Saturday, December 12, 2015

Function, Fashion, Faux Pas --Fuck Off!

A few weeks ago, a man in a position of power told me this story:

"I was in a store once with my son, who was five at the time" he said.  "And what comes out of his mouth?  'Daddy, that lady needs a bra!'  And everyone was looking at me.  A bunch of people were trying not to laugh, because, really, I mean, I agreed with him, she did need a bra..."

Right around this time, I became very aware of my body.  This awareness, however, only followed the awareness that this man clearly makes a habit of judging women's bodies.  And immediately I was plagued with the contradictory urge to become invisible so as not to be judged and to stand up and be truly seen as someone who is more than a body.

And doesn't that make sense?  We've all had the experience of withering under someone's scrutiny.  This tends to set up a thing where I either hide who I am by disappearing, or hide who I am by being exceptionally visible and pretending not to care when people denounce me.  But I think most of us really, truly want to be seen, not our physical bodies, but the core and true sense of ourselves as beings.  There's deep power in being witnessed in our authenticity and accepted. 

When I was in 5th grade, my sister's mom (different households, different mothers, still sisters.  I know, it's complicated) took her to get a training bra.  I remember looking on in wonder as she wore it in front of her mirror.  It was white, broad like a sports bra, with a small, lace-spun flower on her breast bone.  A training bra?  Was this a normal thing?  Were girls supposed to get these?  What needs training?

My mother had made sure to teach me (a little too) openly and honestly about "making love", pregnancy, puberty and tampons.  But when it came to me doing grown up things, my sister, Green*, was always first.  And it was always a revelation to me.

In 4th grade, she got deodorant.  I guessed I was behind the times because clearly, this was when people started wearing deodorant!  So I asked my mother for some.  She leaned over, sniffed my armpit and declared that I did not yet smell like an adult.  So my sister and I snuck off to the mall, and I bought my own, which I hid underneath my bed until somehow I was found out.

In 6th grade I found out that everyone (the other girls) was shaving.  I don't know if I even bothered to ask my mother at that point.  I just sat in a bath for 40 minutes assiduously soaping a tiny portion of each leg and gingerly dragging a disposable bic across them.

When Green got her training bra, I entered another new world of awareness.  Were other girls in my class wearing bras already?  Of course I knew what bras were, but they really hadn't much crossed my mind other than that awkward day when someone pointed out that the arm holes on my sleeveless top were large enough to view my non-existent breasts if I leaned in a very particular way.  Then I noticed the divide.  ALL the popular girls wore bras already and the unpopular girls clearly didn't except for one who had developed a bit before the rest of us but that only sealed my feeling that I was desperately behind the times.

My mother took me out and bought me the bra I wanted.  "Nothing with bows or flowers" I said, not as much because I wouldn't have liked that as that I had learned to link these symbols associated with femininity to weakness, and that would never do in my family!  (Talk about ingrained misogyny.)

While my education about such adult topics as intercourse, masturbation and the association between menses and babies far exceeded that of my peers, it was severely lacking in matters of day to day gendered knowledge.  So the next day, I proudly went to school in my new white bra under my Sea Trek tshirt, which had a silhouette of two snorkellers in deep ocean water under a beautiful sun... on a white background.

We all know that 5th graders aren't all that nice and I had NO CLUE that white undergarments are able to be seen under white clothing.  About half way through the day Destiny* saw that I was wearing a BRA and, yelling down the hallway, asked if she could snap the strap.

I was mortified!  Clearly now everyone, including my male teacher, knew that I was wearing a bra because it was visible!  I had to take it off in the bathroom right away so no one else would see it.  (I might point out that this was back in the days when bras were considered underwear and underwear showing above or through one's clothing was nearly as wrong as vomit flavored jelly beans would have been before Harry Potter.)

Thus started my complicated relationship with the brassiere.  I wore one religiously, although not alone under something white, through 6th grade.  But sometime in 7th grade I got to questioning.  Why should I wear a bra?  Why did a bra have the power to make me mature while not wearing one made me a kid?  Why was wearing a bra "right" and not wearing one "inappropriate?" You might have already guessed that I didn't need to wear one for the sake of comfort.  If it had been a matter of pain, my questions might never have arisen, but in my AA standing, there was no pain, no bouncing, and I decided: no need.  So I stopped wearing one.

