There will always be a skinny white girl whose parents love her, telling me that people will treat me better if I learn to love myself more.
The self-esteem revolution is about individual change replacing collective action. It is about the concept that if I only value myself, then rape, and poverty, and disability will no longer affect me.
It is, in a word, nonsense.
But it is very compelling nonsense. It is the idea that no one needs to fight for me, or even notice that I am in danger or being hurt. It is the idea that every kid on the playground has an equal and equally fair shot at survival. It is the basic concept that if a girl lets a boy hit her or pull her hair or shove sand in her face, it is because she does not have the self-esteem to stop him.
We learn to have the self-esteem to stop him through watching how those we love treat us. If our mother defends us, we learn to defend ourselves. If our mother blames us, we learn to blame ourselves. If our mother watches and does nothing and insists this is what life is like for girls and then women, well. Maybe we start wanting to die, or at least not wanting to be a girl.
Because being a girl means never leaving the playground. It means I build sand castles and some boy comes to knock them down. I’ve been taught to be polite and not to throw punches and not to fight back, so I don’t.
Being a girl means I can’t fight back. If I fight back, everyone will hate me. If I fight back, then somehow, all the violence in the room will be all my fault.
I am so tired of everything being all my fault.
Everything can’t possibly be all my fault, can it?
I never fought back against bullies, because I believed their behavior was somehow about me. I smiled, instead. I tried to make them like me. I “tend and befriend” responded to the trauma of their presence in my field of vision. I avoided their gaze. I slunk away, humiliated. I gave up on programs, on people, on jobs.
I gave up.
The problem with fighting back is, the bully is always giving voice to the beliefs of the broader society. That it is okay for boys to yell at girls, to shame girls for eating food or wearing skirts or not wearing skirts or having breasts or not having breasts. That it is even okay to hit girls, if you can get away with it.
Once I went to a beach with my parents. I kicked sand because I felt angry. The wind picked up and blew the sand into another child’s eyes. I had overestimated the distance between myself and that child, perhaps because I was four and the world looked very big to me. My parents were so embarrassed that I hurt another child a tiny bit completely by accident that they dragged me from the beach in shame.
I never understood exactly what it was I did wrong.
I have moved almost all of my things out of the house I lived in for most of this year. I really liked that house. The cheerful flowers outside, tulips and a rosebush. I liked the squirrels and the birds outside. I even liked the other people in the house. I was afraid of the man who screamed all the time, but I figured as long as he screamed at other people, I was relatively safe. Until one day he screamed at me. I screamed back, surprising him and myself. And I became His Enemy.
Girls who fight back are bad girls. I hate myself for not fighting back, sometimes, but then I remember what happens to girls who do.
It is hard to stand up to bullies and fight for myself or for anyone else when everything I have ever known about the world has taught me that I have no right to even be alive. Marginalization is the sensation that if you identify yourself as yourself, someone will emerge from seemingly nowhere to tell you that you have no right to be here. Wherever ‘here’ is.
I suppose it is the fragility of those of us born with class privilege that we can fight for nothing, ever, and still somehow survive. Maybe when people talk about male privilege they mean that men place no value in their emotional selves, because no one else ever has. So when someone attacks them emotionally, it is only a confirmation of everything they already believe.
Every person raised with privilege is also someone who needs space to grieve. Privilege is a sickness that keeps us alive even as it slowly kills us. Privilege leads to addictions that distract us from the pain we’ve been taught is our fault, and must be borne quietly, in shame.
Sometimes I think that deep down, he didn’t mean to hurt me and I didn’t mean to hurt him.
I meant to hurt him because he hurt me because I hurt him because. Because I was afraid of him. Because he had power over me in ways he didn’t realize. Some of that was the power of loving. Some of it was the power of privilege.
I am marginalized out of so many spaces but men are welcome nowhere if they bring their emotions with them, and. I’m not sure which one is worse.
I don’t think it matters which is worse. I only want it to be different.
I have a fetish for being rescued because no one ever really saved me. The violence was never hidden from their gaze. They just couldn’t see.
I try to teach men to stand up for themselves. That it is okay to have boundaries. That they are valuable not for the stuff they bring, but for the way they show up.
Inside, though. I am still a girl who a lot of horrible things are happening to all at once, every day, all the time. I am still a girl whose relationships thrive on secrets, at least, that is who I have been. I am in recovery, now, not so much from alcohol itself, but from secrets. From accepting shame as a substitute for being loved.
I am still an alien in a world that does not want me. I made all the wrong choices because I was taught a lot of wrong things, about safety, and love.
It is too late to make different choices. Or to be taught differently.
I wanted to grow up. I wanted to become something other than a girl. But a woman in this society is just a girl with bigger tits and more vulnerabilities.
A white boy-man I thought I loved once said, everyone needs a safe place to get away. He wrote compellingly of toxic masculinity but he forgot one thing. Girls don’t get safe places to get away. Girls don’t get to ever feel safe.
We grow tall, and we hope the bullies who grow up and become gang rapists will find someone else to torment. But we don’t grow safe.
And the boys we grew up with, and loved, become gang rapists, or boys who go down on girls passing out drunk, or weigh their masculinity by what they can convince girls to do. Because if in the end she says yes, that’s consent. No matter how drunk or out of it or scared she is.
I am growing into something to be afraid of. I hope. Because the men I have been taught to look to for saving are the ones I need to be saved from.
Maybe we will all be together someday in some safe place. Someday.