It is impossible to know what it’s like to live in another skin. Even a skin of the same color. I no longer assume that anyone who shares my skin tone or social class understands the first thing about me. When and where we are born affects our lives and our world-view just as strongly as whether we are born male or female, large or small, “caucasian” or “colored,” rich or poor.
I used to make the assumption that all white women understood each other, at least, at some base level. I assumed that even young women understood that the world is filled with racists and misogynists, and that those of us born twenty or thirty years before them had a much harder time than they have now.
It’s not difficult to learn. It’s well documented.
I assumed that they knew that we older women paved the way for them and that we may have actually learned something along the way. I assumed that they respected me for just having gotten through life in a man’s world. I should know better than to assume anything.
Everywhere I went, from the time I was little, I hit man-made walls and roadblocks that kept me from doing the things I wanted to do. Every skill I acquired was insufficient, or outdated by the time I mastered it, or my time and labor was simply taken from me. Not only that, I had more rules placed upon me as a girl than boys ever even had to consider.
In the 60s, girls were still required to wear dresses to school. At seven years old, I used to have to climb the monkey bars in a dress, and the little boys would run underneath me and announce to the entire playground a full description of my panties.
‘Blue with pink flowers! Ha ha ha ha ha!’
Damn that used to piss me off.
In the fifth grade, I picketed in front of my elementary school with a pants-shaped sign, shouting,
‘We wanna wear pants!’
We got our way, and in the sixth grade, little girls at John James Audubon Elementary School played on the jungle gym without having to worry about little boy eyeballs stealing glimpses of our private parts.
Little did I know that this particular “privilege” would last only nine years; it would only last until I turned twenty-one, when I was handed my first crotch-length cocktail-waitress skirt which I wore with a plunging neckline and five-inch stiletto come-fuck-me pumps. My destiny had been preordained, it seemed to me. Even my parents agreed that I should be grateful: I was lucky just to have a job.
Talk about being seen without being seen. I was merely a body. Walking tits and ass. What was in my head was not of interest to anyone. Men felt it was their right to comment on my face (smile!) and my body: they frequently commented on my legs or my breasts. One short, overweight, balding restaurant manager told my 24 year old self that I should wear more makeup. I saw red.
‘At least I can always wear more makeup, if I ever choose to do so,’ I told him with a sickly sweet smile on my lightly made-up face. ‘But you’ll never be able to grow more hair.’ He fired me. It was worth it.
Many of them felt it was their right to touch me. Some offered me money to sleep with them, and (as young as sixteen years old) adult men offered me money just for showing them my “rack.” I have always been thankful to my young self for never selling my body; not in any way. I’m sure I never would have remembered what I had spent the fifty bucks I had “earned” on. Whatever it was would never even come close to the piece of mind I’ll always have.
From the time I developed breasts, even in my own home, men made crude remarks and found reasons to get close to me. At parties, family “friends” and distant relatives flirted and teased. Some succeeded in getting a handful; one of them touched me when I was asleep; he thought I wouldn’t notice. But I had been transitioning out of sleep and I woke up as he was leaving the room and I realized that he had been doing something to my breasts, which were completely exposed. I didn’t bother to tell my mother about it since she always brushes off unpleasantness and tells me that I “dwell on the past.” And I’ve been reminded countless times that my memories are not accurate; that I never remember all the fun we used to have.
Never happened. To my mother, protecting her men has been, and continues to be, more important than my (“overly”) emotional well-being.
It was “common sense,” if you were born before 1970, that females were lesser than males. Everything that we were taught and had heard and read and saw all around us told us that men were more intelligent, less emotional (as if emotions are a bad thing), responsible, strong, and independent; and that women were emotional, weak, and needy. These views were confirmed by our own mothers. We were not to be trusted with information about things we couldn’t possibly understand, nor with material possessions: expensive camera equipment, for example. We were not taught how to fix engines or even change a tire or the oil of our own cars. It was never explained to us how to manage our money or even how to earn it; we were not taught how to pay bills or invest or even balance a checking account. It was well established that women bleed and that event makes us crazy; that we are pure emotion while men are in full control—of everything.
