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Women Who’ve Told Me How My Body Should Be

From Mad Men Season 1, Episode 9: Shoot

It’s 12 pm on a Sunday and I’m on the phone with my mom. I’m 22 and walking around Chicago’s Roger’s Park neighborhood. A middle aged woman wanders past me slowly and hollers, “THE BOYS WILL GET SICK OF YOUR TITTIES HANGING OUT LIKE THAT”

I’m wearing a blue tank top. It’s very hot out. The universe has given me this body and I’m not the biggest fan of it but I’m trying to keep it comfortable. I’m on the phone with my mom and a woman is yelling at me about my chest.

“HEY,” I scream at her. “FUCK OFF.”

— — — —

I’m 7 years old and my best friend’s mom is always picking me apart. I am too loud. I picked a front-wedgie in front of her. I picked my nose. I sit the wrong way, hold myself the wrong way, talk too loud and too deep, something is wrong, no matter what I’m doing with my body, I’m inappropriate.

Her daughter and I are in deep friend-love and spend every day together almost. She is icy to me. Always correcting. Encouraging her daughter to choose activities that I, with my poor posture and lack of coordination, cannot do: ballet, tap dance, martial arts. She doesn’t understand why I don’t care about my appearance. When her daughter & I crawl around the yard pretending to be demons, we are given an intervention. My every impulse is wrong.

As soon as they move a town away, her daughter stops picking up my calls. My friend’s mother is relieved to have such a bad specimen of girlhood out of her daughter’s life. And perhaps, by that point, my friend is too.

— — — —

I am 9 years old and in Girl Scouts, and the troop leader won’t relent in telling me to stop sitting like that.

I’m sitting on my knees. Or I’m sitting curled up with my knees to my chest. I don’t see the problem. I crave the pressure, I can’t sit with my legs splayed out in front of me. It feels wrong. But she never lets me even try it, not for a single solitary second in a single meeting. She’ll stop a conversation to tell me to stop sitting like that.

Everything I do there seems to be wrong. How I sit, how I talk, if I won’t be nice and eat what she wants me to eat, it’s all open to critique. But the sitting is what really really gets her. It’s not ladylike.

I spend a weekend long camping trip not eating or using the bathroom. She won’t let me join the others in playing or doing crafts until I gulp down a bite of cold ravioli that is utterly offensive to my being. I’m afraid to use the latrines and she thinks that’s my fault. She yells at me for how I’m sitting through the whole standoff. I quit the troop.

— — — —

I’m 11 years old and trying on a bathing suit at a department store. Somebody, a relative, notices that the space above my hip bones, once a straight line is beginning to bow in, creating a waist. I am supposed to be flattered by this and interested in it, and I am, dully. I look at the growing divot in the mirror at home, happy that my body is signaling adulthood.

I have never cared about being a woman but I have always hungered to be an adult. This is what being an adult must mean for me. I’m supposed to want this. I’m supposed to feel alluring, I guess. The greater the ratio between hip and waist gets, the more I bump into things, and the more I want to starve myself.

— — — —

Photo by Annie Spratt, courtesy of Unsplash

I’m a tween, and it’s a sleepover, and people are putting makeup on me. My hair is being crimped. There’s spray in my face. My hair is crunchy. Pale blue shadow is on my lids. There’s gloss on my lips, and the stray hairs stick to it, and it’s repulsive to drink or eat.

When it’s time to give a makeover, I’m always the one the girls choose. I’m the one who needs the most work. I don’t wear any makeup. I don’t carry a purse. My clothing is childish. My hair is stringy and flat.

When they’re done with me, I feel freakish. The textures are all wrong. The dark-eyed, dark-lipped stranger in the mirror is disturbing, unrecognizable. It’s hard to be comfortable, hard to eat, hard to hold anything in my wet-nailed hands. I look in the mirror and cry.

Once, my friend Tahnee spent a whole afternoon getting me ready for a dance. When I saw myself dolled up I was distressed. I couldn’t explain it. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. My mom was furious at me for being so rude. I couldn’t figure out why I was acting like that. Why I had to feel that way.

— — — —

I am 13 years old and my mom tells me every time a boy is looking at me. At the mall, at the water park, at the movies. Every single time. She is delighted when she tells me. She’s proud of me, and a little coy, which is odd for her.

