By Grace Gay
***Disclaimer: This story contains content relating to depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, sexual harassment, negative self-image and disordered eating. If any of this may be difficult for you to read, please look at some of our other amazing content in our 2019 Culture Guide: “Healing”.
The first time I reported sexual harassment, the school administrator (a woman), told me, “I was a pretty girl and I should get used to it.” I was a freshman in high school–15 at the time. And I’d been getting used to it for as long as I could remember.
My childhood and adolescence glittered with the shiny, sharp blades of objectification that poked and prodded at my young body and mind. My father and his friends would crack jokes about women and sex, the kind that boys in 80s movies made, whenever they got together. When I turned 12, one of my father’s best friends said that I would be “his midlife crisis.”
The first time I was catcalled was on the walk home from the local Conoco gas station my neighborhood friends and I would regular. Every Friday after school, we repeated the same trek under the sun that quickly became the way secrets were whispered and lies were told. I purchased (or, sometimes, shoplifted) my usual, which were fruit Mentos and a Strawberry Fanta. I loved how the Fanta turned my lips red, as if I were wearing bright, bloody lipstick–a forbidden item for me under the watchful eye of my parents. And with these treats, we walked home past a construction site, and for the first time, we heard men in yellow hats shout to us from the timbers of a construction building. One of my friends waved and giggled. Her action, more than the catcalls, sent a sickening bolt through my stomach. She seemed to have suddenly achieved a higher status then the rest of us. I wanted to feel the confidence that comes with being wanted. I wanted to bask in male attention, to glow with it. I was 11.
In my opinion, street harassment gets too much attention. Of course, it sucks that when I tell a stranger not to hit on me at two a.m. as I’m walking down the street I get called a bitch and that women at my university walk in packs to make sure they’re not the next person to barely survive the nebulous threat of the nightime. But deep down, street harassment is only a signal of a deeper, more vital and terrible problem: the female body as an object, passive and victimized as prey.
My mom, who is the loveliest, strongest women I know, has faced these harsh, unfortunate realities for a long time. My father’s friends still talk, with misogyny dripping from their mouths, about how good she looked twenty years ago (in the same breath, they like to say how I look just like her). She’s carried the load of being reduced to nothing more than an object for a long time, underestimated and underappreciated for any other part of herself despite how much she has to offer.
And when I came home from school the day I was told, “I was a pretty girl and I should get used to it,” my mom didn’t have much comfort to offer me. Because that’s been the truth for her. When you’re a girl (not even a woman yet), you do have to get used to being harrassed, hit on, underestimated, sexualized, bitchified and patronized. That’s just a part of life. While she doesn’t think the school administrator had any right to tell me that, she thinks the statement is true.
When I came home that day spitting with rage (okay, crying with rage), she told me a story of what had once happened to her when she was young. A man slapped her butt in a gas station without even a word to her; just walking by, as if he was picking up a piece of fruit to test its ripeness. “I was so angry,” she said, “but there wasn’t anything I could do. You have to learn to protect yourself.“
You Are Your Own Voyeur
It starts slowly: you stop wearing yellow even though it’s your favorite color because it washes you out. You force yourself to wear a constant, slight smile so your father will stop asking what’s wrong and grown men on the street will stop telling you to lighten up. You start shaving every inch of hair you can find that isn’t on your head because a boy in gym class said you had “man legs”. Soon, you are objectifying yourself before men can even open their mouths to do so themselves.
Research shows there is a direct link between disordered eating and self-objectification. Eating problems aren’t just anorexia and bulimia, but a spectrum of the wild, terrible ways people try to fit their bodies into impossible standards. For me, I started working out more and eating less. I skipped on meals all through high school. I was always on-the-go, I told myself, so I just didn’t have the time. I cut out almost all sugar, carbs and fat from my diet freshman year of college. When I missed a meal, I noticed that I had less energy to devote to engaging with my own life. I didn’t want to engage with my family drama, with my worries, or with the dark threatening cloud in my head that was undiagnosed depression. My therapist describes this method of food deprivation as a way of keeping myself numb. When all I wanted was to shut down and not engage with the trouble within my life, that numbness was a wonderful feeling.
The world is complicated. Emotions are overwhelming. I had no sense of self so in some way, I wanted to be reduced to only my body. It felt simple, easy, natural and besides, everyone was already doing it for me.
As part of that self-objectification, I refused to date–a neat trick I played on myself that satisfied both my commitment issues and belief that no one would ever want me for more than sex. And under this guise of sexual liberation, I used my relationships with men as an unhealthy coping mechanism. “Everyone wants love,” I convinced myself, “so of course if I don’t have it, that’s the only reason why I feel terrible all the time!”
From this kind of thinking, I let men cross all kinds of boundaries with me. I hate the fact that I have to say I let them, as if I am responsible for not protecting myself. It whiffs faintly of victim blaming and the “boys will be boys” mentality. I was 18, and didn’t know that saying no was an option. The men in my life should have known better, but I could have too.