And since the other women in my family learned how to always be positive and happy and just smile though the pain, and I was not, I became the familial scapegoat. Society distinguishes women as emotion and men as power and control. My father was pure power and control, my mother and two sisters were neutral, and I was the emotional one. I never allowed myself to ignore injustice as they did.
I have felt the exclusion—all my life—by men and their institutions and businesses. I’ve had more doors slammed in my face than I can count. What makes this really painful is that it is often women who are the ones who are doing the slamming.
And I have noticed that many young women are often the worst when it comes to pointing out what they quickly assume to be an old-world view of an older woman; when in reality they should be shutting up and listening to me. They should listen to my stories and hear what women from my generation have had to deal with, instead of questioning my opinions or actions. Or even my terminology:
Several months ago, I received a long, condescending email from a twenty something activist asking me why I felt it was necessary to mention that I was going camping with an African American friend, and she schooled me on what I should have said. This young woman, a girl, really, who believes she has all the answers (as did I at her age), likes to discuss which terminology is acceptable and which is not. Little did she know, or bother to find out, that many of my boyfriends have been black (most of the men I have known prefer being referred to as black while women of color that I know seem to be divided on which label they will accept to define them) and most of my female friends are either African American or Latina. Or they emigrated from another country, or speak at least two languages or at least have traveled a lot. Not taking self-centered selfies in front of tourist attractions either, no, I’m talking about really learning about another culture. I grew up in white-washed America and I’ve had quite enough of its ignorant, entitled, egotistical opinion of itself.
I had mentioned the ethnic background of my camping buddy because this camping trip was the reason that I was going to miss the young woman’s “diversity dinner.” I had attended one of them. She had given a presentation about why it’s important to have diverse relationships. And I think she likes to come up with acceptable labels for people so that we don’t inadvertently offend anyone.
I wish I would have asked her how many of the people she spends time with are not white. And I should have told her that when I asked my African American camping friend (or did she prefer to be called black? I can’t always remember individuals’ preferences) about the entire affair, she said,
‘What’s the big deal? It’s obvious to me why you mentioned it. . . .’
Women are just as conditioned as men to be misogynistic. To believe men over women and to ignore horrific things that men do in order to keep the peace. In fact, I wound up keeping horrible events to myself since no one, not even other women, ever even believed me. They certainly don’t like discussing such unpleasantness. Much easier to pretend that everything is just wonderful. I did what was expected of me: I shut my mouth and went to work and paid my bills.
That is why psychoanalysts exist. Most families, as far as I can tell, will not allow its members to talk about its ugly secrets. Off limits. Oh, but he is such a pillar of our community . . . church-goer; such a family man. . . .Best not drag his good name through the mud. . . .I have lost count of the women who have confessed to me that they were sexually molested by their own blood relatives: brothers, uncles, even fathers.
I rarely mention any of this to people I meet. Most people don’t want to hear about any unpleasantness. We stick to meaningless small talk, in public and even within our own families. Although I, for one, feel it is imperative to talk about the pain if we ever hope to find peace. . . .
If I bother to try and teach someone why what they say is so offensive to me, I am simply brushed of as being a diminutive, uneducated, irrational, “overly-emotional” woman. And hitting the half century mark did not help; now my opinions are brushed off as outdated as well as wrong; and my looks, which were merely average to begin with, have melted away; so I am now physically invisible as well as mentally non-existent. Perhaps it will be better this way. . . .
But outdated is far from what I am. I am in the process of rebirth and am rediscovering all the things I was forced to put aside; all my loves and talents that I was too ashamed to express since I was always ridiculed or ripped apart . . . or simply ignored.
My new life has just begun. I’m still angry for having let my life get away from me; for allowing people to pigeonhole me and use me based on my gender; but I’m especially angry with myself—for not having faith in my own beliefs or potential—and for allowing my connection to spirit be destroyed by the fear and ignorance of those who were “educating” me.
It may have been rough, but I sure got some good stories from my wild and reckless life. Plus, there is very little that frightens me any more—not after all I’ve lived through. Not now that I’ve found my way back to my soul.
And it looks nothing like I do on the surface.