I write as if I don’t possess a body; I write as a bodiless observer, a soul hovering on the sidelines. Maybe this is because I have never felt safe in my body. Because like Brautigan’s Vida—a voluptuous woman who felt she was born in the wrong body, a body that betrayed her with it’s curves—I too felt I was born in the wrong body. A body that betrays me because 1) I am female and 2) Thoroughly contained.
Some artifacts about my body:
When I was little my mother got me ready last. I was last to put the dress on. Last to curl my hair. They called me “Pig-Pen” for my propensity for attracting dirt. I felt like a prop, being done up. I wasn’t allowed to play when I was dressed up; I was expected to be a pretty plaything. This was a time in my life when everyone said in a voice of reverence, “Oh, she looks just like a porcelain doll!” I hated porcelain dolls. Their steely gazes, their perfect curls, their alabaster skin. The way they were propped up on a metal base which gave them an air of self-possessed rigidity. When my nana purchased me one and everyone said it looked just like me, I dropped it. Watched it’s perfect skin crack and crumble, saw that it was hollow, and called it an accident.
I used my mother’s hand-held mirror to look at my prepubescent labia and wondered if the purply pink folds that reminded me so much of the irises that bloomed in the yard were normal. When from an early age we are taught to use other women as measuring sticks for beauty, morality, intelligence, and grace, I often wondered where the women were in my life to help me learn about my body. Instead, I was taught by porn and by the hands of men.
Let’s talk about hands. Fingers, specifically. I split myself open with these fingers. Worry over every atom of my being till I’ve rounded the edges, turned folds to curves, pressed life on page. Evidence of existence and wear, without worded embodiment.
But fingers are not how I masturbate. Fingers are not how I explore the physical. Fingers are not how I get off.
How many fingers have roughly pillaged my body? How many fingers have taught me how quickly pleasure can turn to pain? I’ve never been met with tender and tentative fingers. Just finger’s too eager. Fingers feet first. Fingers jumping in without thought. Fingers that shove. Rub. Raw. Rob.
When asking my mother about the miasma of fear that surrounded my childhood, my mother replied in voice matter-of-fact, “You girls were so pretty. Are so pretty. I didn’t want anything to happen to you.” Looking back on growing up I can imagine my mother watching my sisters and I and only seeing a mirror reflecting the pillaging of her younger self. In this way we were/are living iterations of pain.
How many times did I hear my mother refer to herself as a doormat? How was I to know she was laying that at my feet like a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Wipe your feet, please, before you come in.
My dad’s “door” idiom was uttered whenever my sisters or I stood between him and the television: “You make a better door than a window.” In the house I grew up in emotions were something kept behind closed doors. In my house we learned this: Body as barricade.
There is only one way to see what’s behind a door without a window and that’s to open it.
I remember when my sisters and I were young our mother sat us down on her bed and opened a box. This box is where she kept secret things. Sentimental things she had to hide from the world. Things she cherished.
She slowly opened a note. By her movements I could tell this was a ritual. Something special she did for herself, alone. And here she was, sharing it with us. I held my breath. Knew I should hold this moment in a safe space. In the safest space I knew, to open later, when I better understood; a memory. There it would rest in an etching of minute details: how the light fell in slanted lines across the champagne bedspread, the walls awash in ivory.
The note was creased and delicate. I could tell it was something she had carried with her a long time. It was not a note at all, but a poem. A love poem. She cried when she read it to us. Said it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said/wrote/did for her. It was from her first boyfriend. These words marked an innocence in our mother’s life that I could barely grasp. Looking back now it seems to have marked, for her, a time before something vital and important was taken from her. There among the written words, the color penciled intricate drawings of birds and wildflowers, the trinkets of her youth, our mother exposed her true self to us. A self she now kept separate from her body. A self she keeps in a safe and hidden space.
I don’t remember how I learned to masturbate. Something along the lines of: rubbed the right way. All I know is this: early and often. When given moments alone, I would press my body against semi-soft-semi-hard surfaces. No fingers required. No mapping of the body. Just mapping the feeling, the high.
Even at thirty-one years old I am still wildly ignorant of my body. I am the type of person who second guesses myself when I use a bodily term and covertly Google it to make sure I am right. It seems we don’t talk about the body enough, unless someone is dying. Then we can collect the the gruesome details. We can take the body apart with surgical precision.
