Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Post About Bras

As a pre-teen/teen, I was, to say the very least, physically late blooming.  What I had in bizarre mental wisdom and fortitude, I lacked in evidence of pubescence until I was about 16.  And I was completely ashamed of it.

When I started 6th grade, I came to class to find that many of the girls who had looked just like me the year before had started to really grow up, and all of them were obsessed with breasts and the potential for a first period.  It was relentless.  It was all they talked about.  Everyone wanted to know what bra size everyone else was and whether they had “gotten it” yet.  I always tried to hide during these onslaughts of maturation discussion because I was exemplifying nothing and couldn’t relate.

As I didn’t have any boobs for a long time, I didn’t wear a bra.  This seems pretty obvious and logical to me, but the other girls had moms who were all about getting their daughters ready to be women and apparently a bra signified that.  I’ve always thought that the concept of the training bra was sort of hilarious because I don’t really think there’s much too it, other than remembering to put one on.  But the girls who had one were proud of it and made those of us who didn’t have one feel like toddlers or simply defective.

When I was in 8th grade, every girl in my class was forced to go to an all day seminar/workshop about how to be proud to be a woman and to not feel shame about it.  However, it ended up being a day when I felt possibly the most body/development shame that I had ever felt up to that point.  According to the workshops, all there was to being a woman was boobs and periods.  After watching an assembly that consisted of popular oldies sung with rewritten lyrics (like “Walk like a girl.  You can rule the world.  Walk like a girl, my friend”) and reassurance that we can do anything we put our minds to, we had to go to these workshops.  The workshops began with an icebreaker activity called Girl Bingo (or something) and you had to go around asking people things in the squares to see what you all had in common.  If you found someone with a matching answer to yours, you got to check it off.  Of course, one square was “Bra Size” and another square was “When did you get your first period?”  Having had experienced neither of these things, I felt mortified every time someone came over to me to ask.  The rest of the workshop was more of the same, talking about breasts, blood, and how cruel boys are.  I was ridiculously anxious the entire time and left feeling worse about my own femininity than I ever could have dreamed.

At home, there wasn’t a lot of body shaming per se, but my mother was constantly worried about her weight.  She managed to not exactly pass this on to me, but one thing I was aware of was that she was oddly uncomfortable with the subject of breasts.  Hers were small (she is a generally petite woman) and she often seemed to judge larger busted women for some unknown reason.  The easy explanation is that she was likely uncomfortable with her own, and anything that made her uncomfortable was cause for judgment of others, seemingly.  She used to get on my sister’s case (behind her back) about my sister referencing her boobs all the time.  It was true that my sister was sort of bizarre about it, always pointing out how often she got food on her shirt, right on her boobs!  But, like, whatever, she was sort of bizarre about a lot of things.

What I’m saying is, boobs were a really uncomfortable subject for me and apparently my entire family.  For a bunch of hippie/sort of pagan types, this really seems ridiculous, but someday I will write my memoirs and it will be titled, “This All Seems Pretty Ridiculous, Honestly”.

Gym class was the worst.  As all students have had to do, we were forced to change into gym uniforms in a locker room together where there was no privacy.  And everyone loved to comment on everyone else’s underwear, especially if it was to demean and draw attention to the fact that you were underdeveloped.

At some point though, my pituitary gland kicked in and the things all those strange health class films talk about started to happen to even me.  Before that, I learned about the pituitary in said health class and, since it was at the base of the brain, I thought that maybe I could manipulate it through my head, pressing on my hair hoping to give it a message to get going with the hormone action already.

Yes, I was getting pretty desperate for the mocking to stop.  I was also 14 and didn’t really understand science or logic yet.

And kick into gear it did, slowly but surely and by the time I was 16, I looked pretty much like I do now.  But I was pretty ashamed of my body and was carrying it like someone who would get mocked.  While I wore interesting clothes, they were not form fitting and I kept the fact that I didn’t wear a bra yet as much of a secret as I could.

But gym still sucked.  And I was getting really tired of having to either hide in a bathroom stall or have people stare at me and comment (these people were my friends, by the way…ugh).

