I was a timid sixth grader when I would occasionally take the bus home from school. Middle school was hard, and it was terrifying to have no friends on the bus with me. The older popular kids would sit in the back. The younger kids would sit in the front. I would sit in the middle row trying my best to be invisible.
One afternoon two older boys were talking loudly a few rows behind me. They proudly talked about masturbating. I pretended I couldn’t hear them, their words deeply uncomfortable for me. One of them said to the other, “I’m so horny all the time I could get turned on by anything. Seriously.” With that he looked towards me and said, ”I could even get horny from THAT.” I looked up and saw him pointing to me, to “that”.
I suddenly felt like a “that”, a thing, not a human being. I shrunk down in my seat and hunched my shoulders. I quietly said, “What?” not knowing what to do since I had made eye contact with the boy. He answered, “I was just saying I’m going to get a shirt that says the fucking Marriott on it or something.”
I looked down at my shirt that read, “Hilton Waikoloa Village, Hawaii.” It was a shirt I had just bought on a family vacation. I loved the hotel and had such a good time on that trip. I also loved the deep purple color of the shirt. But in that moment when I looked down, I was embarrassed. No, I was ashamed. I was ashamed of what I was wearing, ashamed of my flat chest, my lanky body, my stringy hair. I was ashamed of my “thingness.”
I never wore that shirt again.
Here is the irony. Actually, I don’t even want to call it “irony”. I want to call it “disgustingness”. In high school when I matured, or to be blunt- grew breasts- that same boy from the bus gave me a different kind of attention. He flirted with me. I remember being baffled by his behavior. After all, I was the same person as that quiet girl on the bus. Why was he treating me differently now?
In my imagination, if I saw that boy who is a man today, I would tell him how his hateful words hurt me not for a day, not for a few weeks, but for years. I fantasize about asking him how he would feel if someone spoke to his daughter, mother or sister the way he spoke to me.
This experience came flooding back to me last night because I am grappling with my ever-changing body. Body changes during pregnancy were hard to deal with- weight gain, clothes not fitting, changing breast size. Then there was the c-section, the scar, the pain, the inability to physically do things I used to be able to do. Now there’s breastfeeding and the constantly changing size of my waist. I looked in the mirror today and for a moment felt like I was inhabiting a foreign body. Then I thought wait, no, this is MY body and I want to be proud of it.
I refuse to be ashamed of myself. I choose to see beauty and strength instead.
As Emily grows I will do my best to demonstrate a positive body image. I promise not to disparage my body in any way and to always encourage her to love her body as it is- the most beautiful and perfect creation. I know the best thing I can do for her is model this behavior because it’s what I show her not what I say that is important.
I think of a friend who told me she was being down on herself about her post-pregnancy body, but then realized she did not want her daughter to hear her talk badly about herself. So now she holds her baby in her arms, looks in the mirror and says, “We look good!” I love this. Just like my friend, having a daughter makes me rethink insulting myself because I would NEVER want her to do that to herself.
And as for degrading comments from boys or men, it’s a sad reality that all girls and women have to deal with. When the time is right, I will talk to Emily openly about this. I want her to have enough self worth and self esteem to stick up for herself when she needs to, and to not internalize the disgusting and untrue words of thoughtless boys or men. I hope that she always knows she is beautiful and whole and complete as she is, and that anyone who says otherwise has their own problems to deal with.
I find myself wanting to apologize for this post being heavy, not being light and fun like some of my others. This one is scary and embarrassing for me to share. I share it anyway because I have a suspicion I’m not the only woman who has experienced or is experiencing something like this. I’m not the only little girl who was shamed.
I want to say to you, whoever you are, you are not alone. I am here with you. And maybe if we all try to love ourselves as we are, our sons and daughters can have a different experience of worth than we have had.