The war on girls' bodies

I was driving by my jr. high the other day and for the first time instead of reminiscing about my own experience there, I leapt forward in my mind to my daughter walking through those doors. And as unexpected as the thought was, I was overwhelmingly surprised by the sudden urge to vomit. I collected myself but it was then that I began to write this piece. I don’t know how my boundaries around writing about having a daughter will change as she gets older. But I know I want to get this out now.

I’m terrified. I can within an inch of my life guarantee her safety now. I have relationships at her school that I trust immensely. She tells me everything. And she is in the care of a small number of people. But I can’t insure that forever.

I realize I may seem overprotective or even paranoid. I saw a meme the other day that said “the odds of being attacked by a shark in the US are 1 in 11,500,000 but fear of getting in the ocean is seen as rational” comparing the rape statistics to “unfounded” fear around assault.

Part of the trouble is that I’m still figuring out how to be in my own body. How to feel safe. How to let someone know I’m not interested in being harassed without endangering myself or my daughter. With regards to things like cat calling, I don’t even know what to begin to teach her.

According to 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be victims of childhood sexual abuse. The state I live in just passed a bill ensuring teachers won’t be talking about anything to do with sex, in any way at all. (Good bye AP lit courses, wow). Which leaves 100% of my daughter’s sexual understanding to come from home. Where her mother is trying to figure out how to relax in her own body.

I imagine this is what was happening with the family member I reached out to when I told her about my assault 20 years ago. She told me,”God will forgive you.” I wondered about that forever but felt to paralyzed by the years long silence to ask her about it. Why would she choose those words? How could we just never speak of it again? How was I supposed to get through that?

She didn’t remember. I’m sure she was in shock. She had her own experience at 16. She never told anyone. We are taught to self-shame and move on. She taught me what she knew. My sister’s first assault came at 15. She was terrified to tell anyone, certainly me. She was worried I’d be disappointed in her. We sent her to a therapist recommended by a social worker friend of mine who had her read an apology letter to a chair deemed “God.” The woman had her apologize to God for being assaulted at gun point. I didn’t see a therapist till I was put on academic expulsion from school, having check out almost entirely from my life. He refused to talk to me about my assault in spite of my pleas to. Instead we focused on having a morning routine. I quit.

We had each gone from a child who deserved love and protection to a woman responsible for violence against her.

This isn’t really about my family, or even me. This is about a shared history of shame and silence. I’m not afraid of my daughter joining sports or trying out photography or even dating. I’m not afraid of zits, navigating peer pressure, all the teen angst. I’ve no doubt those things will challenge us all, but it’s not my biggest fear.  I’m afraid if our collective history doesn’t change, if we don’t start telling our own stories and reshaping what it means to be a woman that she will fall into it as well.

What is into it?

It’s complicated, isn’t it? From the moment we begin to grow into more “adult” looking bodies (if not before) we are sexualized. We are asked to put stock in everyone’s opinion about our own bodies except our own. We learn our value and our worth is in our approval in this way, but also that there is really no good way to proceed from here. If we express ourselves in a sexual manner we are “asking for trouble,” “distracting” to grown men and boys alike, cue all the many derogatory words that sound like “slut.” If we aren’t interested we are put down as well. “Not worth it anyway,” was a phrase I remember hearing a lot. “Frigid,” “Captain gives none,” and “a tease.”

I don’t know that anyone gets out of this time scott-free, but it’s hard to even get anyone to talk honestly about what this is like. Because even if you take all the above away, figuring out your own feelings about your body and what you may or may not want to do with it is confusing. It’s hard to navigate the feeling of being “wanted” and liking that attention but also reconcile that with when the attention doesn’t feel safe. How and when to set a boundary. It starts to just feel like it’s up to everyone but you.

As a result, for me sex was about anything but my own pleasure for a long time. It was about serving someone else. Proving myself. Proving that my body was “worth it anyway.” It was a surefire way to get some affection and possibly be seen. In truth, actual intimacy doesn’t come easy to me. My natural inclination is to drift out of my body as I learned early on to do in order to feel safe. When I learned that a physical struggle and a loud no were only serving to make a bad situation worse. My body stayed and I drifted off somewhere else. “Earning” the slut label I’d already been given.

I’ve seen all kinds of statistics on abuse. They can only really represent those who report. And I’ll tell you two certain facts from my own experience. It’s worth mention I live in a liberal college town in Kansas. It’s not an “extra abuse-y” place.

