I don’t like having sex in the dark, but tonight is different. I don’t want my body to be scrutinised. I seek comfort in the absence of light. I usually enjoy looking at the man I love, witness our bodies’ imperfections match on display, but tonight I want the light off my flesh and off my face.
Dale and I are going through the complicated politics of my never-ending family dramas and the simplicity of his. I describe my brother’s anger management issues as he tries to relate. I imagine him dipping into a bucket, carefully choosing from a range of expressions neatly ordered in the corner of his mind, wrapping them up with affection before opening his mouth. He is not good at comforting with words. There’s nothing he can say to stop tears rolling down my cheeks, but we both find my body easier to soothe. He wraps his arms around my pain until the pulse of my heart softens. He puts his hands on my ribcage, feeling it rise and fall, following my erratic breathing until it slows down. He kisses from my collarbone to my neck, pausing in the crook of my shoulder. My body gives in willingly as we collapse onto the bed.
Tears are my first refuge; orgasm is my next shelter. The dark makes no difference, especially when we go through lengths of not caring about anything else but our bodies rubbing against one another. There are other times where routine catches up on us and we go to bed, cuddled up on each other’s side, sex far away from our minds. The need to fuck lingers until we drift off to sleep. It takes more courage to let it go than to force it. There is also the urge to scratch an itch: when it doesn’t last long and we are both too exhausted to come, but still reach for one another.
The aftermath of my premenstrual syndrome usually makes me forget that I have a libido altogether. Dale doesn’t ask questions. He nods as I throw the remains of my griefs at him: talk to me, talk to me, talk to me, but when you do shut the fuck up because you’ll say the wrong thing. You can only say the wrong thing. I carry the weight of my estrogen on my shoulders, but can’t help myself from spitting my anger around.
We make out. He grabs the flesh of my hips. I call it an excess of flesh when I compare myself to other women. I think of how much space they’ve got below the ribs, how many ghosts they can hold on to, how they can bend or drop without feeling the fat moving around. Whether it’s the hips, the knees, the breasts or the bottom, I don’t get used to the fact that my body can just be. There are no rules about flesh. My body is not a temple. I’ve damaged it in more ways than I can even think of, in a mist of hangovers, binge eating, bad sex; but it’s still mine.
Dale’s hands move further along my back and make their way towards my bum, a body part which has always made me feel self conscious before we met. Fat onto cellulite. Rough skin. Not worth looking at. My refusal of men’s words. LOOK AT THAT ARSE, but here I am, with a man grabbing my arse.
I delude myself. I’m convinced that being a woman entitles me to be angry at men whilst wanting to fuck them. Anger flares up in the most difficult moments. I stare at the contraceptive pill I swallow every day, wondering why I keep poisoning myself to have sex with a man.
As I lie on my front, Dale kisses the nape of my neck, whispering, breathing and grabbing the flesh.
“Your arse has gotten tighter in the last few months,” he says, appreciatively.
I grow proud for a moment until shame overcomes the feeling.
I’ve been practicing yoga daily for over a year, and even though the spiritual side helped in turning my anxieties about, it was never why I started. I can lie to myself into as many downward facing dog positions as I want to. I can teach myself how to bend my legs and cross my ankles behind my head: the spirituality is never why I got into it. It was always about the body. I started yoga out of plain superficiality. I’m being bendy and healthy. I’m being good. My body is not fully mine until I rely on someone else’s judgement to put a stamp on it. PASS.
According to Psychology Today and a survey conducted on 3,452 American women, 56% of them are unhappy with their body image. They spend two weeks a year on average working on their appearance. I breathe, walk, watch, dance, eat and spend for the body. There’s barely a single act I accomplish which doesn’t involve the necessity of body image, whether it’s good or bad. It’s become so powerful that my body has turned into an allegory of health. I feel healthy, because I am happy with the way I look. It doesn’t matter how many avocados, rye bread or eggs I ate that week, what matters is what I read about the benefits of a banana per day along with six macadamias nuts. I live under the lie that I’m doing it right.
