I can still see her sometimes. The girl on the other side of the glass. I am standing on the wrong side of a large lake and sometimes I wade in, arms outstretched. Trying to reach out to her. I scream her name, but she does not hear me.
For the longest time, my best friends were all skinny white girls. We would fight like lovers and I would crave them deeply, almost sexually. I would not know who I was when they left to pursue their own daydreams, of boys or professional successes. I had none of my own to take their place. My inner life was taken up by wanting to get as close to them as I could. Like maybe if I got close enough, their white sparkling joyfulness would rub off on me.
That joy was taken from me. Like my daemon, lifted out of my arms when I was only a child. What was given back to me was pain. Other people’s pain to hold for them, to care for tenderly, to mother in the way I will probably never mother my own children. Other people’s shame, sometimes. I was a hole that other people could use, in every way. I got very very good at it. Because I love this world. I did not want to leave it.
Women like me. The most marginalized people in the room, in nearly every room we enter. Allowed into the upper echelons to perform the emotional equivalent of sweeping the floors and cleaning the toilets. To make sure everyone is content and smiling. Knowing if that’s not true, someone will find a reason why it’s my fault. They always do. And everyone always agrees.
My fault. My shame on display. Too fat or too disabled or too broken or too poor, too worthless to be loved and no, I don’t feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for everyone else, so afraid of their own shadows that they need to push away those people who embody their worst nightmares. I am somebody’s worst nightmare. I am my own worst nightmare, hell. I told myself I would kill myself if I ever got to this weight, when I was young and very foolish.
I thought for the longest time that I was ugly, and that was why everyone stared. I could not abide my face. Whatever it was that made men look. Now I suppose that is what it means to be pretty. I do my best, I promise you. I rarely wear makeup. I don’t pluck my eyebrows. I can’t abide the fussiness, the performativity of beauty, but also? I just want to come and go without anybody looking.
I blame my sexuality. Unfair, but I do. She wants one specific man to look, from time to time. And then they all come running. Try to absorb her youth and enthusiasm through their skin. Put their hands out and try to rub the glitter right off her body. The world becomes a gauntlet. Sex is not the terrifying part, misogyny is. The way that being a woman in a body that is turned on by one man, becomes an excuse for all the others to come close and take what they can. So maybe I learned to punish myself, a little.
Maybe I thought he would understand that what I need protection from is not sex, but other men. That flirting with them seems at times the only way to control them. Like maybe if they want to fuck me, they won’t stab me through the throat or fantasize about it, every time I try to speak.
Women lose sight of our souls when we hit puberty. Like men lose their hearts. I have rediscovered mine only recently. When I met him. I did not mean to. I do not understand this new self that I am. Someone trying to do more than just stay alive, in a world someone else built for the express purpose of hurting her as much as possible before she died.
Every woman is not Dolores in the WestWorld theme park, but I am. The same men who hope to take me, while I scream or say nothing or acquiesce out of fear, these men smile at me in the morning and they expect me to smile back. These men who hit on me and when I say it is aggressive, I do not mean it is too much. I mean it is an act of violence. I mean they are asserting their masculinity, performatively, and using me to do it.
Women manipulate men too, I know that. Women lie about our intentions and we lie about our sexual desire, to get men hooked. Women lie, too. But I do not. I was not raised by other women, I was raised by horses. And horses never lie. I lash out when I feel threatened, and I speak nonverbally about the violence I have endured, and do not stop myself the way so many men and women all think I should. But I do not lie. Not about my pain, or trauma. And not about my desire either. Except that one time, 30+ hours of no sleep and somebody grabbed me and I was confused, I thought it was my fault that one more man in my life tried to hurt me, and so I blamed myself. That once.
But I don’t lie. Only. I am a victim. Of things men do without noticing. Things men do to women’s bodies by rote. Men hitting on women. Men intruding even with sweet come-ons that I don’t want, and don’t know how to stop.
I walk towards that girl. The one I might have been. The Columbia grad with the perfect teeth and the $200 boots I would not buy even if I could afford them. The girl he loves instead of me. The girl I thought he should be with. The girl who will make him happy, in all the ways I never learned how to.
There is a lake, between her and me. Of oppression, I suppose. Of the ways oppression becomes internalized. We blame ourselves for that internalization, but what are we supposed to do? We are only children. And we are taught oppressive beliefs as absolute fact. I grew up in a world in which fat women were disgusting and fat women’s sexuality was a blight on humanity. Fat women did not get married. If they were smart, fat women killed themselves. So they did not have to suffer through the humiliation of being young enough to give birth but too old to still have hope of real love.
My parents raised me to be a punching bag. I grew up afraid every day. Afraid at home. Afraid at school. And no one noticed. I grew up thinking it was my job to make sure that no one noticed. I grew up thinking that job mattered more than Columbia. Or being a good person. Or finding a family who loved me. That was the only thing I ever truly wanted, underneath all the bullshit. Not to write a book. Not to get a good job. Just a family who thought I was worth something. But I’m broken, now. And fat, and old.
I don’t know how to change a diaper. Or cook Shabbat dinner. Or bake bread from scratch. Or let someone I love touch me. My life is defined by negations. I know my mother cares about me because she does not touch me unless I ask. I know my father does not for much the same reason.
My father never physically harmed me, aside from the abuse, which I suppose is bad enough. But I knew if I ever spoke the truth, he would kill me. I knew if I ever got angry back when he was screaming at us for no reason, he would kill me if that’s what it took to shut me up. I don’t know whether to call that physical abuse.
Names matter, an awful lot. And they don’t. Bottom line is, I love men. Truly. I just feel a lot safer loving men from a safe distance.