So, I decided that I was going to be brave and ask my mom to buy me a bra.  I didn’t have any of my own money (I only got that a few times a year), so I couldn’t take myself at the time.  Also, I figured that this was one of those things that parents do for their kids.  And yet, I was terrified and completely embarrassed by the thought of asking.  But not as embarrassed as I was to not be wearing one in the locker room.

One morning, I mustered all the courage I could, and I was leaving for school, I said, “Hey, Mom.  Do you think we could go out and get me a bra?”

She heard me and looked at me with this strange, skeptical look on her face. “What do you need that for?” she asked in a sort of adversarial tone.

“Well, um, I, uh, have to change in front of people for gym class and it’s embarrassing.”

“Why? You’re just changing in front of a bunch of girls, right?”

“Yeah…but…I…it’s still embarrassing.”

“Yeah, fine, we can go out and get you one.”

She seemed exasperated by the notion and I felt mortified once again by the subject.  I was quickly learning the lesson that there was no way to not be uncomfortable about breasts.

The next weekend, my mom took me to go get a bra.  For whatever reason, she thought it was more appropriate to go to the King of Prussia Mall for it, instead of The Gallery.  KOP was a 45 minute drive from our house and The Gallery was a 30 minute walk.  Who knows?

So we get to the Mall and walk over to Macy’s and find the lingerie section.  I was amazed, looking around at all the options.  I was under the impression that we went to this place for a professional fitting or something, since I had zero clue what I needed to get.  My mother also had zero clue, having never worn a bra in her life either.  But apparently, she decided she was an expert and eyeballed what I would need.  She grabbed a bra said, “This will fit you,” based on looking at my chest through a baggy t-shirt, bought it and we were on our way.

I got home, and was not shocked to find that the bra did not remotely fit me.  It was a 34B and it felt like a corset without any of the flattering aspects.  So, basically, I didn’t have a bra STILL.

I decided that asking my mom for help in this regard was a lost cause, given the Mad Dash Through the Bra Racks I had endured.  So I started saving my money that I got every now and again and finally, after several months had enough to take myself to Kmart (of all places) and get myself something.  I had no clue how a bra was supposed to fit and was too embarrassed to ask anyone who worked there for help, so I found something that felt comfortable and looked fine (I guess) and purchased it in three different colors and walked out of the store having accomplished something that really shouldn’t be all that much of an accomplishment.

It would be years until a friend would take me to an actual professional place and I would be informed that I was wearing the completely wrong size for 15 years.  But whatever, those bras that I bought myself were triumphant purchases. It was a time when I had a nagging problem that was causing me a lot of stress and I found a solution.

Of course, looking back, this was definitely one of those times when I learned more shame than I needed to.  I told this story to my therapist last night and we were laughing and she said, “If it wasn’t so absurd, I’d cry.”

I think this is a pretty apt description of my youth.

These days, I am generally told that my boobs are my best physical feature.  This is sort of a bittersweet thing for me given elements of the stories I just told you.  It’s like, “well, that’s great, I guess, but can’t you see that it is shameful to acknowledge them?” In addition, as an American woman, I fear that if I did not have them no one would look at me ever.  Media, old “friends”, experiences like the ones described above had resulted in my internalizing this idea that I am ugly and not much to look at other than THOSE BOOB OMG and, while it might sound absurd, I fear that I would be nothing without them. I know this is a lie, but sometimes it feels incredibly true.

A large part of my current therapeutic work is about understanding and ridding myself of the immense shame I feel for all kinds of things.  It is unsurprising that I have this, since I grew up around all kinds of body shaming, fat shaming, food shaming, job shaming, money shaming, art shaming, sex/slut shaming…really, anything you can think of, I was around shaming of it. So, it’s going to take a while.

But, it’s super worth it, you know?

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Relationship Anarchy and The Spectrum of Relationship Control

For most people, having a sexual/romantic relationship with a person means exercising some kind of control over that person. Traditional couples vary in the amount and types of control they exercise over one another, but part of traditional monogamy is a substantial amount of control over a partner’s sexuality and “outside” relationships.

