They burned straight through my skin to my very core. One gaze was all it took for me to hate you…if you were a man.
Gosh, where to start?
I’ve attempted to share this post with you for about 4 years now, but every time I’ve started to write it, the words have choked out. It simply wasn’t the time…until this week. Even still, I’ve wrestled for hours in an effort to translate the inner workings of my heart and mind into semi-coherent sentences in the hopes that my struggle with bitterness, anger and fear of the world would inspire one other person to find freedom in their own skin.
Five years ago, I was a woman wrapped in barbed wire, a prisoner in a cage of her own imagining. What was my cage? In essence, it was a deep-rooted paranoia that followed me everywhere I went. This paranoia consumed my life, and yet, not many people knew it was there. They didn’t hear my heart racing any time we’d walk past a group of men, they didn’t realize how ashamed of my body I was. They didn’t know because I didn’t tell them…because I just assumed such were normal feelings for a woman to have. It wasn’t until the spring of 2011 that I came to realize just how much this paranoia was choking my life. And I’d probably still be bound up had it not been for a dark hallway and a bird.
A dark hallway. And a bird. Two random objects that started the process of me living a life no longer controlled by shame or by other people’s behavior. They gave me the understanding to exchange a distorted world view for an open road. And on that road sat a sassy blue convertible which I promptly hopped into and took off in a cloud of dust, leaving that heavy burden of fear and bitterness behind.
As early as 3 or 4 years old, I was terrified of men. To clear the air now, I was never sexually abused. This may seem contradictory considering my level of anxiety, but I believe the reasons behind this fear were 1.) I was simply unfamiliar with men since it was just my Momma, sisters and I until I was 5 years old, and 2) we lived along a violent border town where the overall understanding was that men were dangerous, untrustworthy and, above all, perverted. As a result, I wanted no part of a man’s attention. Not only that, I quickly associated attention from a man with shame. After all, receiving attention must have meant that I did something to attract it. An example of this reasoning took place when I was in kindergarten on the day we got our school pictures. All of the kids on my bus were proudly handing their photos to our bus driver to admire. When I held out mine, he gave a low wolf-whistle and said I looked very pretty. Even though I knew he was just being polite, that whistle made my insides twist and a wave of shame washed over me. I had caused a man whistle at me which meant I had done something wrong, something dirty to provoke him.
Fast forward past many similar situations to middle school where I started developing a big ol’ pair of boobs. These were the last two things I needed, and the looks and comments they attracted ignited a fire of anger in my chest. (Ha, no pun intended. As if I didn’t have enough going on in that area. But I digress.) Around this time, I also developed an immense fear of rape. Walking along the ditch levy behind our house was one of my favorite things to do, but I eventually had to stop. My palms would be sweaty the entire time, my nerves on edge, my neck sore from constantly looking back over my shoulder. The few times I did encounter strangers on the path, I’d get so worked up that I’d start crying. Sure got a lot of confused looks that way! (So to all my classmates who always asked me why I never walked to school–now you know.) Next came high school and even more gawking boys which only threw gasoline on the fire. Just when I couldn’t take another day of cat calls, it was time to graduate and escape to the anonymity of college where I promptly gained the Freshman 15 and grew a mat of fur on my legs. To complete the effect, I donned pajama pants and sweatshirts, let my hair grow past my waist, and for once in my life no one looked at me. This invisibility was liberating, but to my distress I also found it isolating. I didn’t miss being ogled at, however my newfound freedom was killing my self esteem. Just when I decided to give myself over to eternal frump-dom, Mr. Smith came into my life. After three days of spending every waking moment with him, I realized I’d forgotten to feel afraid or ashamed. He was the first man I truly trusted and loved.
Congratulations, me! You just married a man! Your angry chest fire thingy has been doused for eternity, and you can start living your life as a normal person!
My angry chest fire thingy towards men still burned strong. The only man exempt was Mr. Smith and gentlemen who showed me respect. But I rarely received the subtle, sidelong, appreciative glances that boosts one’s confidence and self-respect. Instead, I mostly attracted the full-on, lustful, drooling stares that made me feel like meat. I burned under those gazes, and spent a lot of time being angry. Angry for being consistently objectified in such an unapologetic manner, angry that one gaze could ruin my day, angry that I was giving someone the power to ruin my day, angry because I never felt safe or in control, angry that I was born with big, stupid curves.
And then I got job at the local hospital.
As a diet technician, I’d travel from floor to floor checking on patients and writing in charts. For the first couple weeks, I’d cut through the waiting areas to get to the nursing stations, but this quickly became a problem since there were usually men sitting in the waiting areas. Some of them were not a problem, but it was the men who had their arm around their wives and their eyes on my chest that made me change my route. From then on, I began taking the back corridors to avoid walking through the waiting areas. On weekends, the lights in these hallways were turned off, but I walked along in the dark anyways, grateful for the extra layer of hiddenness.
Once that problem was solved, another popped up: Creepy Tech Guy. This slimy fellow worked on the floor above my office and would sharply inhale or mutter “damn” under his breath every time he saw me. Really? Though stabbing Creepy Tech Guy would have sent me to a magical land practically void of men (aka , a women’s prison facility), I opted for wild detours and covert maneuvers through the 3rd floor instead. One day, however, I absentmindedly began heading toward the forbidden 3rd floor stairwell, and next thing I knew ol’ Creepy was exiting his office and heading in my direction! Without a second thought, I threw open the first door I saw and jumped inside. It turned out to be a janitor’s closet, and there I stood, a 30-year-old woman, hiding amongst the mops and buckets waiting for the coast to clear.
