Sunday, 17 May 2009

'When I was a little girl, and so my mother told me...'


This is a long rage about what little girls learn and why, and what they don't learn and why they need to. We learn that we are not safe in our bodies, and then we learn to fear them, to hide them and not discuss them and keep them out of danger as much as we can. Our mothers teach us this because they want us to be safe, but there is no safety when what you fear is yourself.

I feel damn lucky, because I have strayed across the gender line now, and I can see what had to be re-learnt as a grownup, so I could call myself a man. But some of this, I had to learn just to deal with living in a woman's body, .

What I was taught when I was a little girl
When I was eight years old, I had to go to the doctors for suspected early menarche. My mother asked for a lady doctor but none were available, so an elderly man with greying hair and cold fingers examined and prodded my 'between-my-legs', (the only name I had for it) while my anxious mother looked on. I wasn't unduly distressed by the examination, but I remember the amount that my mother was freaked out and embarrassed by the whole incident. And I got scared, because I could see that she was scared.

That was when I found out my body wasn't really mine.

Fast forward, from Cornwall in summer 1992 to last Christmas. I went to a GUM clinic to get a checkup. These are always unpleasant, but at this particular hospital, they use metal speculums with screws to loosen or tighten. They hurt. They really hurt. I found this out the previous visit, and they now freak me out horribly - worse than a dentist's drill, worse than a bad tongue-piercing, worse than injecting into the eye.

I was shoved up in the stirrups, baring my embattled genitals to the world, and the nurse went off to fetch the doctor. She left my lying there, exposed, cold, unable to fidget or run away (as I very much wanted to), the dreaded speculum lying in my view on the side table.

And I started to cry. Because I hate this procedure, I was nervous, I thought I was ill, I had no control over what happened next, because I was lying, waiting and knowing that this would hurt and humiliate me and I couldn't move.

The doctor returned. I was clearly crying, my breathing was ragged. She ignored my tears, said 'If you don't relax, this will hurt more,' and I lay back and recited the phonetic alphabet to myself, and tried to ignore what was going on down there.

Every woman I talk to about this has a similar horror story.
Once the female body is in the hands of the experts, it's not yours any more.

What I was taught as a teenager
I learned that I could be attacked because of my body. I was banned from walking alone after dark, I learned that I must dress conservatively, I must never ever speak to strangers, I must not wear short skirts, because these things were dangerous to me because of my body. I was not allowed to be even slightly less than fully covered in front of my male relatives - including my father and brother, men whom, to this day, I would unquestioningly trust with my life. I was taught that my body was dangerous. The first time a stranger accosted me because of my body, I was fourteen years old. I literally ran all the way home, and cried for half an hour with fear.

Every woman I talk to about this learned a version of it.

Once the female body is a sex object, it's not yours any more.

What I was never taught when I was a little girl.
How to take an attacker out at the eyes, the throat, the kneecap. How to stack up muscle on my upper body so I am physically able to wrestle men bigger and stronger than me. How to run. How to ask questions, all the time. How to take a handmirror and look at my cunt, and then draw what I saw, and then learn to love what I saw. How to kick in heavy boots. How to look bigger and more confident. How to meet people's eyes. How to fight back. How to forgive myself for not fighting back. How to love my body. How to enjoy sex. How to tell a man I can't go swimming because of my period. How to demand safer sex. How to get checkups every six months in case we weren't safe enough. How to make a fuss when the checkups are skimped or insensitive or painful or humiliating. How to talk about my clitoris. How to negotiate orgasms. How to not shave and not care. How to ignore makeup. How to argue with doctors. How to forget what my mother told me, and think about what daughters need to hear. How to demand this knowledge for all women.