Part of polyamory’s primary appeal to me was the breaking down of this power structure. For me, the biggest appeal of opening my relationship was that my partner was allowed to do what she wanted, without worrying that she was infringing on my rights as her partner. Several forms of the types of monogamy that I endorse involve partners exercising less power over one another (or explicitly recognizing and formalizing their power structure).

RELATIONSHIP ANARCHY

Relationship AnarchyRecently, I’ve been reading about a relationship style that radically breaks down the relationship power structure: relationship anarchy. As the name suggests, it involves the rejection of the traditional power structure that is the norm in our society. Like polyamory, RA doesn’t have one clear definition or philosophy, but I’ve found several sources which give consistent descriptions.

As will all research projects, we start with Wikipedia:

Relationship anarchy (abbreviated RA) is the practice of forming relationships that are not bound by set rules. It goes beyond polyamory by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between different types of relationships. Relationship anarchists look at each relationship (romantic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms such as ‘just friends’, ‘in a relationship’, ‘in an open relationship’, etc.

The Thinking Asexual has a primer on RA basics. A short excerpt:

A relationship anarchist does not assign special value to a relationship because it includes sex. A relationship anarchist does not assign special value to a relationship because it includes romance, if they even acknowledge romance as a distinct emotion or set of behaviors in the first place. A relationship anarchist begins from a place of assuming total freedom and flexibility as the one in charge of their personal relationships and decides on a case by case basis what they want each relationship to look like. They may have sex with more than one person, they may be celibate their whole lives, they may live with someone they aren’t having sex with, they may live alone no matter what, they may raise a child with one sexual partner or multiple sexual partners, they may raise a child with a nonsexual partner, they may have highly physical/sensual relationships with multiple people simultaneously (some or all of whom are not sexually and/or romantically involved with them), etc.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, and specifically about how RA applies to asexuality and other nontraditional orientations. There is also a good introduction tot the concept at The Anarchist Library. My favorite part:

Life would not have much structure or meaning without joining together with other people to achieve things — constructing a life together, raising children, owning a house or growing together through thick and thin. Such endeavors usually need lots of trust and commitment between people to work. Relationship anarchy is not about never committing to anything — it’s about designing your own commitments with the people around you, and freeing them from norms dictating that certain types of commitments are a requirement for love to be real, or that some commitments like raising children or moving in together have to be driven by certain kinds of feelings. Start from scratch and be explicit about what kind of commitments you want to make with other people!

As you can probably tell, I find RA very appealing, not as something i want to do, but more as a name for something I am already doing. These concepts echo concepts that I have been advocating since I began practicing nonmonogamy, and they resonate with a lot of other ideas that I’ve encountered in the poly community.

THE SPECTRUM OF RELATIONSHIP CONTROL

The term “polyamory” is broad. It covers a lot of different relationship styles, some more controlling than others. If you’re a member of any polyamory groups on FacebookReddit, or other online communities, you’ll often see disagreements regarding the amount of control that’s ideal to exercise in a relationship. Some community leaders such as Franklin Veaux explicitly argue in favor of a less controlling dynamic. Often, this idea offends people (particularly unicorn hunters) who feel that they need to maintain a substantial degree of control in their relationships. Media coverage of polyamory tends to exacerbate this issue.

These disagreements arise often, and my theory is these disagreement are inevitable until we come up with a more robust vocabulary. The problem is that people hear different things when you use a term like “polyamory,” specifically in regards to how much control partners exercise over one another. Relationships exist on a spectrum of control, ranging from total master/slave relationships on one end (where one partner makes all major decisions for the other) to completely independent relationship anarchy on the other. In the middle are all other relationships. The archetypical spectrum looks something like this:

Relationship control continuum
^Click to embiggen. There are many other archetypes that carry assumptions about the level of control in the relationship. The problem is that many relationships don’t fit into the archetypes on the spectrum. Some polyamorous relationships can be just as controlling, if not moreso, than traditionally monogamous relationships. Some polyamorous relationships have all of the same rules as traditional monogamy, just with additional people. Some skeptically monogamous relationships can be just as free and egalitarian as relationship anarchists.