Hiding in that closet was downright ridiculous behavior, yet it wasn’t enough to convince me that I had a problem…until I found myself in a situation where neither dark hallway nor janitor’s closet could shield me. Wrapping up the end of a weekend shift, I made my way towards the elevator. I usually took the stairs, but my feet were aching because I wore high-heeled boots that day. Unfortunately, a group of four men approached the elevator doors at the same time I did. Alone? With four men? In an elevator? Hell no! I immediately turned and began walking away, but my tired feet stumbled on my boot heel. As I righted myself, I looked up, catching the eye of one of the men. Without a dark hallway or door to escape behind, I felt so exposed that I immediately panicked. There was nothing left to do but run, and I didn’t slow until I reached the safety of my office. As I unzipped my boots to massage my throbbing feet, I realized that my fears had become too much for me to control. I needed help.
And then the storm happened.
One night, a microburst hit our town and blew a large tree branch onto our deck. The branches filled the view of the den’s bay window, and while looking out at this jungle of limbs, a flash of color caught my eye. There on my left was perched the most breathtaking bird I’ve ever seen in my life. He was a Painted Bunting; a mesmerizing masterpiece of cobalt, crimson and lime green feathers. He noticed me watching him and chirped nervously, but to my relief he stayed. I gazed at him a few more seconds, wanting so much to capture him with my camera. Slowly I began to reach for it when, blink!, he flew away. I know he was just a bird, but I felt so honored that he would pick our broken tree to rest in, that he would give me a moment to admire him. It’s a moment that is still very special to me.
Wisdom From A Friend
Something clicked inside me when I looked upon that Painted Bunting, but I wasn’t quite sure what at the time. A few days later, I met with a trusted friend where I spilled the beans about my bitterness, anger and fear towards men, my consequent shame and my ludicrous behavior. (DEAR READER, FEELING STUCK? PHONE A FRIEND.) My friend listened, asked good questions and told me I was worth so much more than shame and dark hallways. Then she shared some of her own experiences and how she dealt with them head-on. For the record, my friend is flat-chested, very slender and she STILL received disrespectful comments from men! This was such a revelation to me. For so long, I felt ashamed of my body’s dimensions and knew that if I could just be flat-chested and thin then all the negative attention would go away. Part of me was angry with the fact that men will always look, but another part of me was relieved. Relieved to know that receiving those stares wasn’t my fault.
And then I remembered the bird.
That painted bunting was BEAUTIFUL! My eye was instantly drawn to his beauty, and I was so thankful that he let me look at him. I could have watched him for hours but in his fear, he flew away. I was not being malicious or perverted in wanting to look at that bird; I was just admiring its beauty. Could that be what most men were doing when they looked at me? I will not deny that there ARE perverted men out there who look upon women with ill intentions, and those men are NOT off the hook. In a perfect world, everyone would respect everyone, but in this broken world you must find a way to command respect. It was challenging for me to practice but following friend’s advice, I looked my next gawker straight in the eye and forced myself to smile at him. Instantly, his eyes softened, and a friendly smile replaced his lustful gaze. I did not expect that! The experience gave me such a sense of control over my surroundings that I was determined to practice on the next man…and the next…and the next. Before I knew it, I was walking through the waiting areas, smiling at whoever looked at me. Receiving attention as a compliment instead of an insult not only opened me up to men, it opened me up to women. I was free to be myself in public and would smile and wave to the people I knew, unafraid that doing so would draw attention to myself. Over time, this freedom led to confidence which spilled over into so many different areas of my life. I complimented more, I struck up conversations more, I met more people. And the more I carried myself in confidence, the more that looks of admiration and respect replaced gazes of lust.
Take My Picture
As ironic and contradictory as it sounds, I’ve always wanted to model.
Many things held me back from this dream, but I didn’t realize until recently just how closely intertwined my misconceptions of men and my opinion of my body were. The women in all my fashion and fitness magazines were not overwhelmingly busty or muscular like me. In my opinion, those tall, slender models were like art…and I was like cheap porn. After all, that’s the reality that’s portrayed in the magazines, isn’t it? The flat-chested girls wear Prada and Chanel, the busty girls wear nipple tassels and leather hot pants. How refreshing would it be to open up a high fashion magazine and see a curvy woman in a tailored dress that, shock!, buttoned all the way up? This is my vision for the journey I’m taking with modeling. I have no idea how far this new road will go, but I know how far I have come to get to this place of confidence, and if a portfolio is all I wind up with, then I have a lot to be proud of. (Though, I hope there’s more!)
I’ll close with this small victory: Last weekend, I was headed home from the Haven Conference in Atlanta, GA and decided to take the shuttle bus to the airport. When the bus pulled up, no one else was inside; just the male driver. The old me would have stiffened, said a quick hello and crawled in the backseat. The new me, however, asked if I could ride shotgun. “Shotgun!” the driver exclaimed, “I haven’t heard that term in a long time. Sure, hop in front!” For the next 30 minutes, we talked and laughed and I even cried at one point. It was such a beautiful moment between two people, and instead of flying away, I stood still and lived it. When we arrived at the airport, Jimmy (the driver) told me how much he enjoyed our conversation and reached out his hand. I gave him a big hug instead. It was one of my favorite memories from the trip, and to think I would have missed it had I been wearing my old barbed wire coat.
Four years, one week and eight hours later, this post is done. I can finally push the “Publish” button and pop an Aspirin. This fear and anger ran deep; it’s what I built my truth around. Unwinding it all and sharing it made for the hardest piece I’ve ever written to date. And though this post is complete, the journey goes ever on. For those of you who are still reading, THANK YOU! Thank you so much for sticking with me to the last sentence of this labor of love; the very deepest heart struggle brought to life in words.
Brought to life.
Open your eyes to the beauty around you, find a close friend to share your deepest feelings, above all, be brave. In these things we find freedom.