And I did get ridiculed.  In 8th grade a boy I'd "dated" in 6th grade told me that I "should never wear that shirt without a bra."  I have been told I look "horrible."  It's been suggested that if I don't wear a bra -oh, sorry, I mean- if someone doesn't wear a bra, she's likely to be raped.  It was the same when I decided to stop shaving.  "Do you have a boyfriend?" asked a classmate in art my freshman year.  "Doesn't he mind?"

This really has nothing to do with bras.  What did a bra ever do to that man whose son is so aware of his father's misogyny that at five years old, he already "knows" that there is an acceptable and an unacceptable way for women to appear?  Does anyone ever look at a piece of clothing on a hanger and say something shaming to it?

I've gone back and forth over the years.  Most of my early adult life I went without a bra.  Now that gravity has been pulling on my breasts (which are no longer AA) for over 20 years they hurt a bit and a bra helps alleviate that.  A medication I started taking a year ago has the odd side effect of making my nipples stick out 100% of the time.  I've never tried on a piece of clothing without wondering, "can someone tell if I'm wearing a bra in this?  Is there enough pattern to hide my nipples?"  There are days I wear a bra because I can't cope with the feelings other people have about my breasts.  And there are situations that I've swallowed as "bra wearing times" as dictated by our society.  I even prefer the way I look wearing a bra, but that's not enough to have me wearing one every day.

There's a special assumption we make in the U.S. about autonomy.  We consider it each person's exalted right to have their own control and self-determination over their physical bodies.  This is the basis of many arguments about abortion.  This is the crux of assault cases.  But when it comes to autonomy, this is actually what we hear: "You get to determine for yourself what you wear except if you choose no bra/leggings/something small if you're not small/something modest if I want to see more of you/something I don't like.  Then you're wrong and inappropriate." This castigation tells us that the autonomy that society says is incredibly important, is a sham, it's for other people, we are not respected enough to be granted this basic human decency.  Our autonomy is not really ours but something the world around us controls.  As a friend and some tweets pointed out recently, "I'm tired of men [and others] trying to divide women into "good"/"bad" based off what we choose to wear. It's not our clothes you don't respect. It's us."

*Names changed of course

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Be a Believer

Weeks ago, Bonny told me a story about a young woman who was raped and no one believed her.

This is what I would like you to know: when someone tells you they have been a victim of violence, you should believe it.  If you can not believe it, be polite and STFU.

Not being believed is always on the mind of people who experience sexual violence.  There is something in the enormity of the experience of rape, in the aftermath of crazy fight, flight or freeze neurotransmitters flooding you for weeks, in the vulnerability of a brain fog that presents as crystal clear, which becomes internally violent in the face of doubt.

The man who raped me had an answer for all of it.  
  • I was mentally unstable.
  • It was a misunderstanding.  
  • It was bullshit.
  • I was perpetrating a horrible accusation and stress on his life at an otherwise very stressful time.  
Each of these ideas was presented.  One, then, after I refused to change my story, the next.  As if being raped is not bad enough, I then was subject to this barrage of mental abuse.  I desperately wanted to tell everyone what had happened to me, but I did not even tell my best friend because of the fear that the rapist would accuse me of taking away friends and allies of his.

So when my hairdresser recounted a similar story, I experienced an unfortunate norepinephrine dump.

"Here's how the photographer explained it to me" said Darnell*, after mentioning an accusation from a model during Santa Fe's Fashion Week.  "He said that the model was pretty young and probably thought that if she cozied up to [the fashion developer], he would hook her up with some good deals.  And when that was clearly not gonna' happen, cuz the guy's smarmy as all get out, she decided that he raped her."

Is this possible?  Sure, it is.  Is it likely?  I can not answer that question.  If we do not have accurate numbers about how often rape occurs (and we do not), we also do not have accurate numbers about false accusations.  But whether or not an accusation of violence is true is not something that can be decided by statistics anyway.  And furthermore, it is beside the point. Deciding if someone is telling the truth, is not usually our job.
Here is why I believe the woman in this story:

  • I am not a judge.
  • I do not need to be impartial.
  • I do not need services of a fashion developer who may not be a rapist but who is smarmy and unpleasant.
  • I will probably never meet this person and if I do, neither of us will be aware of it.

How often do we think someone is lying when he tells us he was burglarized?  Not too often. We tend not to ask "did you leave your door unlocked?" Instead, we ask "What did they take?" We ask about the effect, because we believe.  And it should be the same with other forms of violence.

