I was bullied just about every day in the fifth grade, and much of sixth and seventh too. I was bullied about everything you can imagine, and most of it made no sense whatsoever. I was called “fish face,” and “nobody,” accused of “wearing diapers,” told I smelled, and that my pants were too short. In junior high there was even a creative group of boys who would follow me around singing “flooooooooooood” as low as their little pre-pubescent voices could muster. The genius thought-process behind that was that my short pants indicated I was, “waiting for a flood.”
You would think I might have taken comfort in the fact that these jabs actually had nothing to do with me. Ok, my fashion sense wasn’t fantastic, but it wasn’t like they were calling me dumb or ugly or anything that would indicate a permanent flaw. I was even a little chubby. Now THAT was something I could have done something about… but for whatever reason, they didn’t go there. For me, the inexplicable nature of their mockery just made it all the more maddening. If my face didn’t look like a fish, and I didn’t “wear diapers” and I didn’t stuff my bra, as they vehemently insisted, then their viciousness was utterly beyond my control.
It’s amazing how memory is encoded so clearly and permanently when the emotional parts of our brain, particularly those associated with fear, are engaged. I don’t remember my fifth grade teacher’s name. I can’t recall what my school looked like, or anything specific I learned that year. What I can see clearly in my mind’s eye is the bathroom in which I un-wrapped a maxi pad at school for the first time. The blue-green-gray stall. The radiator hissing. The open window. The still-oppressive heat. The door opening, and the shiver that ran up my spine as a face peeked under the stall door to inspect the sneakers of the person opening that wrapper.
I got my period early, especially for back then. It was a week after my 11th birthday. My mother noticed some spotting on my underwear and told me I would probably get my period soon. Sadly she didn’t include an explanation of what that was. She simply bought some pads and gave them to me. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, I just knew I felt ashamed.
It did not help when at school that day the kids were on the war path, trying to figure out whether me or the other poor soul wearing the same sneakers was the girl who had gotten her period. It never occurred to me at the time how curious it was that little miss tell-all, sneaker-inspector had an uncanny knowledge of the sound of a maxi pad wrapper being opened. For her, for me, and for everyone in that class, however, the message was clear, female bodies, female sexuality, female-ness was shameful. I was one of the first to develop physically and one of the first to experience being punished by both the girls and boys for becoming less boy-like (albeit against my will).
Last January two perfect, live, human beings were removed from my abdomen after they had been created there, nurtured, and thrived for 7 ½ months, growing from microscopic to almost 5 pounds each. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir suggests sexism may stem from men’s terror with the immensity of women’s power, and their tremendous discomfort with the knowledge that they were created in a women’s body and only exist as a result. I have to wonder if those little boys and girls were communicating a cultural discomfort with women’s power, women’s bodies, and women’s sexuality. The message was keep this hidden, experience it as shameful, rather than celebrate this, express this, experience it as powerful. In my case, my parents’ discomfort with my going through puberty only reinforced these messages.
I think for every woman there is a moment of cognitive dissonance when your experience of the strength and power of your body and soul becomes so incredibly out of sync with these cultural messages that one has to replace that shame with awe. I have been a feminist since high school. I was a Women’s Studies major. By college I was already encouraging others to embrace their sexuality and resist messages of shame. But it is one thing to protest these messages in theory, it is another to watch a human being be lifted out of one’s abdomen. It is another to view a sound-generated image of two tiny beings huddled together inside of one’s body, and yet another to hear those two precious hearts beating and realize holy shit… HOLY SHIT, they are ALIVE!
For some women it is feeding another being with your own body. For some, it is the pain endured through childbirth, through breastfeeding, or through painful fertility procedures. For others, it is the moment when a 14 month-old shrieks in your ear at a decibel level that literally obliterates brain cells, while pulling your hair and scratching your face and eyes, and you respond lovingly and patiently. For still others, it is surviving mastectomy and finding a way to still love one’s body, finishing a marathon while enduring horrible menstrual cramps, or having the courage to hold a dying friend’s hand and be present with her until the very end.
For me, it was last month. My hormones still off balance from my miscarriage, I was standing in my shower bleeding what felt like buckets of blood and thick, bundled clots. As I stood there thinking, ‘I will survive this,’ my mind was suddenly filled with all the other things I’d survived: the shaming, the crippling cramps, the wishing my breasts would disappear, the infections, vulvodynia, and all the other vaginal drama, sex in all its permutations, pleasures, and confusions, carrying my mother through cancer and death, being told I would never conceive, fighting, and fighting harder, the pregnancy, three months of bed rest, childbirth, the first four months with twins, the miscarriage… and now this.
Moments later, still dripping from the shower, my hair soaked, having had time to put nothing on except a Depends adult diaper, I would pass out on my bathroom floor. I would wake up to find my nanny and two male police officers staring at my almost-naked body, still rolling with baby fat, my breasts drooping, my stretch marks showing, sporting a grown-up sized diaper… but there would not be a shred of shame! I was powerful. Incredibly powerful. I would survive this… and anything else.
So when my daughter begins to bleed, you better believe we will celebrate her power and her strength, not because my son is not powerful or special – it is not an either or thing – but because my daughter is. Her body holds the power of the entire universe, every cell in every living thing on this planet. And you better believe when I send her off to school that day I will tell her to hold her head high. It won’t matter whether she tells anyone at school what’s happened or not. What will matter is that she holds onto her power, and shields herself from shame.
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