1) If I began to make a list of all the women I know who had not been sexually abused in some way it would be a short list. Even if I include all the women I know who I don’t know for certain about.

2) Not one of them would be in the “reported” statistic.

Why? In most cases they didn’t ‘see the point.’ Didn’t want to suffer it longer, knowing that rape trials look more like the a “slut hunt” than a criminal investigation. Many felt at fault. “I waited too long to say no,” or “I shouldn’t have been there,” or “At first I liked his attention.”

Even children learn to internalize this guilt as they are also sexual beings (even if we don’t like to think of them as that). And their bodies can “feel good” when being touched leading them to believe that abuse was their own doing. This is the part where my heart leaps out of my chest and I want to yell “WHO WANTS TO TALK ABOUT THIS?!”

It isn’t any wonder so many women (and men) struggle to find peace with their bodies. A huge cross-section of us are (often secretly) dealing with abuse at the hands of others. This isn’t dinner table talk. It isn’t “polite” talk. It’s just something we don’t talk about at all. For fear we might let on that we are broken in some way. Don’t want to seem like we’re “playing victim,” not realizing that our bodies are still living those stories so long as we don’t address them. There is no blissful ignorance, only through.

It isn’t cool to say aloud, “You know I’m really struggling to make peace with my body after being abused,” or “Sometimes I wonder if I’m eating (or restricting) in order to hide.” But it’s perfectly fine to loathe yourself. To sit in groups and grab and shake body parts you wish would disappear. To vow to “fix yourself” by any means possible. It’s the one way we are even allowed to talk about our bodies, as though they fall short. And the one way we are allowed to control them, to be consumed with their perfection. Fall mercilessly into the mainstream diet and fitness messaging of “go hard,” “no excuses,” following headless ab models to the dream of the perfect body.

I would venture to say for most of us, it isn’t even a look we are really seeking. It’s peace. Safety. The calm waters of being enough. For a piece of ourselves we left somewhere that we might not yet be able to speak aloud.

I’m not the only one grappling with her story. I know for certain I am not. And while it may not be for everyone to stand on a public platform and begin to recount the darkest parts of her experience, if you could stand even silently with me, the shift would be immeasurable.

I got through the part where I had to embrace my body as it is. I wrote a book to help you come with me. I’m no longer obsessed with the notion that I must change something about my appearance to matter in the world. But I can’t hand my daughter the fears that bubble to the surface when I think about her entering into womanhood. I have to change what that means.

For me that means changing the culture of silence. Speaking aloud our stories and how we were (and continue to be) effected. Reclaiming our voices and our bodies as our own.

I know how to live in this world. I learned how to disassociate from my body, ignore being called out of my name when walking down the street, how to endure, internalize and expect abuse. I stay home, almost never run on busy streets, strongly prefer going out with my husband as I can expect to be left alone and not groped in passing at bars. This isn’t about me.

I want so much better for my baby girl.

I want to teach her about integrity, compassion and grit. Not how to endure being viewed as an object. I want her eventual explorations of her sexuality to involve her own pleasure and not the understanding that she is some prize that must be safe-guarded or seen as used up. Or how to reconcile that when a boy she likes calls her “baby” that might feel good, but when grown men start shouting it at her as soon as she grows breasts that it doesn’t feel the same. And that honoring her own boundaries and feelings in this way will be held up in her face to prove she is a bitch. I want her to be free from abuse. While I realize there is no guarantee of that for anyone, anywhere, the odds are extremely against her favor. That kills me inside.

So I’ll keep talking. Telling the story that so many of us know. In hopes to change the conversation. Where we acknowledge that the joked about double standard of women being regarded as sluts and men as heros for the same choices has dire effects. Where we actually care that girls are viewed as conquests and their “no’s” as the beginning of negotiation in the hunt. I ask that you pay attention to the words you use, the jokes you excuse and the meaning behind them. I want us to start asking, “Is she ok?” as an immediate response to assault and not “how did she cause this?”

I am working everyday to find a more peaceful home in my body, as I know that what I don’t heal I pass on. But this should not be a common story of being a woman. We can only change this if we all become accountable for our part. What we say, what we excuse, and what we teach our children.

We can’t keep pretending this happens to some “slut” somewhere else. Or keep teaching our daughters the silence and shame we were taught. This is a war that colors so much of our experience and I’m taking up arms.