empathy

AS A WOMAN, I AM A BODY OF DISPLAY BEFORE BEING A PERSON. AND HERE’S WHY I’M TIRED OF IT

Painting by  Agim Meta

Painting by Agim Meta

Summers are simply not a girl’s best friend.

Once, in summer, a man wearing a t-shirt that looked about to explode over his protruding stomach literally grabbed me in the bus stop. Everyone there aimed their accusing looks at me, even though I was about to cry and had to sit down, because I’d began to shake. Perhaps the way I shuffled my iPod was provocative. Perhaps my basic jeans and t-shirt were. In summer, taxi drivers think it’s ok to go into advice mode and announce me that if I drink, I will be raped and it will be my fault, and that I deserve to be beaten for drinking anyway. In summer, 15 year-olds hanging around street corners make loud comments about my body.

I never have the nerve to shout, “Oi! Respect your elders!” They often would hit a(n older) girl.

Women still cannot walk on the street without hearing strangers’ feedback on their bodies and without getting those slow, slimy once-over looks that say “Hey, watch me, watching you.” I live with fear. For the sake of my mind, I sometimes send it on short holidays to the state of Denial. At times I even try to cross the border to the neighbouring state of Defiance. This summer, the croptop hashtag has inspired me to – you guessed it – wear a crop top and brave the streets. My small attempt at heroism ended with my Saturday afternoon walk cut short, as it didn’t take long for me to end up feeling like Rembrandt’s skinned bull. Actually, make that Francis Bacon’s reinterpretation of Rembrandt’s skinned bull, cut in half, with the screaming pope figure in between the two flanks.

In cold weather, my clothes double as a psychological barrier. A knitted hat becomes a helmet. A coat becomes a breastplate. Of course, all this is just pretending. It’s a soft, weak barrier. A teenage boy once tried to snatch my hat off my head because he thought it was funny. I had no idea hats could be so offensive. I guess some things are the same all-year-round, which is why, even in cold weather, I still have my earbuds in, regardless of whether or not I feel like listening to music. I still make a conscious effort to not look anyone in the face on public transport – I’ve been told that it might be interpreted as provocative. It’s like folding my eyes upon themselves. It gives me headaches. In short, I still refuse to watch myself being watched.

I remember a time when I adopted as my motto that much-tumblr-ized quote from Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters – “If I can’t be beautiful, I want to be invisible.” If I could go back, I’d whack myself over the back of the head.

Becoming beautiful has made me invisible. I am not the one who is seen – my body is.

Chuck forgot to mention that, just as he forgot to mention that you can end up hating your body because it fits the standards, and the alienation that rises from having to divide yourself into mind and body, when you would much rather think of yourself as a whole – a system where mind and body work together, as yoga wisdom says. It looks great on paper, and I keep telling myself that I can do it, but everyday micro-aggressions on the street remind me that I am a hole.

I am now thirty, and I am not proud of my twenties – my twenties are when I did stupid things for male attention, and often under influence. Like many others, I thought that male attention meant validation. Now, I know what male attention is worth. And I know I’m worth a better kind of male attention. I don’t think I had a Hallelujah moment and a heel-face turn. It was more like a process, and the bad things were as much part of it as everything else. As the recently departed Yogi Berra said, “The past ain’t what it used to be.” Right now, the past is infinitesimal. And – from Yogi to yoga again – the present is what matters.

My outsides don’t match my insides. A “good body” is supposed to belong to a “good girl”.

It’s not for me to decide whether I’ve become a good person – I sure hope so – but I am not a “good girl”. My personality often provokes hostile reactions – insults, threats, assumptions. I am not a “bad girl” either. I am who I am, which is not what the average male expects me to be at a first glance.

I am not passive, and have no wish to be submissive and obedient. A spirited heterosexual woman is as best seen by men as a challenge, as something to be broken, like a horse, and brought to heel, like a hound. Here’s a thought – perhaps Cosmo writers should look to Horse and Hound for inspiration. Perhaps they already do.

My opinions are insulting because they’re a woman’s opinions and, at the same time I’m expected to be charmed by the charmless – in the sense that women are expected to laugh at men’s jokes, although in most cases, those jokes are either a – older than dirt, or b – born of offensive stereotypes, notably including the one about how silly, shallow and desperate for money women are.

My interests do not matter. Because I like clothes and shoes, I’m not supposed to like science fiction. I’m only supposed to exercise to look good. I’m not supposed to enjoy being strong and resilient, because that would make me “manly”. I’m not supposed to enjoy satire, because women don’t get satire. I’m not supposed to prefer Rant over Invisible Monsters. In fact – sorry, Chuck, I’m not supposed to like you at all.

But I do. I enjoy all of these things. They make me happy. I simply care and get enthusiastic about many very different things. A cool song I have on repeat. A fluffy white puppy coming up to me in the street, and the owner apologizing, despite my obvious delight. Feeding the stray cats. All the little things that make up being human.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes feels as if her life is a constant negotiation with an insidious curse. We have been cursed to forget our own strength. We have been silenced, taunted, threatened, assaulted, and reduced to decorative objects that often double as housemaids. I’m not here to give solutions – too many people fancy themselves experts in what others need. Advice is easy and cheaper than the lunch deal at your local supermarket. I’m here to tell you that there is strength in you, and that you already know where it lies – it lies in what makes you happy, in the things you do when no one is watching you doing them. The trick is to take some time to see yourself. Your whole self. Even – and especially – when all others do is watch you.

When you get a clear idea of who you are, where you stand, what’s important to you and how you want to be treated, when you do what you love – that is when you create space for the right people to appear in your life. That is when you get the bravery to face the streets, and when you know that it’s not just monsters who await there.

Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Amazon.com. Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here