I look around. I never catch the boy looking. I am supposed to be flattered and I kind of am. But I never like what he looks like, never have a genuine interest in him. It’s good, technically, to have the power of beauty. But I never learn to actually like it. I find myself forever suspicious of people who decide they like me based on something I have no control over.

— — — —

I am 16 years old, in a corduroy skirt in Chemistry class. The teacher is a middle-aged woman with a son my age. Her son goes to my church and likes to ride bicycles long distance. I have rebuffed him, I guess. I don’t really remember. I just know that one day he was talking to me a lot, and one day he was not. I have a knack for scaring boys away by being myself.

I walk up to her desk to pick up a worksheet. She asks me why I’m dressed like a slut.

She says this in front of everyone.

I wanted to be a biologist. Had wanted that since I was a child. A week or two later she sits me down and tells me I’m not good enough at the hard sciences, maybe I should take non-Honors classes in the subject next year. I have the GPA to sign up for Honors but she won’t sign the sheet giving me permission. The next year, I’m in non-Honors Physics. I am tasked with making an edible car; all the honors kids make trebuchets. I don’t wear that corduroy skirt to school again.

— — — —

I’m an adult, and every time I come home to visit, my grandmother coos over how thin I still am. She speaks with mild envy about my figure. She asks me how often I exercise. What I eat. What the secret is. I have an eating disorder. I don’t tell her.

My grandmother is always talking about how she wants to be thin. She is at the age where having some extra body weight would actually reduce her risk of death, but she doesn’t know this. Nobody told her generation that. Nobody told my generation that. The science is only there to reassure you if you go looking for it.

I am anemic because I don’t eat. I walk 5 miles every day even when I have a cold. My grandmother does 3 miles on the treadmill each morning. She keeps doing those miles even when she has an injury. I’m tired.

— — — —

I’m 19 years old and getting a pap smear as part of a clinical trial for Guardasil, the HPV vaccine. I get free vaccinations in return for offering up my cervix to researchers once every nine months. The gynecologist tells me I should stop shaving my pubic hair. She says this while getting ready to look inside me. She says that not shaving will keep me safer from yeast infections. I haven’t mentioned yeast infections being a problem. In fact, they’re not a problem for me. I have no idea why she’s telling me this. I leave the doctor’s office feeling shamed. Nine months later, I skip my appointment.

— — — —

I’m 21 years old and freshly in graduate school. One of my advisers, Tracy, looks me up and down every day, no matter what I’m wearing, no matter what I’ve done or not done to anger her. She makes time in meetings to discuss attire — to complain, vaguely, about what is and is not appropriate. Cleavage is mentioned. She talks disapprovingly about leggings as pants.

There’s a young man in the lab who wears sweatpants to school every day. Nobody seems to care.

— — — -

I’m 22 years old and at Cedar Point, on a family vacation. My aunt gasps and runs up to me. She tells me how beyoootiful I am. Her words ooze all over me. I am supposed to be as emotional as she is, right back. I know that’s what women like her expect. But I’m just not as delighted about the whole thing. I have a physical form every day of the year and I see it always. It’s not a big deal.

She goes around asking family members if I’ve had a boob job. Several people have to tell her no, I’ve always looked that way, for her to be satisfied.

— — — —

I’m 23 years old and at a job interview in Evanston. It’s a part-time job that I’m overqualified for. They want an undergraduate and I already have most of a Master’s Degree. It doesn’t pay well. It barely pays at all. But too much of my chest is visible in the top I’m wearing, I guess, because the woman interviewing me stares the whole time and then pauses the interview to ask me if I even want the job.

By then, no, I really don’t.

— — — —

I am 24 years old and working at the Cook County Jail. It’s a hard internship, totally unpaid. I have to head to the jail at the crack of dawn, ride a series of buses, and spend hours watching incarcerated people get lectured on Jesus and sobriety and being a good dad. Even the ones who aren’t dads or Christians are forced to endure these lectures.

The men there are nice to me. We play cards sometimes. They’re not lascivious or rude. They’re nice, respectful, interesting. The real problem is my supervisor.

“Look at that dress,” she says when I arrive.

Later, “I’ll see you tomorrow at 7, I hope I can count on you to dress professionally and modestly.”

I’m wearing professional clothes. Is it how my body fills them that’s unacceptable? What am I supposed to do?

— — — -

I’m 25 years and performing in a comedy show. It’s called Loose Chicks and it’s only for women. I’m not a woman, but I’m still letting people call me one at that point. I arrive to the event early. I’m tweaking my essay, rethinking my delivery. We’re in a cafe under the train tracks, and the building shakes when a train pulls into the station.