I think that, when most of us get involved in the poly community, we’re looking for like-minded people who share our philosophy on relationships. The problem is that those of us on the right of the spectrum have very little in common with polyamorous people on the left of the spectrum (and actually much more in common with skeptically monogamous people on the right of the spectrum). So long as we have no way of communicating our level of control in our relationships, these disagreements are going to continue.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s important for people to be exposed to other perspectives. Particularly, I think newer poly people (who tend to be further on the left of the spectrum) benefit enormously from the perspectives of more experienced poly people (who tend to be further to the right on the spectrum). It’s important for people to see examples of sustainable relationships and how they operate. I’m also not a fan of exclusion, so I’m not advocating forming communities that keep anyone out.

I do think, however, that as polyamory grows in popularity, it will be necessary to come up with a more robust vocabulary to describe our relationships. Any ideas?

Adventures in Therapy: Owning Up to the Truth

[Content Note: Sexual assault, abuse]

This might be a difficult read.  Please know that yes, I am starting with a new therapist next week who I think will give me the help I desperately need.  I write here because the process deserves documentation and because to have it concretely down in words is a step toward recovery.

Things that are true: Emotional strength doesn’t usually feel strong.  Fear accompanies courage. Sometimes the wounds of what has been done to you do not open until years after the damage is done.  Many lessons we learn as children are false lessons.

I am a survivor.

Many of you may assume somewhat rightly that I am referring to being a survivor of sexual assault. Yes, I am a survivor of that.  I could not say that until recently because I refused to call it sexual assault and because it could have been worse, I couldn’t credit myself with “surviving”.  You know how it goes don’t you?  There are levels of assault and you only get to feel a certain amount of bad depending on the level.  It’s like the terror alert system, accept there are a lot of things you’re not supposed to not feel bad about and if you do, well, you’re weak and probably brought it on yourself anyway.  I mean, having sex you regret isn’t assault.

Or whatever.  Fuck you. Regret born from fear and a feeling of lack of concern or consent is assault.  Yes, internet, I said it.  Having sex you didn’t want to have is nonconsensual and is therefore rape.  Plain and simple.  I’m tired of this shit.  You don’t get to police people’s pain.  It hurts because a wound has been inflicted. It hurts and it shouldn’t fucking happen.

Seriously, you guys.

But actually, I want to talk about how I ended up there and why I was quiet and felt I had no choice in the matter back then.  It is because I am a survivor of insidious emotional abuse…abuse I endure for my entire young life for as long as I can remember.  My first memories were knowing certain truths that were so very false.  But I was a kid.  I was a good kid.  What defenses did I have?

I remember lying there bracing myself for pain I had asked to please not be inflicted upon me wondering why I didn’t just get up and go home.  At the time I thought, “well, I let it get this far.  This is my fault.  You can’t just stop at this stage of the game.  You deserve this.”  But what that really was about was a profound belief, barely conscious, that I do not matter.  My well-being does not matter.  My safety does not matter.  My happiness is irrelevant.

Where would I pick up such an idea?  I mean, I’m an American for fuck’s sake! Individualism! Westward expansion!  Killing buffalo on the way to Oregon in order to make a life in the gold filled mountains.  Seizing life by the hojos in order to fulfill your own desires! That’s ‘Merica!

But, I assumed that was for someone else.  Or more to the point, I was taught from the earliest age that to be of service to others who have big dreams, to sacrifice of yourself until you have nothing left to aid in the achievement of those desires, to put my own well-being aside when someone else had problems, was the only way to be a Good Person.  More accurately, it was the only way to earn love.  I believed that putting myself first would directly result in a loss of love.  I did not believe that I had any value other than what I could do for other people and if there was ever a time when I could have done more (and you can always do more), I was not doing enough and was unworthy of happiness or love.

Pretty fucked up, right?  It didn’t get better once I was in school and I attracted friends who exploited this about me.  I was exploited for my kindness, obedience and lack of self worth at home and at school…and wasn’t even really aware of it until I was well into my 20’s.