Health and beauty are supposedly separate. When Dale tells me my arse is tighter, I shouldn’t feel as rewarded because this is not the sole reason I’m doing sports, and yet it somehow is. It’s okay to tell me because he knows “tightness” and “muscles” are the goals I’m working towards, but he’s clueless about the fact that I stopped the dieting hard, the crazy plans, the skipping meals and counting calories. He tells me because he has no clue. I am wearing the healthy person badge because I found an activity to cope with the mental disorder I created to top up the others: the guilt of not going to the gym, the guilt of having a doughnut, the guilt of craving another one, the guilt of the guilt. Does Dale know about this guilt? He can’t even imagine it. Did he ever ask me to stay fit? Never. He doesn’t care about things like that, but would he if I put on weight? I hesitate when I try to answer the question. I don’t trust a man’s ability to ignore a body.
It’s not fashionable to be skinny anymore, but is it really? The expression “being healthy” was claimed when the words “being skinny” became taboo. The content writers turned into the dieting industry’s best weapons. Health became the muscles flexed, the protein shakes gulped down on a Tube journey, the expensive legging brands, the hours spent at the gym, the Fitbit on the wrists, the steps calculator on the phones, the checks on the scale, the gluten, sugar-free, Keto and Paleo diets which all go brings back to wanting to be good. Health slowly became secondary: alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, cocaine were still around, and they took more space as bodies grew in the mind.
This is the truth: I want the man I love to admire my arse. How is that so bad? Being shamed by men has also made me seek their validation.
My father sits on a train taking us to Margate on a Saturday morning. We exchange some banalities and, as he describes his last weekend picking up volcano rocks in Auvergne, I wonder what I am doing here. I become the moody teenager I once was. I look outside the window, try to drift off to sleep as he keeps on talking. My estranged father likes to attend to his own needs and ignore others’, another proof that he never took care of a child.
My mother got pregnant with me when they were briefly seeing each other twenty-eight years ago, and he decided not to be a part of our life. He showed up fifteen years later instead, barging in the middle of my teens, ravaging a stability I did not have. Our relationship has evolved, or at least that’s what I keep telling myself, but his selfishness is unwavering. I must listen to his stories. I must be a good child. I must be the one who calls him every week. He knows he’s wrong, mainly because he’s been absent for half of my life, but he can’t help himself. He is the father; he lays down the rules.
He stops talking about rocks and I lean back against the window. My eyelids go soften.
“Have you seen the looks of her on the other platform? With tattoos on her face and all this fat coming out of her top? Have you seen that?” He asks, elbowing me in the ribs.
I wish I could punch him in the face. My eyes pop back open, but I ignore him. It works sometimes, but he elbows me again.
“She’s got so much flab. God, I can’t believe this. The state of her,” he laughs in disgusted disbelief.
I clench my teeth. He knows. We both know that I have been fat. I turn my face towards him, but my body stays against the window. He is facing away from me, captivated by the woman on the platform. I can barely distinguish her and I don’t try to. I wonder if he expects me to partake in the shaming of another woman.
I picture myself screaming in his face, grabbing his arm and tearing the flesh to find out if a piece of me lies underneath. I didn’t even know I could be capable of such violence before we met. I don’t give into the urge. I examine him instead. I gaze at his tanned legs, strong body, black hair curling up thickly on top of his head, strands of white and grey peaking through it. How could he ever understand? A man who looks great for his age; a man who eats bread on top of his pizza; a man who has been single all of his life; a man who has never experienced body shame. He embodies a man’s obliviousness, but he remains my father.
Years ago, he couldn’t be proud of me because I wasn’t the daughter he built me up in his head to be, but here we are again. I passed. He put a stamp on me. Years before, he used to give me the same look as the woman on the platform, never saying it out loud but side-glancing when I spread a thick layer of Nutella on my toast. He looked at my body without seeing me.
These days, he considers it okay to comment on this woman’s body in front of me because we’re on the “same side”. He wiped away the body I used to have and replaced it with the image he could finally accept. He removed old photos of me in his flat to put new ones up. There are no traces of the body I used to have, as if by losing weight I became another. I embody the daughter he wished for, but I’m still not perfect. I don’t return his calls. I don’t thank him enough. I forget his birthday. I get mad at him. I have a temper. Some fat disappeared along with some of his memories, but I remained.
“Have you caught sight of her?” He asks again.
“No,” I reply curtly, closing my eyes, turning away from him completely.
The conversation hits a dead end. He picks up his book. The train carries on to Margate, but he’s already ruined the weekend. His questions about my life feel intrusive. I close myself to him. His mere presence has me flinching. I stay stuck on one sentence and one sentence only. The one I don’t call Dad stays oblivious. We walk side by side on the beach under the rain; the wind catching up in my coat doing nothing to appease the rage bubbling up in my chest, forcing its way along my ribcage, reminding me, as it descends towards my pelvis, that he wouldn’t act like this if I was a son.
