His name was Dennis, he was schizophrenic. He was sleeping in the makeshift room in our basement that my dad set up so he would have a place to bring people who needed somewhere to stay and a helping hand. He stayed with us all that summer. My mom didn’t like having him there, though my father overruled her. For some reason, unlike the many other people who came through our house, her gut told her that having him there was a bad idea.
She watched him diligently, especially around us kids. She warned and cautioned and kept guard.
Every night when she sent us to get ready for bed, Dennis went outside for his smoke break.
I was 12, maybe 13 already that summer. I remember that my body was changing, my breasts were forming, my hips were starting to curve. I remember taking a few moments every night as I got ready for bed to look at myself in the mirror, to explore, to run my hands over my changing body, trying to familiarize myself with it.
Every so often in the mirror I would catch a glimpse of a shadow falling across the curtains of my ground level window. At first I thought nothing of it. A few times I checked to see if someone was there, but I never saw anyone. The girlie lacy curtains covered almost the whole window, except a small gap in the center.
One night at the end of summer I saw a shadow again and ran over to investigate. There was Dennis leering down at me, peeping through the crack in my curtains.
Hot shame flooded me as I realized how many times he must have sat there and seen me, naked in front of my mirror over the past several months. I felt violated and exposed, but most of all ashamed. I realize, as an adult, that I had no reason to feel shame, I had done nothing wrong. But my adolescent self internalized and owned that shame and it followed me for years.
(Dennis by the way was gone that night after I told my parents, though he stayed at the church we went to for many years and at some point jumped off of a bridge during a time without his medication. The last I saw him he was an angry paraplegic.)
That moment was the beginning of my quest to be invisible. I tried all sorts of things to avoid being seen; baggy clothes, slouching, gaining weight at some points, sitting at the back, in corners, and avoiding direct gazes wherever possible. I couldn’t go to sleep while anyone else in the house was awake. I couldn’t sleep with the lights on ever, because someone might see me while I wasn’t able to protect myself. It messed me up is what I’m saying. I spent years in hiding.
(“Don’t cry”, I keep telling myself, “don’t cry. It’s over, it’s gone, it’s old news.” I thought I could write this dispassionately, but the sobs keep welling up and forcing themselves out of my throat tonight. I walk away and sit in a dark bathroom, tissue pressed against my face willing the tears to stop, and failing. “It’s not that big a deal, it could have been way worse, imagine how those who endure worse feel.” But that just sends me into another fit of sobbing. But I’m still typing because it’s important.)
In the days before we were engaged the most difficult thing for me was to not hide or deflect when Aaron looked straight at me. Sitting across from each other at a restaurant was torture because he would not. stop. looking. at me and smiling. I had to resist the urge to crawl under the table to hide from his eyes.
I’m happy to say that thanks to him and knowing that I can trust him I can now sleep with the lights on, in trains, and while he’s watching me. Though sometimes those old habits of waiting until the house is silent before going to sleep die hard. It’s since I married him that I retired my sport bra and started wearing body conscious clothing that actually flattered instead of hid me. It’s since him that I learned to stand up straight and not to fear that people may look at me admiringly, I even shed the insulating pounds I’d been hiding behind. It’s because of the healing I have had that I can accept with humor that I may turn a head or two, though I don’t go out of my way to do it, and I don’t wear what most people would deem inappropriate.
A while ago I came across this post here about modesty. It’s the usual “we have to protect our daughters by teaching them to dress modestly, by keeping them from watching shows that encourage them to behave in slutty ways, etc.” There are a ton of comments all jumping on the bandwagon and agreeing wholeheartedly. I dunno. I think I understand where they are coming from but frankly, I think a lot of it is a bunch of horseshit.
According to that kind of logic, burqas are the ultimate protection of a woman’s virtue and innocence. I mean, if our daughters are never seen, they will never encounter lust, violence, rape, disrespect, or anything of that sort right? So I looked it up. I read here that 1 in 6 women in the US will be sexually assaulted in her life. Let’s compare that to… Pakistan where they wear burqas, and 1 in 3 women have been sexually assaulted. But how can we tell for sure since if she speaks up she’s likely to be put in jail since she needs the testimony of 4 Muslim men of good standing who saw it happen plus the confession of her attacker to get a conviction. Obviously modesty is doing a good job of protecting the daughters of Pakistan. Then I found a first person account from a woman who lives in Pakistan, wears a Burqa everyday, and has been assaulted many times by the men where she lives. Modesty, definitely the way to protect our daughters from the attacks of men. It’s working so well there, don’t you think?
Yes, girls and women should use common sense when they dress. Revealing clothes are likely to lead to a reaction that they probably don’t want. We want them to dress in such a way that allows the people around them to see who they are; their personality, their intelligence, and not just their cup size. But to equate teaching them how to dress appropriately with protecting them? I don’t think so.
I was one of the most modestly dressed kids you can imagine, short of prairie dresses in floral prints. Dressing appropriately didn’t protect me from lecherous voyeurs. I didn’t watch TV at all, we didn’t have one. That didn’t save me from years of shame and guilt over something that wasn’t my fault.
Do you know what I think? I think making a big deal about modesty and silly, meaningless, things like whether or not the straps are spaghetti or wide teaches our daughters shame. I think that teaching them that they are responsible for whether or not men leer at them is setting them up to feel shame for the rest of their lives.
My daughters are beautiful. I know I’m biased of course, but they are. I’ve had talent agents slip their business cards into my hands on train platforms. Agents with full portfolios who want to represent them in commercials. I’ve watched grown men whistle and stare hard and exclaim without malice or even creepiness, “She is going to be hot when she grows up!”
Men will be looking at my daughters their entire lives. You can bet I’ll be super vigilant. Aaron and I will protect them in every way we know how to do. We may finally let them date when they’re 30. But I can’t protect them from eyes. There will always be eyes.
I can tell you one thing, I’m sure as heck not going to cover them in burqas and make them feel as though it’s their fault that people are looking at them. I will teach them common sense. I’m going to make sure their skirts aren’t too short and their underwear is on, because they could care less right now. But I’m going to treat their beauty as the gift it is, a blessing to enjoy, but not to get wrapped up in. A simple fact about how God made them. A fact that their husbands will no doubt enjoy when the time comes.
I’m going to teach them that the looks, the stares, the comments are simply because people all need to respond to beauty, some are just too broken to know the right response, and it’s not their fault, it’s not even bad, and it never will be their fault that God gave them beauty that moves people to look, to appreciate and to enjoy. But not to try to own or to claim. It’s theirs and they are free to live unashamed in spite of it.