I was depressed for most of my young life as well.  I didn’t think of it as clinical because I was surrounded by awful people almost all the time.  At home, my parents were my best friends.  I didn’t like people my own age.  This is mostly because I grew up fast.  I had a lot of responsibilities at the house, not the least of which was being a counselor, almost a contemporary to them.  I took on their weaknesses and worries and didn’t know it was happening.  I was a kid and learned a bunch of wrong lessons, interpreting what I heard in the worst way and then not having it disproven.  When I tried to question the “truths” with which I was raised, I was told to be quiet, to not cop an attitude, to not argue.  Sometimes when I was upset, I was told to cut it out because it was inconvenient.

At school, I was manipulated and guilt-tripped on a daily basis over the problems of my peers.  I was an easy mark, as I would accept whatever blame people wanted to place on me.  If I was at all involved in a less than ideal situation, I would take as much blame as there was because I could have done more to have avoided the situation.  I could always have had more control over my part of things and for that I felt nothing but guilt and fear.  I feared that I was not worthy of friends, that if I was not as selfless and sacrificial as I could be that being treated poorly was punishment for my imperfection.

I believed that if I was not the most supportive, the most giving, the nicest, the humblest, I would inevitably be left by anyone who made the mistake of loving me or even just liking me.  I watched as the decision to no longer speak to extended family members or family friends was made without consulting me.  I always heard the reasons though…usually something about not being supportive or selfless enough or giving enough.  How could I unlearn that?  How could I get away from that truth?  Anyone’s head could be on the chopping block at any time.

And so I live with this today.  It is a deep, unmoving cut surrounded by years of scar tissue.  I have a home full of wonderful people who love me dearly.  They want to be near me.  They want to build a life with me, all of us looking forward to becoming the caricatures of cantankerous old people we know we will be together.  I believe this, when I am not looking through the veil of depression and fear.  Even then, I believe them intellectually, but deep in my heart I remember all those years of worthlessness.

When I was about to graduate from highschool, I had a boyfriend who was the darling of the computer department.  Everyone expected to go on to do great Bill Gates level kind of things.  It was pretty accepted by everyone that we were going to get married because you think that way when you’re 18.  One day, one of the computer teachers took me aside and told me that it was my responsibility to make sure he stayed motivated for greatness in life.  Basically, I would best serve the world by standing behind him, by holding him up.  I was heart broken at that moment because, for me, that summed up everything I thought I already knew about life.  I asked her, “Don’t you care if I succeed on my own merits?” And she said, “Oh, I’m not worried about you.  You’ll be fine.”

I think I was supposed to take this as a compliment, but in reality it was icing on this particular Reality Cake.  That was everyone’s excuse for minimizing me.  I have always been so independent, so well behaved, so self-sufficient, so uncomplaining.  I didn’t need to be cared for because I was going to be fine.  I wouldn’t be great though.  I would be fine.  My job was to make sure that geniuses achieved their greatness, whether those geniuses be my partner or my parent.  If greatness failed to be achieved? Why didn’t I do everything possible?  What more could I have done? Why didn’t I give until I was dead?

And therein lies why I was never suicidal.  Did I want my constant guilt and sense of uselessness and sadness to end? Of course.  But if I were to die by my own hand, I would no longer be in service.  I would cement my legacy as the mule, but mule who didn’t care enough or give enough to live for everyone.

So as I lay on that bed those few years ago waiting for it to be over, hoping it didn’t turn violent, wondering why I didn’t yell or fight to have concern paid to me, to be cared for, I knew that it was because I believed that my purpose was service to anyone who wished to take from me.  I was part of a cycle that had ruined parts of the lives of some of the women who came before me.  It manifested differently in each generation.  For them it was choosing to be selfish and being blind to that fact.  For me, it was desperately grasping to inclusion and believing whole heartedly that if I stopped grasping for just one second, I would lose everything.

I could say more history of them, but this isn’t a story about them.  This is a story about me and I am a survivor of abuse and assault.  Perhaps the assailants were unwitting in their crimes, but crimes they were.

I matter.  My well-being and happiness are important.  I mean more to those who love me than the sum of the services I provide.  I am strong.  I am courageous. I deserve the life that I have built.

I am completely terrified.

And I am finally loved.