Light and Free

Kaethe Kauffman, life-sized self-portrait, cyanotype on muslin, 8’x6′

As a child I felt light and free, as though weightless. I bounded and bounced wherever I wished, up trees, across streams, under water. At the time, I didn’t realize how unique and temporary this physical elation would be.

Although I’ve maintained a normal weight throughout my life, I remember when, in junior high school, my body became a burden. Girls had to wear girdles in the 1960s, which, to me, acted like an instrument of torture, cutting into my skin and pressing my internal organs together, to the point of sharp pains and indigestion. The standards of the day strictly forbade jiggling hips or a butt that stuck out. Wearing a girdle, hose, bra and slip felt like armor to me, causing me to move awkwardly, no longer carefree. My childhood confidence and innate strength disappeared.

Worse than the physical discomfort, for teen-aged girl, men leered. I despised this treatment and cringed when it happened. Three layers of clothing didn’t protect me. Boys and men stared as if they wanted to touch me. Workers at constructions sites hooted with cat calls, jeers and whistles as I walked by. Laughing at us, male classmates snapped the girls’ bra backs in the hallways at school with no punishment. “Oh, those boys can’t seem to help themselves,” the teachers said, shrugging. 

At home, Mom paraded, over the years, endless boyfriends, fourteen fiancés and three husbands in and out of our house. When I was nine, one of her “menfriends” (as I called them) cornered me in a dark patch of our patio and planted a wet slobbery kiss on my mouth. I ducked out of his grasp and ran for my bedroom. Nowhere felt safe except my room with my black and white dog, Curly, near me.

When I reported events like these to Mom, she laughed hard at what she seemed to consider hysterically funny jokes. She reprimanded me about construction workers, “You’ll be sorry some day when they stop whistling because you’re not pretty enough anymore.” I tried to understand why these random strangers meant something to her. Why did she care what they did?

It’s hard for me to believe it now, but my emotional solution to this general persecution was to abhor my burgeoning body. I should’ve resented society and been angry at the neighbor, but, in my immaturity and the lack of help from adults, I turned on myself. All those around me couldn’t be wrong. I yearned to stop growing and keep a boy-like figure. My physique seemed to betray me as it slowly evolved toward mature, curvy femininity.

Wearing the popular tight skirts seemed to make me more of a target to men. I reluctantly conformed to the fashion dictates of the time, but I felt like worms crawled in my belly, creepy and frightening. The alternative – wearing passé, more modest clothes – meant being ostracized, seen as a “loser.” I couldn’t imagine a way out of this dilemma. The slithering worms became frequent companions. Later in life, I learned this hideous phenomenon was a symptom of panic attacks.

Although girdles luckily went out of fashion in the late 1960s, men’s entitlement to judge women’s bodies did not. Walking by a construction site still seared me with mortified agony. After high school, the University of Washington (Seattle) law students, all male in 1966 to1970, sat outside in a row and held up numbers, one to ten, literally judging the looks of each woman who passed by. They accompanied the raised numbers with the usual male yells. Once, I almost walked into their trap, but stopped just in time and ran out of sight, forcing me to find a circuitous route to my next class, which made me late. The law students simply formalized society’s general right to judge women openly and harshly.

In recent decades, the concept of sexual harassment as a bad thing slowly gained traction in society. In my twenties, I came to understand the purpose of such abuse, to drain the victim’s power from her. Sadly, as a pre-teen, the harassment did its job: it weakened me. Somewhere in my late twenties, I stopped allowing bullies to diminish me. In future years, I would lose jobs and relationships because of male power-mongers. They could still break my heart, but I pursued my goals in spite of them and kept my self-respect intact. The population of slinking angleworms in my stomach grew smaller, bit by bit, over the years.

These days, most men know they need to hide their judgments of women. Men at construction sites remain quiet and polite toward me and other women walking by. Contrary to Mom’s prediction, I love this peacefulness. Bra snapping in schools is taboo. But society and mass media still project a strong female ideal as young, slender and beautiful. Our culture now even sells beauty products to men and creates the handsome, chest-shaved male hunk as an ideal.

People who don’t meet these elevated masculine or feminine standards – most of us – suffer in comparison.  I know folks of both genders, who are overweight and move with ponderous steps as if trapped in flesh, the way I used to feel. My heart hurts for them because I remember the dismal feelings.

By some unknown blessing, as I’ve aged, my sense of corporeal gravity has become lighter. My physical weight’s the same as ever, but an internal barometer of bodily joy keeps rising. Moving with agility, almost carefree, I imagine I’m the boundless child I remember. I’m no longer feeling as if I’m stuck inside a prison of muscle, fat and bone. Although, as I age, I’m less able to meet society’s beauty standards, something in me doesn’t care as much. I feel happier in my skin. The slimy interior worms quietly left for good about eight years ago. 

Perhaps I’m experiencing emotional maturity, at last. I wish I’d had this confidence in school. Regardless, I treasure my good fortune to re-experience physical childhood exuberance once again. Now in my early seventies, I no longer climb trees and leap across streams. (I did a few years ago, loving the feeling of flight for a minute, but I twisted my ankle, so that became the last time). But, while walking and hiking, I feel a spring in my step and I’m free.

Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.

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