I go back to London with more baggage than when I arrived.
My father didn’t have the privilege of seeing me growing up. His existence shattered my reality. I turned into a self-loathing teenager, with years added to my sentence of recovering from body image issues, alcohol addictions, dangerous behaviors and most of all, a tendency to go towards men who rejected me. It lasted long enough for me to put a barrier between us.
My father never heard all my grievances, even though I wrote them to him in a letter. He never understood them fully. The knowledge didn’t stop him from urging me to embody his own needs. It itched under his skin to model me: he bought jewellery I would never wear; he kept on buying my favorite cakes whilst judging the way I ate; he took me places of his own liking without asking for my opinion; he sent money when he didn’t have the answers to my silences.
Men have the power to use words that will hunt you down. On the train to Margate, my father printed on me the memory of my former self. I tricked him into meeting a daughter who was not his. He wasn’t what I expected either, but did he ever think about it that way? I never worked up the courage to ask him. Growing up with him could have been different, but a body would have interfered. My body. My body, which is not his and will never be.
I observe fathers and daughters among me, including my brother and my niece. It is tough to look at any man I love and wonder if they share the lack of awareness every man seems to have. Not only can men finally assert a form of domination over women by fathering daughters, but for a short period (or perhaps for all the daughter’s life), fathers can rule them as they please. When my brother tells me he doesn’t care about having a son, he is translating his need for women in his life. When he wants his daughter to wear trainers and play basketball even though she is four years old, the love he casts upon her body is one of admiration, but a denial of her permission to be someone he is not.
My father acts the same. Even though I escaped his grasp by not growing up with him, I am the one who reflects his social status and descendance. He wants to meet the man I love because he is interested in what his grandchildren could look like. He keeps on asking whether or not I will be a mother, worried that I will discontinue him. I become a woman in my father’s eyes when he expects me to do him proud in the way I dress, smile, and give birth. I exist when the power shifts, and I am in control of his lineage. He expects to be involved.
My father doesn’t know that the man won’t pressure me into having a child, but like most men, fathering remains a journey he would like to embark on.
It’s an afternoon in March. I’m off work. I’m transitioning from my old job onto the next one, hoping that it will satisfy me. It never does, but I get the impression that jumping from one place to another will make me forget about my writing ambitions for a while. The perspective of a new job still makes me happy. I’m going somewhere. Dale and I have been together for almost a year. A year of bliss where I don’t recognise myself. I’m waiting patiently for it to collapse, but so far it hasn’t. I keep my guard up. Dale remains stable. We are in love. We wake up in the early hours of the morning to have lazy sex, even though we have to be in the office by eight o’clock. We don’t care. Lust takes over, along with wanting to see him all the time, longing for hours spent without him, thinking of him. It’s a loop I never want to undo, and neither does he.
I’m on my way to meet him at his workplace in Whitechapel, where I used to live in a tiny and dirty flat with my friend Betty, another Italian girl and two French guys when I returned to London in October 2016. Whitechapel reminds me of early London life: lonely, broke and unrecognisable.
I’m wearing a skirt shorter than my average choice. I glanced at long legs in the mirror when I put it on. I felt good about myself until I stepped outside. Whitechapel is not the best place to wear this, but nowhere really is. I try to turn a blind eye to any look from any man. I don’t want it get to me, but I’m self conscious about being a woman. The skirt is okay, but it was my choice to wear it. My choice turned it into an invisible weapon directed against me, and a valid excuse for men to stare. The skirt joined up the long line of evidence that I’m enticing men to notice me, piled up between lipsticks, heels and attitudes. Provocatively guilty until proven innocent.
I find Dale’s building and press the buzzer. His voice comes through, and he lets me in. I walk up a flight of stairs and he’s waiting for me in front of a charcoal door.
“Hey, you okay?” He asks and kisses me on the mouth.
“I’m good… Just been rushing a bit to get here,” I say, catching my breath.
“My boss is not around, but the rest of the guys are here.”
