious when I said that after what turned out to be my last visit to the heart specialist.

I was in sixth grade and had not only already started wearing bras, but I had already started wearing proper bras. None of this "training bra" shit for me - during the short time that training bras would have made sense, my mother knew that it wasn't worth the fight to convince me to wear them. She made me wear undershirts for a while instead - until there was just no avoiding the bra.

I was never the kind of kid that wanted to grow up quickly to begin with; the fact that all this new stuff seemed designed solely to make me miserable just made me even more dead set against it. It was bad enough that I was the nerd who appropriately wore glasses, now I was the freak whose face looked like a pizza and I had to deal with these...things...that made doing all the stuff I loved feel weird. Running suddenly felt odd; the bras that rubbed me in all the wrong places never seemed to do anything about all the flopping and bouncing around. Sometimes, it just plain hurt. I nearly broke into tears the first time I tried riding one of those stupid amusement park rides that rock you back and forth and then upside down after I hit puberty. It hurt to have that much force pull on those stupid things that were now attached to me. It was even more humiliating that I seemed to be the only one of the girls who was bothered by this.

I would have done anything to make them and those stupid cramps and all the mess that came with them go away forever.

But, no, instead I had to go to the doctor's and go through the normal routine of taking my shirt off in front of strangers and have them stick all kinds of gunk and wires all over these...things...I had suddenly acquired. Only now it would really be strangers because the cardiologist who had seen me every year since I was born had retired and I had a new doctor that I had never even met before.

I knew it wouldn't kill me simply because I wished so hard that I could die instead of going.

Obviously I survived; in fact, it ended up not being as scary as I thought it would be. But it was nearly as humiliating, and I went from being slightly frightened of the people who did these strange things to my body to hating them with a passion I hadn't realized I was capable of feeling. Even worse, I hated myself and my body even more than I had before. I had always been somewhat proud of what it could do from the time I was old enough to understand how amazing it was that I was still alive to begin with. Now, though, my body seemed to be betraying me in all kinds of new ways - and everyone else seemed to either be unconcerned or view this as a cause for celebration - or worse.

Suddenly, my mother cared more about what I wore, how I sat, and all kinds of other silly things than I ever though possible. One particular evening at a block party was spent arguing about the fact that one of the straps of the huge tank top I wore over my suit kept falling off my shoulder. I was vaguely aware that there was something "wrong" about appearing that way in public and that now that I was older it involved more than just looking "presentable." I though it was a stupid thing to worry about though, and I wasn't doing it on purpose (at first) and I decided that I liked the way it felt anyway. (One of the upsides of reaching puberty that I didn't recognize as such for a long while was that I became even more aware of how things felt against my skin.)

As a even a little girl you are so often told that your body is not for doing things, it is for looking pretty. When you reach puberty this only intensifies, and at twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, you just want someone to empathize, not to tell you that it will get better one day or that you will learn to like how everyone is treating you and looking at you.

The worst consequence, in my opinion, of our idolization of youth, is that women are most exposed to the male gaze at the time when they are still girls and in fact are even more vulnerable to other opinions than they were as young girls. Just at the time when I needed to be looked at with more tolerance, compassion and empathy than ever, I was more objectified than I ever have been and likely will be. I knew all this was happening too, but I didn't have the experience or language to analyze it beyond feeling that it was terribly unfair and terribly frightening. Even now it's hard to explain to people that what made me mad about the boys finally letting the girls play touch football in sixth grade (after years of being shunned from most pick-up games) - and the girls wanting to play (after years of not having any female friends willing to play anything other than handball) - was that my peers felt it was ok to use each other this way, and that it was obvious that so much about the dynamics were terribly unequal (it's not like the boys were joining in games of jump rope or sitting down and talking with us). It wasn't so much that I felt like anyone was outright telling me that I couldn't play (although that did happen), but that everyone was making it very clear that the only thing I they wanted girls to contribute was our looks. In fact, it was the first time that it was made clear that our looks were important because it made boys want to do things to us - in this case touch us - not just look at us and certainly not do anything with us - they didn't seem to want us to touch them and we certainly weren't supposed to want to do that anyway.

What made situations like that last doctor's visit especially hard is that I knew that not only was I supposed to be pretty - and yet I was deeply ashamed because I felt as though I wasn't - but that I also knew that I was supposed to be modest, and that the latter was even more important, if that's possible. That stupid strap was somehow vitally important to my mother - and yet I was expected to take my whole shirt off for a complete stranger, showing him parts of me so indecent that they must be covered up with a special type of undergarment, and do so without complaint. I was supposed to play touch football with the boys, and yet not only was I not supposed to care that they didn't actually want to play with me, but I was somehow supposed to like their self-centered gaze and yet not want to be touched. It was so completely illogical and confusing that I just gave up trying to figure it all out and decided that everyone was just plain stupid.

When I told my mother that I wasn't going back to the doctor's she agreed - she knew how upset the last visit had made me, and there had not been anything wrong with me in a decade. When the call came next spring reminding her to make the appointment, she just ignored it. Soon after, I decided to ignore the boys - and girls - who only seemed to care what I wore or how I looked. They had never been terribly nice to me anyway. It took a lot longer, unfortunately, to learn to be not ashamed of my body - to enjoy it and my sexuality and to not compare my body to some unrealistic ideal. In fact, these are things I'm still very much working on.

1 comment:

sybil said...

This is a great contribution on the way girls learn to keep to their places so early on. thank you.