I keep coming back to Louise Erdrich’s opening pages of Love Medicine; “The World’s Greatest Fisherman.” Here we meet June Kashpaw, a character threatening to break from paragraph one. She feels thoroughly the frailty of her thin container. At once hard and soft, she walks around on the defensive, hoping the next man will be different. A character close to the surface. She watches a man expertly thumb the shell off a hardboiled egg. Let’s him do the same to her. And she breaks in the letting in, the letting out. She says to him, “You got to be.” She comes in close, breathes it in his ear, “You got to be different.” Walking toward town after meaningless sex in his truck, after he falls asleep on top of her and she is birthed into the cold with the unspringing of the vehicle door, she decides to turn toward home. Feels the crunch of ice beneath her thin boots. The cool wind at her throat. Her skin crackling with cold. She walks toward home, despite the distance. Despite the snowstorm. She finally hears herself. Finds new life in the letting go of her body.
I reread these first few pages often. I resonate with the pattern. Something I see in myself. How many years did I, too, walk around with a doorknob in my pocket? You can’t come in until you break the door. How many times did I break? Recalcify?
I remember those Nair commercials. Chemical hair removal. Dare to wear short shorts? A Nair woman does. Hairless women, except for the hair on their heads, smiling at the camera. Touching their tan and slender legs that went for days. An image that seeped into my eleven year old psyche, and looped, distorted. I looked at my pale and hairy legs, my coarse armpit hair that would sometimes grow three to a follicle, my curly and full bush and didn’t see a reflection. On television there was no place for hairy women, and at eleven, I thought the television mirrored reality.
But it wasn’t only Nair. It was Sun In for “natural” highlights. It was self-tanner. Crest Whitening Strips to “reveal your whiter smile”. Bonne Bell Lipsmackers. Clearasil. “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline”. Herbal Essences shampoo for an orgasmic shower experience and hair that smelled like wildflowers. Covergirl, “Redefining beautiful”. Special K’s two week, 6 pound challenge. “Noxema girls get noticed.” The Clairol Nice n’ Easy hair dye commercial where Julia Louis-Dryfus says, “I don’t know what her body is saying, but her hair is saying, ‘Oooooh yeeeah!’”
It is insidious how these ads seep into our subconscious, even if we do not remember conscious content. My sisters, now, don’t remember specific ads—but they certainly remember how the television made them feel. One sister still struggles with ideals of health and beauty, the idea of a luminous and healthy glow—half-life from childhood. The other felt self-conscious about body hair, like me, and her teeth growing up. She says now, “The TV makes it seem like only hillbillies have crooked teeth.”
And why were we looking to the television? Because it was always on.
As a child I looked through my mother’s medicine cabinet, her linen closet in the bathroom that half acted as a pantry for product: brow pencil, face cream, concealer, powder, mascara, eyeshadow, lipsticks, hair dye, douche, lotions, perfumes, backup razors, shaving lotion with pink packaging, mousse, hair spray, blow dryer, curling iron. An archaeologist deep on the dig, I looked in the small space under the sink reserved for my father: comb, shaving cream, electric razor. Maybe he’s born with it.
Anger was an emotion only one person was allowed to use in my house: my dad. It was an emotion that, like a word, was absent from my vocabulary. Omitted from language. Something felt, but not expressed. Perhaps this is why I found angry female musicians so appealing.
I watched Alanis Morissette with her furrowed brow, her long, often dirty hair, her face sans make-up and saw someone defying the marketing of women. I sang along with her, appropriating her anger, and felt for once it was safe to release. At that point I couldn’t articulate what I was angry about. I wailed with Alanis about a man mistreating her without the experience and all of the feeling. Now I know it wasn’t about one man, but in a sense, everyman. In this way, this too, was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of my first sexual encounters was nonconsensual. I was sixteen, had just kissed for the first time, had let a friend’s fingers slip below the belt for external rubbing. He knew I was a virgin. He recognized and respected those boundaries. He heard my “No.”
But what happens when you can’t say no? A stranger slips into the bed you are sleeping in. You wake up in the haze of alcohol to foreign fingers inside of you. A tongue that tastes of cinnamon whisky rolling inside your mouth like a choking and insistent slug. What happens when you can’t see, but feel?
His only question is this: “No more fun?”
Your life takes on the curve of a question mark trying to find the period to mark the end of it.
What do you do when something vital, intimate—something non-quantifiable—is taken from you? How do you remain intact?
What can happen is this:
People won’t believe you. The first person you tell will dismiss you. People will say things like, “You were pretty drunk, you were asking for it.” People will blame you. Tell you to modify your behavior. People will tell you to forget about it.
And for a while you do (well, not really forget—just bury it, somewhere you think is deep and hidden, but is just below the surface). It will manifest in your relationships with other people, in your behavior. You will fall into patterns that seem impossible to recognize. It will manifest in ways you are farsighted to. Hyperopic. Perhaps you will stumble toward the doorknob to lay out a welcome mat, remove the doorknob to bar entry, open the door?
Or perhaps the door is already open? Slightly. Ever so slightly. The frame worn and familiar, beckoning.