Small Cruelties, Healing Scars

While reading the comments about The Incredible Importance of Boxer Shorts, I started to get a little jealous, I admit. I am jealous of women sleeping in less clothing than I do; I am jealous of women wearing tank tops. I am jealous of the casual, almost joyful flippancy of wearing nothing to bed. Jealousy might not even be the right word – perhaps consternation.

I used to think that people are, more or less, what they are innately.  If someone is prudish, for example, it would be because they are a prude, because it’s just in their nature to want to cover up. If my exploration of the transgender and lesbian experience has taught me anything, it’s that those kinds of tendencies don’t usually arise on their own – generally, some event or circumstance brought them into being.

I have a reason why I find myself envious of women who can wear tank tops out and nothing to sleep in, and why it’s so confounding to me that I can’t.

It’s not that I don’t want to – that’s the thing. After years of various fitness endeavors (not always healthy, mind) especially the last year of lifting weights, I’ve got a body here I’m rather proud of. Broad shoulders run on one side of my family: my brother and father had them, my grandmother, a competitive swimmer in her day who was still ice skating on racing skates at age 80, had inspiring shoulders and often wore sleeveless tops. Bodyweight exercises and dumbbells have sculpted my own, and believe me, I’d love to wear a tank top and show them off. But I just… can’t.

It all goes back to my 10th birthday.

Before my 10th birthday, I hadn’t a care in the world what I had on. I grew up with 47 acres to run around on and throughout my childhood cast off shoes and tops and pants sometimes and it never mattered. I slept in my underwear just like my big brother and thought nothing of it, as neither did my parents apparently.

For my 10th birthday I had three friends over for my first sleepover, all girls of course. We did some crafts and went to a hibachi place for dinner and had cake and opened presents and took pictures of each other brushing our teeth with toothpaste foam running down our chins. It was all great fun. Then we got ready to go to bed, and the three girls changed into their nightgowns or pajamas or whatever they slept in – but they all slept in something. I just took off my clothes.

They thought it was hilarious or weird or remarkable in some way, that I slept in my underwear. They laughed and took up my camera and started taking pictures of me. I tried to hide under a blanket on my bed, begging them to stop; they didn’t, so I ran downstairs to my parents, in tears. I remember being curled up crying on my dad’s lap while my mom went upstairs to see what was going on. I don’t know what they told her because she doesn’t recall the whole event, probably just a bump in the birthday plans and kids being kids. At some point I must have put a t-shirt or something on and went to bed, as I don’t remember what happened after.

I do remember seeing the photos, though, once they were developed, my little ten-year-old body in flight, my hands holding up my yellow blanket, trying to cover myself. I remember seeing the photos and I remember throwing them away.

That year we all went into the 5th grade in the big Middle School building, and for the first time had to change for gym class. I was terrified of revealing my body to the other girls. I would put my gym shirt on over the shirt I was wearing then squirm out of the one underneath and pull it through the neck of my gym shirt. Twice a week of that anxiety throughout the school year, for eight years, firmly planted the idea in my mind that my body was not to be seen. In high school I tried to calm down about it, simply turning away like I could possibly crawl into the little locker beside me. Sometimes I would say I needed to use the bathroom and change more comfortably in the stall.

I always thought I would be laughed at. I always thought I should never show my skin. I was so excited when I bought my first nightshirt – Roger Rabbit on the front – because now I could be like them, be more accepted: they wouldn’t laugh at me now. I went to other sleepovers, always with a long nightshirt or two-piece pajamas. To this day I still wear two-piece pajamas over underwear.

That kind of conditioning is hard to break through, but for one short period of time I was able to.  A year ago, convinced I was not a woman and I should possibly try to become a man, I told myself if I was a man, I could sleep in my underwear like my brother always had. In fact, if I was a man, I could sleep naked if I wanted to. I could do anything I wanted to – after all, I was reinventing myself. And I did. Just for a week or two I slept in just underwear or nothing at all, but for that time I broke through all of that childhood trauma, cast off the pajamas and allowed myself that freedom.

At the root of my experience with transition was a rebellion: a rebellion against my established sense of self and all the expectations ever imposed upon me. Just like a bloody revolution against a despot can lead to a more just government, my experience identifying as transgender allowed me space to dismantle that conditioning and recover myself as a woman and a lesbian. I was the despot and I was the revolution; I was the lesbian trying to express herself and I was the repressive thinking decades old keeping her in chains. It took something as radical as risking everything in order to find what was really worth saving, and I am grateful for it now.

I came out of it weary and weakened, and I did cover up again, if only to heal. But now the possibility of a different way of life shines before me; I may envy those women with their tank tops but now I can say to myself, “You know you can do it, maybe someday. You know you can – you’re just like them.” Perhaps I can take inspiration from my grandmother’s amazing shoulders, her confidence carrying them. After all, she never would have laughed at me, and only would have taken pictures to show how proud she was of her greatly-loved granddaughter.

Life is cruel, and ugly, and unfair, and we are so often cruel to each other in a thousand ways, from the ignorant mocking laughter of children to the harsh words adults throw at each other in judgement and defense. That is a part of humanity I’m not sure can ever be altered, no matter how much we wish for a kind and enlightened society that does nobody any harm. But that harm doesn’t need to be permanent, doesn’t need to fetter us our entire lives. We can learn to take our shirts off again. We can learn our own freedom was never something to hide.