We kiss one last time as he opens the door to his office, holding my hand. I say hello to his colleagues and we exchange some banalities. I’m introduced to two guys I don’t know. One of them shakes my hand whilst the other sits in the corner, facing away from us, chatting on the phone. I’m standing next to Dale, waiting for him to wrap up, looking at my phone. The guy in the corner finishes his call and gets up from his seat. I look up from my phone and meet his eyes, except they’re not on me. His gaze is somewhere between my feet and my legs, giving me a good view of his large forehead. It goes up to my thighs, my leather jacket and finally to my face. A smirk appears on the corner of his mouth as he extends his left hand towards me.
“That’s Ben. Ben, this is Angèle,” Dale introduces us, looking up from his computer.
“Charmed,” Ben says. He looks me up and down again, gives me a wink. Dale’s gaze is back on his screen. It takes me a moment to lean forward over the desk and shake Ben’s hand. He smiles again and goes back to his computer.
I stay dumbfounded for a second or two before looking down to my thighs. I try to pull the skirt down to my knees to make it longer, but the material is too stiff and won’t move. My hands are sweaty. I wipe them on my legs. The black velvet fabric sticks to my palms, leaving fluff between the lines of my clammy hands.
“Are you ready?” Dale asks, jacket in hand. I give him a nod. We say our goodbyes and leave. Dale is talking about our upcoming weekend plans on the way to his flat, but I don’t listen. I fix my eyes on the pavement. I keep wondering whether or not I should tell him. My mouth opens and closes. I make a countdown in my head. I count to ten each time and take a breath in, but the words never get out. There’s a gap in my language. I can’t voice out an accusation he has never experienced with no concrete proof. I think about the skirt. Will he think this guy is entitled to look at me? I still haven’t told him as we reach Stepney Green station. We turn on Killick Way as he asks why I’m being quiet. I say I’m tired as we reach his building. We kiss in the lift on our way up. I watch him chopping vegetables for our dinner. I stay quiet. I don’t want to ruin our evening.
I don’t want to be that girl.
I still wonder whether I’ve imagined it. It was a look, not a touch. It was not even words, just eyes glancing over me.
It took a few months before Ben’s reputation came to my ears. Dale kept on mentioning his comments directed at women at the pub, whilst everyone sat in awkward silence. She’s fit. She’s got great tits, no?
I felt validated. Doubt had stopped me despite myself, even though I knew, deep down, that I hadn’t imagined it. I kept myself from telling friends, convinced that they would not believe me or brush it off as anecdotal. Everyone hates an attention seeker. I can’t help myself but feel like a liar. It must have been my imagination. The countless looks become a pernicious reason to keep my mouth shut. The more there are, the less I allow myself to call men out on them. It takes a long time to accuse men; Ben is not an isolated incident.
I walk down the street, look over my shoulder for the tenth time as I wait for the real rape to come. I walk quietly. I don’t wear heels in case they keep me from running. I pass by the dry cleaning warehouse, glancing at the trucks parked in front of it from the corner of my right eye, in case my attacker hides behind one of them. A broken placard flapping against the gates turns into him, lunging for me.
The real rape has always been here. The real rape was born before me. The real rape is the fear of it. The real rape is not being able to call it one. The real rape is rape, even when it hasn’t happened, even if I’m told I’m exaggerating. Rape is not self sufficient. It feeds into reality, and transvases itself through many women’s stories. It always happens to others, doesn’t it? It’s never me until I come close to it, or a friend of mine experiences it. I don’t want to be the flirt, but I’m always made to feel like I am.
I wore the skirt. I was the guilty one even though I tried to persuade myself I was not. Not every man is after me, but I become the problem when I accuse them of looking at me, exposing their unrestrained tendencies.
This is where my fight begins: I tell Dale even if he doesn’t believe me. I say fuck off to my dad. I confront all the Bens of this world. As much as I would like to deny men’s power over my decisions, I still want to be good. I enjoy being looked at, as much as I hate being objectified. The ambivalence comes from the man who followed me home one night, yelling about my calves, whilst the man I love told me how beautiful I looked under the sweat of a London tube journey. Glances after glances. Say a little. Talk to me. I love you. Trust me. Don’t wear that bitch face. I convince myself I don’t care whilst relentlessly fearing for what I look like and what it could bring upon me.
I can never keep men from looking at me, but I wear layers at night to hide my body and keep on wondering whether this is the best strategy.
Angèle Eliane is a French writer living in London. She is currently working on her first collection of personal essays revolving around sex, intimacy and family. Her work has been featured in The Mechanic Review Institute, La Bohème et Des Nouvelles du Rock.