The body keeps score.
I am chatting around a table in a backyard in rural South Australia. It is a sunny hot afternoon and I am with my sister and some of her friends. We are a group of young women sharing secrets and they mostly involve men and how we should best exist in this world alongside their constant onslaught of threatening and carrying out of sexual and physical violence. One young women thinks that we as women do need to be careful. That some of the responsibility does fall on us and our actions. Another young women shares an experience where she went to a family function that involved a pool party. Afterwards she started receiving text messages from one of her uncles. Text messages about her body and how much he liked it. She had been a young teen and self conscience enough already. The text messages had made her feel uncomfortable. She went to her grandmother about it and was told she had brought the text messages on herself by wearing a bikini to the family function. This story made me feel ill. I explained to this young woman that she had not brought those creepy messages on to herself. She had been a young girl and that uncle is a grown man who should know better. The young woman nods thoughtfully and takes a sip of her vodka cruiser. I am eight years older than every young woman at this table and I feel my chest swell with heart ache and wanting to protect them all from any oncoming trauma and fix what damage has already been done by countless creeps. Who are not strangers lurking around dark ally ways. They are normal men with jobs and wives and communities that respect them.
That particular sunny afternoon in South Australia comes to mind today when I get back from a lovely phone free walk with my partner. I check phone and am presented with a facebook memory from eight years ago. I was at a live music venue and had gone to the bar to get a glass of water. The person working behind the bar said to me ”I am sorry, sweetheart, you can’t come to the bar to get your water. You should get your parents to do that.” I turn around and glare at her. ”Oh I’m sorry! she says. I did not see your tits! You are like a doll aren’t you.” I read the memory and feel the same indignation I felt at the time. I also feel an extra level of indignation coupled with in hindsight a sense of sleaze. An older male relative had commented on the status not with sympathy but with amusement and a word that he and other members of that family had used when referring to my own newly developed chest area.
I am sitting on my couch with my partner who is on their phone and I am livid. I remember how often my new breasts came up in conversation and how I hated it. I hated that my uncle referred to my new breasts as ”floaties” (referring to how they were so big in proportion to the rest of my skinny frame, they could keep me afloat in the deep end of a pool) I just never said anything because it ‘wasn’t that bad’ to steal the title of Roxeanne Gay’s book of essays on rape culture. I mean I hadn’t gotten gross sexually explicit text messages. I just felt a bit wrong and uncomfortable inside. I had already internalized the idea that the male feelings around me were more important than my own. So I let it go.
Growing up. slowly disentangling myself from patriarchal religion and reading some feminist books equipped me with a vocabulary that I could use to articulate these feelings that had no name before. I deleted said male relative and most relatives in general) from my social media so they could no longer comment on anything. Rereading this memory from years ago and the old comments i decided to comment on this post with a simple general statement so as not to incriminate anyone. I simply said ”Just a little advice for uncles: don’t comment on your nieces breasts. Ever.” A pretty good piece of advice I think with satisfaction. My partner agrees. He has a niece. The idea of commenting on such things makes him feel gross.
Seconds later I get a message from a cousin who is no longer a facebook friend. the message is simple and concise: this relative ( their father) has had surgery so I should leave them alone. I hadn’t attacked anyone in particular. My heart hammers in my chest and I feel angry very very angry. Is it warranted? This anger? My partner says it is. ”oh, you wouldn’t know anything about surgery.” He says sarcastically. I laugh and gently touch my kidney transplant scar. I hadn’t even pointed the uncle advice at anyone. I want to respond to the private message so badly but know its no use. Of course surgery is not pleasant and I do hope they are ok but thats not what’s being discussed here.
Messaging back in anger or in fake repentance wont change or fix anything. It will just feed more drama. But I cannot let it go. I keep thinking of that friend of my sister and her story and how common it is. How there are so many similiar and worse stories that I know of. Being at home is not protection enough. Dressing modestly is not protection enough. Keeping quiet and adhering to patriarchy is not protection enough.
I delete the memory from facebook and write this instead.