Because men are taught to bully, to coerce. To push and push to get what they want. Whereas women are taught to give men what they want. To speak softly, quietly. To be easy targets, easy victims. To let men beat us. Women are Seabiscuit, before he started winning. Taught to run at the throatlatch of other, more important horses. Taught to let them beat him, to boost their confidence. Men beat us, and we let them. Men’s egos rely on the idea that they can beat us. That they are smarter faster more competent than us. They think this is a joke that women are in on. It is not.
Every person who lives in shame believes there is something uniquely wrong with who they are. There never is. The wrong thing is they have been taught to value the parts of them that are abusive, or lead to their abuse of others. Stomach problems are typically shame-related. Children are not taught these things. And the women who try to teach these things generally have audiences confined to other women. Men do not read self-help books. Men suffer in silence, live in pain, and then lash out. And we are supposed to feel sorry for them. We are supposed to recognize this as an effective performance of masculinity. We are supposed to applaud them for trying so hard to be an automaton version of human.
This is the idea that rationality means we would all be better off if every person was a talking head. That emotions only get in the way. I suppose they do, if you are a man. If your entire peer group has believed for most of your life that it is okay to hurt you, if you are weak or vulnerable at all. It is hard to believe emotions can be good if you have only ever seen men use emotions like anger and shame to hurt others, and never to heal.
No one asked me, you know. When putting together what it means to be a good man. No one ever consulted me for what I find attractive, or what I find lovable in a man. I loved the man who cried with me. I thought he might laugh with me too, someday. But he made trigger warning jokes, and probably made fat jokes too, before he met me, and again after, outside my view. He thought girlhood and femininity was very funny. I could not let him near my feminine female body. I could not give him the chance to treat me the way he treated his own feminine traits. I hope you understand that.
Sometimes it is not until you walk away from someone you love dearly that you know how much you really love yourself.
I walked away, but did not stop trying to get him to listen to me. Because my heaven is not a heaven without him. My family is not a family if he is not there too. He does not need to be perfect. Only interested in becoming more human, and less monster. Even if it means becoming less of a man according to what he thought being a man is. Maybe that’s what he still thinks. Maybe not.
We can change. That’s the only thing that gives any hope, really. In the end.
I never really saw men before. As humans. Maybe he can learn to see me too.
I came back and thought, everything was all my fault. He came back and thought the same. For right now, just for now, I want to consider if maybe everything is not my fault. If maybe I have done all the things that were my fault, my job to do. I want to hold myself accountable for treating myself better. Maybe then he’ll do the same. Maybe not.
Maybe I’ll leave him with that Columbia grad girl. That’s okay. But I’m not her. I’m myself. I raised myself in my early 20s on second wave feminist women of color writers. I have a tattoo in tramp stamp territory that says “we were never meant to survive” and it is not appropriative (I hope), it is intended in honor. And I try to live up to that responsibility, for what I was given. Those gifts. Those ideas, about the world. About colonization. And liberation. And knowing that most of the people in most rooms I enter believe this world would be better if I was not in it. But most of the people in the world, are in that boat. There are more people like me, than there are people like that Columbia grad girl I thought I was supposed to be. But she was not an artist, not really. She was not interested in being happy. She was not happy in learning how to have emotions, and not take her violence out on the bodies of women of color and women in poverty. She was not interested in being a good person, capable of being good to more than just white people.
I am not sorry I am not her. I am sorry I spent so long trying to be.
The woman on the other side of the lake is gone. The woman in the mirror never was. Whoever it is I am becoming, is someone else, for some other reason. I’m not sure who that is. I suppose that’s the exciting part of it all. I hope. We’ll see.
People who were raised with everything, who have always had whatever they needed in ways I will never have what I need, those people look at me and say, take personal responsibility. There are barriers between me and every single thing I want and need. We don’t talk about them in this society, the ways our emotions are constructed to limit us or push us forward. The ways we unthinking reconstruct our social hierarchies and communities to mimic the dynamics we were raised with, the ideas about who is valuable or who is not that we were taught as very young children. We take these ideas for granted. It is bad to be broken. It is good to be whole. Men are not broken, though they cannot name and communicate their feelings. Women who have been sexually violated are broken. What it means to be a person, as opposed to an object for others who are “real” people to use.
What it means to approach others in a utilitarian way, as opposed to offering others an opportunity to collaborate. What it means to be capable of being good to other people. To those less powerful than you.
I value those people who can look at someone who sits in the room looking grumpy and contributing nothing overt, who can ask that person, what do you want to give? Who assumes they have something to give, otherwise they would not have come. Sometimes that person is sitting there waiting to be asked because they do not believe they have the right to make the offer. Sometimes they are already trying, and everyone else is shutting them down without meaning to.
Sometimes I am trying to talk to him, but another boy sits down and starts telling me about the latest diet and then I don’t eat dinner. Sometimes I am trying to be good to him, but I am wearing skirts to hike in instead of shorts because shorts for fat women are terrible and ugly and uncomfortable, and now my chafing thighs are bleeding, and I am too humiliated to say anything at all. Sometimes he is treating my fatness like an amputation he is trying not to draw attention to, not to even think about, thinking his silence is about protecting me, and not centering his discomfort over my existence. Sometimes I am too much and other people do not want to have to think that hard. Sometimes this world is so easy for some people they do not consider what it is like to be in a body for whom that ease does not exist.
Sometimes I wish I was that Columbia grad girl but if I were, I think I would have killed myself a long time ago. Because I want to be better than her. I think I already am. Maybe not better for him. But better for me.
And good enough.