The effect of disbelieving people who say they have been violated, perpetuates violence because it further silences victims who already may not speak up because of the fear of more violence, or in how ineffectual the world is, or from embarrassment or shame.  It is unfair to put disbelief on top of all that.  It also informs those who inflict violence that they are safe from consequences.

I like the perspective on this that Bonny shared with me: is there any harm in believing this person that s/he was raped? If there is no harm in believing, then believe.

But what about false accusations?  Yes, those do happen.  And yes, it is terrible and people are hurt by it, both the falsely accused and unrelated people who really have been violated.  But focusing on The Truth about what happened, may mean that you are focusing too much on an event and not enough on a person's experience.

Really.  Stop and think about this.  Only if you are called upon to judge something for legal purposes would you be in a position to cull The Truth.  The Truth focuses on the event.  Being a friend focuses on someone's experience.

Sometimes people think that in order to be equally supportive to both parties in a crisis, (or equally unsupportive), that you have to be impartial, or fair.  I stand by my original point, if you can not believe the person claiming violence, do not engage about the issue at all.  If you insist on acting like Switzerland in WWII, you will do more harm than good.

Here's a fantabulous quote that sums this up.

"Like “impartiality” and “fairness” is the greatest thing we owe one another when we witness a friend being harassed and browbeaten by someone.  Like abuse doesn’t follow recognizable & predictable patterns and our perception of it must be reinvented from scratch each time we see it happen.  Like our own experiences as witnesses to those patterns somehow make us less believable, less reliable.  Like all of this mistrust of our experiences and pressure to be impartial isn’t deeply, deeply gendered." -Captain Awkward

But let us talk about when we feel we can not believe. There is a personality test called the Myers-Briggs.  In it there is a measure of how comfortable a person feels leaving things open to possibility. Some people need to know, need to decide, need a definitive.  If you are one of those people, it might well be difficult for you to believe a victim on the basis of her claim alone. But also understand that believing someone that they were violated, does not necessarily mean you believe the other party is guilty.  Offering support to someone who says he was violated, does not mean you have to believe him.  But for the sake of the people involved, do not talk about your disbelief with them!

If you are dealing with people you know and care about, and you really feel uncomfortable believing the person who claims violence, then step way back.  This is not an issue about which you can support either person.  By all means, let them know that you care about each of them and know that they are going through a difficult time.  Offer to point them to other resources for support while you seek support elsewhere.

There is a very useful model for support that applies.  Imagine that in all crises, the person most effected by the crisis is in the center of some concentric circles.  In each outer circle are the people next most effected by the crisis.

When we need support for something, we tend to look into the center of the circles.  But it actually works better and is more appropriate to look a circle or two out from where we stand because the people more affected by the crisis are the least able to give us support at the time.

For instance, let us say your mom received a letter in the mail saying that her pet ferret, Mr. Frinkles, has not been chosen to represent Tubby Pets Goulash Grains in their next commercial. It is cool for your mom to talk with you about her disappointment, right?  Right.  After all, Mr. Frinkles could have been a star and you are not as affected by his failure to achieve it.

Now let us say that the situation is actually that Mr. Frinkles died.  Despite the fact that he was your mom's pet, you loved Mr. Frinkles.  Is it cool for you to call your mom and tell her how sad you are that you will never feed Mr. Frinkles another Goulash Grain?  Not as much.  It is not that you can not reminisce or let mom know that you are sad, but to ask your mother for support when she is going through her own primary grieving process is not going to be good for either of you.  It would be better if you talked to your friend Mary, who has also had experience losing pets but did not have an emotional tie to Mr. Frinkles.

Here is the original article explaining this.  It's good; you should read it.

Silliness aside, if your mom said your dad raped her, that might put you in a difficult situation. But talking about how you do not know what The Truth is, how could this even happen, and how will you ever look at your parents the same way again, is best said to Mary, who has parents but has no emotional ties to yours.  Telling either of your parents this would be stressful for them and you will not get the support you need.

Learning of a violent and abusive situation is difficult for everyone.  Once we learn of it we are in a position of making decisions.  Who do we tell? Do we believe? What is the best response? How can we help? Why did we not figure it out before we were told? Will our world/friendship/community ever feel as good as it did before? Do not underestimate the effect that tangential situation has on you. If you need or want support, get it. Just get it from an outside circle.

And in case you ever need it, I believe you.

*Name changed