When I was fourteen, a man stared at me, through me, into me. I was in the passenger’s seat of our family car, with my stringy brown hair (I had figured out that long hair was nice, but I didn’t realize about brushing it yet), and my boxy turquoise turtleneck. My mom, who was driving, either didn’t notice the 40-something guy sitting on the sidewalk, or she was practicing the message that she had learned from her mother and passed to me: Just ignore it.
I was fascinated at how this man with torn jeans, dirty sweatshirt, and greasy black hair was visually boring into me. Fascinated and terrified. He was smirking. His expression said something like I own you. But you don’t even know me, I tried to say through my confused glances back at him. His smirk stiffened, his stare burrowed deeper.
It took about ten seconds for my mom to drive out of his sight. Ten seconds and forever.
My new therapist, a man, asked me in our second session, “Have you ever felt violated in your life?” I had been complaining about an interaction with a man that left me wanting to shudder and scream and take a shower. My two simultaneous answers, “Yes” and “No,” raced each other from my gut towards my mouth, bottlenecking somewhere in my throat. I sat for a minute with my jaw hanging uselessly off my face.
No. No, I have never had any orifice penetrated against my will. No one has forced a kiss on me. No uncles touched me in any closets. I don’t fit society’s definition of a violated woman.
But Yes. Every day. Three times on my way to your office, in fact, Mr. Therapist. Once in the form of, “How about a smile, sweetheart?”, one honk, and one “HEEYYY!!” Words and actions that interrupted my thoughts, demanded my attention, told me in some form that I don’t belong to myself, ever, unless I’m willing to fight for me on my way to therapy. I’d like to say I am always ready to fight for my self, but it’s not true. No one can fight all the time.
So I do the next best thing: I protect. I hunch over my vital organs, I make my eyes un-meetable by turning them towards the ground. I zip up my jacket, even if it’s warm out, so there’s one more layer between my boobs and their eyes. Or sometimes I try to do the opposite. I “hold my head high” (the other advice that supposedly counters harassment), my neck and shoulders so stiff that you could bounce a quarter off of them.
Doctors and physical therapists have theorized various causes of my back pain. Too much hunchy computer time, too little strength, too right-side dominant. No one has suggested that sixteen years of being violated by gazes, words, and gestures might affect a person’s muscles. No one except other women seem to give my theory much credit.
I nearly fired my new therapist. Once the traffic cleared near my vocal chords, I asked him, “Did you really just ask me that? Have you never had a female client before?” He saved himself by believing my stories, and he kindly didn’t point out that I could betray myself without his help… I had almost answered “No,” after all.
I hear a lot about women’s bodies lately, and their importance in the election. Personally, while my uterus and its contents are important, I wish more people were talking about my back. I wish someone was campaigning on the platform of women’s achey backs and necks and shoulders, and the every day harassment that has us all wound up and in search of diagnoses.
Until anything else makes more sense, I blame my back pain on misogyny.