[Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Body Policing]
“Are you growing your family?” his eyes glued to my stomach. His implication, sinking deep into my cellulite insecurity. It was like i was in eighth grade all over again, my so-called “friends” writing me emails with weight-loss tips as the reason no boy would date me.
“Your family? Are you growing it?” Jonathan looked baffled, not realizing what this man talking to us was implying. But i knew. I knew the moment he looked at my stomach. I mean, i knew i’d packed on extra with mom’s pound cake on Thanksgiving, but Jesus. Relatives and strangers have already started pressing on when we’ll have kids. Have asked me if i will drop out of school to get married sooner.
But this was a first: a man – anyone, really – asking if that extra wedge of fat pooching over my belt was a baby. He felt comfortable and entitled enough to ask us, relative strangers, if my very not-pregnant body was bulging under the weight of a new fetus.
It was not, however, the first time a cisgendered man felt entitled to my body.
He came up behind me, without a word announcing his presence. It wasn’t until his hands were down my skirt that i realized there was someone behind me at all.
He thought it was innocuous enough: my shirt tail had come untucked, and he had taken the liberty of adjusting my appearance.
Apparently, his hands on my underwear, securing the hem of my shirt in place, was perfectly appropriate behavior for an elderly man towards a young woman.
I whipped around, his hand still halfway down my skirt. I knew only that unknown hands were winding their way down my legs. All words glued themselves to my throat. I tensed to run, wishing i had my keys in my pocket. I’d always been afraid of this, remembering when i was eleven and my Godmother told me never to walk alone after dark without a key between my pointer and middle finger. We may have always believed in nonviolence, but as womyn we knew the threat. We knew what we faced.
There was nowhere for me to go. I was working, at the host stand, as i did for four years at the same restaurant. We were packed, on an hour long wait at least, a crush of grumpy and self-important businesspeople waving pagers in my face.
“There!” he smiled, wriggling his hand out. “You’re all fixed!”
I stared back, horrified and shamed into silence. He didn’t even blush, just walked away, his good deed of feeling up a minor done for the day.
I wasn’t even sixteen. It was a new skirt, too, one i’d bought for my first real job. Appropriate knee-length with a button-down that showed no cleavage. I’d checked all the boxes, hadn’t even been looking at him. As if such victim-blaming checkboxes would have protected me.
I could have been standing there naked, and that would not have excused his non-consenual, unwanted, and unwarranted handling of my body.
You can make your excuses: he’s old, he’s old-fashioned, he thought he was being helpful.
I reject all of them. He did not ask, or even bother to tell me what he was doing. Saying i’m being over-sensitive or over-reacting is to gaslight me. I don’t care that he was older, he was old enough to know you ask before touching someone. As Lara Blackwood Pickrel writes in her Talking Taboo essay: “Citing cultural and generational differences, the offender wipes her hands of the matter and assumes a posture of innocence.” (Talking Taboo, 46)*
No, i was not molested or raped or even attacked. But someone i did not know, or give consent to, felt entitled enough to my out-of-line body that they saw to “fix” it. Tucked me in, made me look “appropriate,” deemed their vision of what i should look like was more important than my own opinion.
And what is most angering, most saddening, most bra-burning-inducing of this incident?
This was not the only time it has happened to me.
Standing in the communion line at church this summer, a man i don’t really know behind me pulls at my dress. My bra was showing, he whispers. He had to ensure no one could see that strip of white polyester above my strapless dress.
Men, as i would walk them to their tables at the restaurant, sliding their hands on my waist and bending close to my ear. “Can’t you get us a better table, sweetheart?” they’d ask. A wink added, for good measure.
Out at an underage-friendly club, age fourteen: a man i don’t know comes up behind me, wraps his hands around my hips and pulls me into his groin. He’s pushing into me, trying to force me to grind when the words stop being glued in my throat. I untangle myself, i turn around, i say firmly: “I am a woman, not an object, and you cannot treat me this way.” His friends dog me the rest of the night, calling me a slut and asking why i won’t dance with their friend. Eventually, i feel chased out and leave and try not to cry the whole way home.
Over, and over, and over again. What is lacking in every story is my permission, my consent. Not once did these men ask if they could touch me, shove their genitals against me, think that their sexualization of my body might be damaging or hurtful or frightening. Sure, there were varying degrees of harassment, but the message remained constant: your feminine body is not your own.
And no, this man asking if Jonathan and i were expecting was not sexualizing or objectifying my body in the same way as these men who physically touched me. But the immeasurable discomfort i felt at his question, the shame i felt for my body, was very much the same. Except this time, instead of feeling like i had dressed too scantily (which actually is never an excuse for harrasment) i felt fat.
And i know – i know this is body-shaming and internalized misogynistic self-loathing and all that good stuff feminist literature has taught me. We’ve all got body fat, body fat is good. Being fat is not bad. It’s this socially engineered be-smaller-ladies shit.
J.K. Rowling says it perfectly: “Is fat really the worst thing a human being can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil, or cruel? Not to me.”
I have the proverbial fat shame problem. The hate-the-flab, love-to-eat, try-to-have-healthy-esteem balance that 99% of womyn my age try to strike.
Trying to love ourselves, our curves and hair in demonized places and flabs of skin hanging over our jeans, all while the onslaught continues: you are not small enough, stop taking up too much room, your bodies are not your own. I’ve never had a friend who didn’t grapple with loving her body. It has not mattered her weight, build, race, height, BMI index, or gym membership; it is not a “womyn’s problem.” Men have eating disorders too, men are spoon-fed sexist body policing all the time.
But i, as a woman, have a body that seems to be subject to the male gaze no matter what i do. I’m tired of social standards deeming what is and is not “appropriate” for me.
I’m tired of the phantom permission that allows people to pry into my sex life or pry open my skirt without pausing to think that i may not want them there.
Want to talk more? Come to the Talking Taboo event on TUESDAY NIGHT at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 7 Woodbridge St, South Hadley MA. 6:30 PM.
Relevant Resources: National Sexual Assault Hotline & RAINN, Local Crisis Center Locator, Sarah Over the Moon blog (i recommend her “You are Not Your Own” series), and The Dinah Project: A Handbook for Congregational Response to Sexual Violence by Monica Coleman.
*Who, by the way, has just written an amazing blog post i think a beautiful companion to this one: “What Not to Wear: Church Edition.“