My consistent method for self-preservation has always been to predict the problem before it comes; to anticipate threats and protect myself by planning out every possible conundrum before it comes. After all, you can’t get hurt if you never let yourself. Of course, humans are notoriously bad at predicting what will make them happy, and on the flip side, what will cause them pain. In all of my efforts and the various ways I tried to protect myself from objectification and abandonment, I became, instead, what Margaret Atwood describes as the “ever-present watcher…peering through the keyhole in your own head.”
I hesitate to reveal full details of my life and force myself to encapsulate the lengths I went to in order to reduce myself to nothing. I was looking at myself from an outsider’s view constantly, and, consequently, hating what I saw. I want to believe, now, that I don’t have to prove that I was, and still am, in pain. I want to believe it’s not my fault I ended up minimizing myself to my body. I was yearning for some freedom, some relief from what was the inescapable exhaustion of living. And that freedom came in the form of redefining the entirety of my self to my body so I would no longer feel that exhaustion and pain of life. This didn’t work. But who doesn’t want a simple solution to their problems?
‘Til All of the Tricks Don’t Work Anymore
I remember the first time I realized I wanted to die–where I was, when, what I was wearing. I remember the moment with such specificity I can taste it. Those details are mine and mine alone. I hold that version of myself deep inside and view her like a child I need to protect, a kid who was broken,sad and in-need of help. That’s who I was.
Even now, there is still this odd gap between myself as I am now and who I was when I was suicidal. It’s hard to believe, and even feels ridiculous, to remember the thoughts I was having. The one thing living creatures are supposed to want above all else on an instinctual level is stay alive. I would laugh at the irony of being alive and intelligent yet still wanting to die if it weren’t so terrible.
My body, my gender, and my self-objectification all agglomerate when I think about my darkest moments. They are inextricably linked. Depression manifests itself as webs connecting all these moments: my childhood, my body, my life. “You are not pretty enough to find love, you are shallow and manipulative, no one actually likes you as a person. Everyone who has ever touched you sees you as the empty shell that you are. You can never do anything right.” You can see the dissonance even in these few shredded thoughts, the ways the voice in my head is my own and that of a stranger. I like to think of it as the dark version of myself projected, like whispered venom coming from the mouth of a horcrux.
Now, I can see that these thoughts aren’t reality, or at least, I have people that can reassure me they aren’t. But for a very long time, it was hard to see beyond the foggy edges of those thoughts and I ended up in bad shape. I still don’t know how to talk about my cutting and the scars that I carry, deeper on my heart than my body. Lacking words for the pain I carried inside, I wanted to crack myself open, scar myself up. I wanted my body to serve as an expression of what I really felt inside and who I felt I truly was. I wanted people to believe me when I said I was in pain. “Pain turned to proof,” essayist Leslie Jamison calls cutting. She voices what I want to say about self-destruction more clearly than I ever could: “I don’t think cutting offers any useful articulation of pain, but I do think it manifests yearning.”
Your Own Best Thing
This month, I can finally say that I gained back all the weight I’d lost since seventh grade, lost in the years when I was slowly, deliberately trying to erase myself. For me, it’s a hard-won and fresh victory that’s part of a gradual healing process. I still have all my unhealthy impulses: I’m too busy to eat; if I just eat a bite of chicken and some fruit, that’s enough; water and gum is an acceptable meal substitute. I still feel a little sick and self-destructive if I notice a perceived flaw anywhere. I don’t know if I will ever be able to fully say that I love my body. I hope one day I can. I am working on it.
For now, I am able to recognize that I am more than my body: I have interests, beliefs, values and inherent value. My body is part of the whole that I am, a tool for my use, and I am not just an operator of a machine for use and abuse. Now, I eat and I eat what feels good. I am a better friend, sister and daughter. I have better emotional regulation when I don’t spend an hour every morning looking in the mirror and creating mental lists of everything that’s wrong with me. I want to live more and disappear less. And for me in this moment, that’s enough.
But even among these steps, there is always a quiet voice in the back of my head, calculating who thinks I’m pretty, who likes me, who judges me. I like to exceed standards and expectations—but in order to do that I want to know what those expectations are. So I walk a tightrope between being free of the critical voice in my head and the aspirations and goals I hold for myself. This is the careful path of feeling empowered: to love myself for both my physical and mental abilities, and to use all of my abilities in a way that is constructive for myself and my future.
I don’t know if this delicate balance is the right way to do it and sadly, I don’t know any quick tricks to fix my self-esteem. I just hope that through my own story and struggle, I can help others transcend the voices calling their body parts out on street corners, the hands grabbing at them impersonally and the words they’ve internalized and turned against themselves like razors. I want life to feel less like I’m confined inside a box made of mirrors and more like I inhabit the space of the ocean to the sky, because this offers a life of possibility for everyone. For me.