As a teacher, I maintain a close relationship with a lot of my ex-students. This particular student, a member of my class more than a decade ago, is now someone I consider a close friend. She has faced some unspeakable trauma in her life, but through it all, she has been a fighter. Every step of the way. She sent me the following piece of writing the other day and I asked if I could publish it on my blog. She agreed, as long as she remained anonymous. Reading this work was the first time in my life that I truly understood the way eating disorders can present themselves in young women who have suffered from physical and sexual abuse. I have learned so much from her words. I hope you will too.
As I prepared for bed last night, I had a startling revelation. I climbed into my large and cozy bed the same way I had always done, nestling myself into the left side. Suddenly, it hit me. I have an entire bed to myself, yet I am only allowed to utilize a small portion of space. I tried to venture to the middle of the bed but I felt odd, out of place, and dare I say unworthy. The simple act of even attempting to take up extra space felt more than unfamiliar, it felt almost as if I was doing something wrong.
I watch everyday how the men in my life have no qualms about their inherent right to spatial occupation. I have seen my boss extend his arms on either side moments before clasping his hands at the base of his neck. Elbows extended and legs openly crossed. Looking back, I now notice that I normally stand there, arms folded delicately, legs crossed at the ankles, as if I am physically apologizing for my presence in “his” space. I observe how my Grandfather maneuvers in my Grandparents’ home library/office. Upon leaving his desk, he turns the chair to an open position, facing his awaiting recliner. When he is finished taking a mental break, he easily re- situates himself in the desk chair. Meanwhile my grandmother has a special accent chair she utilizes in the living room, and never sits on the large, open sofa.
As I reflect, it becomes clear that very early on, I was taught to be mindful of my existence in the world as a girl. As a child, I loved helping my mother prepare dinner. I started to notice we would cook two separate meals. My father would receive “man meals”- steaks, potatoes, etc. Mother, my sisters and I would eat “lady food”- salad, grilled chicken, vegetables. Due to the fact this was my ‘normal,’ I assumed this is how every woman existed. Maintaining a lithe and taut figure was par for the course. I became confused when I saw other women that had, according to my mother, “let themselves go.” The now universally hilarious “you had one job” memes are exactly how I viewed women with bodies that were larger than a size zero to two. I not only thought they were shirking their obligation, I thought they were failing life.
“You are using too much space.” Translation-”there is too much of YOU.” I would silently judge these women for daring to do what I could not. I was jealous of other women for their ability to establish they have the right to exist. Coincidentally, it wasn’t until I was sitting in my family’s formal living room across from my worried friends, family, and Doctors, that I realized I followed the rules too well. I had done as instructed and was ever mindful not to ask for more space in the world than I deserved.
I whittled myself down to what I thought was an acceptable size. I wanted there to be just enough of me to be present, but not enough to seem invasive. What stood out to me most, was my Mother’s “grave” concern. Everything I did, I learned from her. I was under constant tutelage in the art of shrinking my womanhood. My body was not the only perceived threat that had to be diminished. I was told the culprit behind my still being single was due to the fact that men don’t want a smart or accomplished woman. On many occasions, comments were made I should ‘pretend’ not to know something, or allow a suitor to ‘teach’ me a skill. I was told I have a voice with unusual depth to be such a petite woman, so I should speak in a higher octave.
I recently read a blog post aptly titled “The Healing Power of Travel.” In that post, one of the most brilliant and amazing “nasty women” I know, wrote about her international excursions as a means of not only healing, but finding herself after surviving life changing trauma. She wrote about overcoming an almost crippling fear of the implicit risks related to being a woman in the world. I was so moved by her courage and fortitude of throwing herself into the unknown and not apologizing for her presence nor feel guilty for enjoying her chosen spaces.
I can only hope to become as free and accepting of myself as she has learned to be. Jetting off to the other side of the pond may be too tall an order right now. Perhaps I will settle for having a croissant for breakfast, unapologetically speaking with my “powerful, deep voice,” and when the day’s activities of attempting to reclaim my authentic self have tired me, I shall fall asleep in the middle of a very large bed.