May 23, 2012

In My Skin

I have a very complicated relationship with my body. The one thing that stands out is this – I have never truly felt that this skin I walk in is mine. So bear with me as I try to give a biography of my skin.

I never felt any real consciousness or special connection to my body for the first few years of my life. That is to say, I wasn’t conscious about its place in relation to anything. In fact, my introduction to it was defined in a one year period when I was 4 years old. I was, like many other children, molested. It does not matter who it was. But I can tell you what followed. The first time it happened, I was told that I should not tell my parents as they would be very angry with me. I instinctively knew it was really something I couldn’t tell my parents. But I also didn’t want to miss out on what had been a physically pleasurable game. That is to say, physically it felt good, even if emotionally it was very confusing. By the time I was 5 and it ended, I had knowledge of almost all sexual acts. This complicated things for me immensely.

My parents found out about it. Their reaction was not very comforting. I understand now, they did not know any better. They were not prepared. But in those defining moments was planted the seed of shame. It is the kind of shame that gets under your skin and stays there. Over time, with constant rubbing, it fades, but never washes off completely. The shame manifested into little rituals. It manifested into how I interacted with men and women. It manifested into a constant nagging of undefined fears when I looked at my body and tried to understand what it meant to me.

Around the age of 10 my breasts started developing, and I was wearing training bras. By age 11 I had my first period. At first I could not understand where the blood was coming from. I thought I had hurt myself badly without my knowledge. Then I thought maybe I was dying. I had seen dogs die after passing blood in their stool. It was all very confusing and scary. When my periods started my mother told me only two things: 1. Here is a pad, this will happen every month so learn to use this and 2. If you do anything with boys you will get pregnant. But she never clearly told me what that ‘anything’ was. Believe me I knew sex, but it was only in 9th grade that I realised that babies come out of a vagina and that unprotected sex leads to pregnancy. Till late in life I thought oral sex meant talking dirty. I didn’t know the links between sex and its outcomes. I knew that the penis went inside the vagina and mouth, but I did not know that sex could get you pregnant, and I certainly was mystified about where babies exited the body from. A lack of accurate information along with suppressed guilt and shame led to some really out of the world conclusions about sex and my body.

Later on in life I asked my mother why she didn’t tell me about periods before it happened to me for the first time. She said she was too embarrassed to speak to me about it. I laughed and called her old-fashioned, but looking back to myself at age 11, I was scared shitless by my periods. It had somehow felt like another shameful thing I could not control or prevent. The first signs of pubic hairs were also a source of fear and shame. In my mangled understanding, I concluded that they were also evidence of me being the bad girl – for getting groped and teased and touched by men. I consoled myself by thinking that at least no one else would ever see them.

However, my teenage years were bad, fraught with a fairly impressive list of emotional problems. It didn’t help me during this time that I grew up to be overweight and hence ‘ugly’ – in the sense I was made to understand. It didn’t help that at age 11 a man squeezed my breast in front of my mother before dissolving into the market crowd. It didn’t help that she barred me from going to the market anymore. Nor did it help that she once asked me to exercise or do something to make my breasts smaller because men looked at them when I went outside. I grew embarrassed of my breasts. I constantly fretted with my clothes – was the top too tight? Too short? Was the neckline too deep? Should I change out of this pink top which I love? Do I walk in an unladylike manner? Would this somehow tempt a man to squeeze my breasts? Or pinch my butt? I used to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror trying to look nice in this body which was so alien to me. But I did not want to look ‘too’ nice (I didn’t want to get pinched now did I?). Just nice enough. But of course, none of that really works, does it? I was still teased for my weight and glasses at school and I still got touched and pinched on the roads. I remember when I was around 12 years old while playing Holi on the roads, a boy of about 20 riding on a bike with his friend squeezed my right breast hard before riding off. It happened so fast that I stood shocked in one place for some time before I felt the pain. I went back home, and took off my clothes to have a bath. I looked at my breasts, tying to see if I could have done something to avoid this. Were my breasts some sort of an invitation that I did not know about? I came to a wonderful conclusion at the end of my speculation. It was simply this – maybe people can see ‘it’, when they see me; that I am unclean, that I have been touched. So maybe they are entitled to do this stuff. At that age I needed some reason to understand why someone would do this even when I was not asking for it. I picked out the one which was perpetuated around me by almost everyone. After all, wasn’t I told many times that only bad girls got treated like this? You dressed wrong! Why did you have to stand so close to the road? Don’t you know on Holi, men always act like this? No, I didn’t know. I was 12. I didn’t know.

By this age men/boys repulsed me and attracted me at the same time. I weaved romantic dramas in my head about them, but feared them too. It was their eyes. Sometimes I could almost hear them licking their lips in anticipation at being able to touch me. This was not how the men were in my head. Like I said it was very complicated. In my mind I was the perfect little creature with love stories that could be the envy of all fairytale princesses. In reality I was dirty. I was a shy child and I went further into a cocoon. To some extent, it would take me years to come out of it. With my female friends I was fairly comfortable. But with boys around, it was a different situation. It was because I realised that they could harm me. I went on a defensive. It was a sort of sweaty-palmed, shy, defensive stance of a scared girl who would react to any real or imagined danger. The reaction could be anything from being scared stiff, embarrassed, to silent tears or irrational arguments.

I am older now. I have met many men and women who have gone through similar pain. I understand that it was not my fault. The journey towards claiming my skin is not complete. Far from it. But it has begun.

Another version of this piece was originally published here

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About: Magpie

Magpie has done a PhD in Environmental Economics, and is interested in how a gender-unequal world affects her (and those around her) as a working woman in a big Indian city. She tries to chronicle these events and thoughts on her blog, naariquest.blogspot.com. She loves to read, travel, and play the Devil's Advocate to notions she believes in. On weekends, she unwinds with science fiction.

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