The host of the show is an older woman who used to do burlesque. She shows up and makes a beeline for me. She takes my hands in her hands. She doesn’t say anything about the show or my piece or anything like that.

“You’re so much more beautiful than your picture,” is all she says.

— — — —

I am 28 years old, at a hotel in Wisconsin for a wedding. It’s morning and I’m in pajamas by the continental breakfast. My eyes are crusty and there’s no caffeine in my veins. Someone comes up behind me.

“You have such a gorgeous figure,” my great aunt says. She’s up really close. A hand gravitates around my waist very briefly as I’m pouring cream.

I thank her with the maximum bile possible. Her fluttering hand, thank god, does not connect with my body.

This aunt has described me as “hard to know”, in the past. My hostility doesn’t stop her trying.

— — — —

I’m any age, really, and a woman bemoans her figure, then turns her focus on me.

“You have a perfect body.”

“Your body is shaped like an S.”

“You’re like a perfect hourglass.”

“I hate my body, I gained four pounds this winter. But look at you!”

“You have curves in all the right places.”

“You’re like the feminine ideal.”

“Your boobs are so huge.”

I tried to be proud of these things, really I tried. But it never felt better than forgetting I had a body at all. It’s not what I want. It’s this large, looming thing that people feel entitled to, and I don’t want it, not any of it, not the body, or the entitlement.

— — — —

Every retail job I ever worked there were scores of women, usually much older than me, who wanted me to know how thin and how fantastic my body was, and wanted to ask about what I ate, how I exercised, what I did, why I was like that, did I know how lucky I was. I hated every fucking one of them and they hated every inch of me. They could tell I was not flattered. That I didn’t want any of the saccharine cajoling they were throwing, constantly, my way.

— — — —

It wasn’t any better in academia. Women in that setting have very specific ideas of what being professional and serious looks like. They have to dress up more than the men. They have to be more careful about being taken seriously. They impose those same expectations on the women around them. They are forced to be a certain way, and then they force their female students to be that same way, and call it a favor.

There’s this sick problem among women who have had to fight through sexist bullshit for decades and succeeded. They start to think the system is okay, as long as you follow its rules. They think that because they suffered, others must suffer too. They think that all you must do to succeed is Be the Right Way, rather than persuade people there are many Right Ways to Be.

These women are successful and they’re brazen careerists and they don’t sulk around about the unfairness they’ve faced. But they are angry and wound up and can no longer tell injustice from something you must Buck Up and take. They’re usually white and cis and straight. They hate me invariably and I hate them.

— — — —

I can only think of a handful of times when a woman older than me told me I was intelligent, witty, funny, admirable, strong. I can think of dozens upon dozens of times when a woman older than me said I was beautiful, well-dressed, curvy, or thin.

Men, in contrast, have complimented my writing, my delivery, my wit. And yeah, some of the men who said those things were creeps, too. But at least they knew what I’d rather hear. They’d at least pretend that my interior life mattered first.

— — — —

When men leer at me or comment on my body, I am aware of the entitlement hanging under it. They want to see it all. They want to see a smile. They want me to make them feel good. They want to get more of me for themselves.

When women comment on my body or my appearance, they want me to cram myself through the same tight passages they were crammed into. They want to remind me that I am an object for public consumption. They turn me into a vessel to hold their insecurities. And it’s just as scary and invasive.

Sure, these women think they’re helping. Yes, these women have been oppressed too. It’s true they are regurgitating what they have been forced to endure, and suffered under, and yeah, there’s sympathy to be felt in reflecting upon that.

But once you take internalized oppression and redirect it outward at somebody else, you’re kinda on the fucking hook with me. I can know you were a victim and still be victimized by you. I can feel sympathy for your damage without wanting a thing to do with you.

Excusing these women doesn’t keep anybody safe, and it doesn’t change the rules or the standards. It just produces new generations of self-conscious, uncomfortable young people, slowly becoming judgy in the wake of being judged.

Some people respond to misfortune by wanting other people to suffer the same way. Other people cope with it by slamming their fists on the table, making a mess, and screaming, no, no, this should not be true, I won’t let this happen to you. And maybe I’m too angry or messy about it, maybe it’s not in my best interests, but I’ve always found myself in the latter camp.

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