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13 thoughts on “Small Cruelties, Healing Scars

  1. I totally agree with your thesis on this one: “[…] it’s that those kinds of tendencies don’t usually arise on their own – generally, some event or circumstance brought them into being.”

    My story is about the opposite from yours. When I was ages 10 – 13, I lived in Japan with my family. Around the age when most preteens start developing body consciousness and nudity taboos, I was regularly going to the public baths (onsen) and sitting naked in hot water surrounded by other naked women of all different ages. No one thought it was strange or weird. So what ended up happening was my older sister developed, back in the US, a really powerful shyness about her body, and and inability to even talk about private or intimate matters. I, on the other hand, never developed a regular American nudity taboo, and I am comfortable stripping down in front of pretty much anybody (depending on the context, of course). All because I was immersed in a different culture during that ripe preteen stage.

    Although, interestingly enough, I think partially due to my time in Japan, I lost the ability to make eye contact the way Westerners do…

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s fascinating, Jam! I think US culture as a whole has a really complicated, unhealthy relationship with nudity – I remember being in a bookstore with friends when I was still a teen, and picking up a big “Anatomy for the Artist” book because I was just getting into real figure drawing. They all laughed and called out “Pornography!” I still bought the book, but to this day I worry about my figurative nudes being interpreted as pornography, which I think every figurative artist ends up worrying about.

      Much healthier to get an idea that bodies are natural and we can be around each other in a healthy way with or without clothing.

      The eye-contact thing is interesting, as well – I assume it’s about giving others a kind of personal privacy? I have trouble making eye contact a lot myself.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s frightening and sobering how vulnerable children are and how single incidents of cruelty can deeply affect them and shape them for life.

    Forgive me but I wonder why you didn’t believe those girls were the problem though. I was bullied lots growing up. I never thought anything was wrong with me, just with the bullies for them being cruel. Do people take bullies seriously because they’re not secure enough in themselves, don’t feel loved? Perhaps you were not familiar at that age with how much people lie? As the child of an alchoholic and a manipulator, and dare I say it, Irish, (blarney was a big thing with us), I had a bad tendency not to take anything, bad or good, said, seriously – I only believed, if at all, in myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will freely admit that I have always had a deep lack of self-worth in relationship to others. On my own, dealing with my own pursuits, being alone, taking responsibility for my own life, etc. I have a ton of confidence, but whenever I am held up in relationship to others they are always right and I am always wrong. I struggle with it almost daily.

      It’s taken me decades to stop trying to prove myself to others and pursue my own work for my own sake.

      My friends used to tell me to just say “Fuck you” to people who piss me off or offend me. I am trying to learn to do that more. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      • This is typical of female socialization—training to girls to believe they are less than boys and that they don’t matter. And then some girls, knowing that they DO matter, decide they must really be boys.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Oh, I would absolutely believe having sisters and female cousins makes a huge difference. My only local cousin was male (also 4 years older) and until I was 10 or so a lot of my playmates were neighborhood boys. I used to go to a neighborhood girl’s house now and then, and remember vividly using the mechanism of her Barbie House elevator to see if I could launch Barbie into her ceiling fan. Lots of laughter but I’m not sure if it was very bonding!

        My mom was really very good but a little overwhelmed with work and family and taking care of the house. My grandmother, though, I need to write a blog about her. She was one of my best friends, and if I can salvage any really healthy relationship with other women from my childhood I need to take a closer look at how we were. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes, though, and it’s been 15 years since she passed.

        I don’t want anyone to think it was all bad in any way, or unloving or neglectful. I think we were in so many ways a very average, white, middle-class American family, equal parts honestly loving each other and having that love diluted and altered by social expectations, consumerism, work demands, etc. I was never terribly unhappy growing up, which I think has made it all the more difficult (and interesting, in a way) figuring out the little subtle things that have made brought me where I am.

        Liked by 3 people

        • I think mothers can be beyond excellent, and grandmothers too, (I’m sorry for your loss), but however excellent parents are, they can’t fulfill all their children’s needs for love and family. I believe children need love from a number of siblings and/or extended family relatives too. I do think normal tends to be neglectful too, I apologise if that’s harsh, I apologise anyway.

          Liked by 3 people

  3. What your friends did to you was absolutely cruel, and also completely nonsensical. There is nothing odd about sleeping in just underwear and I can’t imagine what made them think this way. I hope you can let go of the shame you felt and allow yourself to wear or not wear anything you want.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, I am definitely working on it. I try not to think about what a conservative place this is where I live, but there is a lot of religion and a lot of old-fashioned values, and I’m sure even then it was just a matter of girls being taught by their mothers to wear something to bed. Things “on the farm” here were perhaps a bit more liberal than in the standard middle-class Catholic houses, so I think it was just a clash of cultures/values.

      Don’t get me started on how many Trump signs I see along our roads!

      Like

  4. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or not in bed, if you’re happy, happy for you and not other people, they don’t have to live your life so have no right to a say.

    Liked by 2 people

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