After my semi-frantic post last night in which I shared some stories which Clare’s Story and Pearl’s Story had reminded me of, I found myself mulling on some more related memories, and had a couple realizations I’d like to share.
Trigger Warning: Sexual harassment, slut shaming, victim blaming, body policing, suicidal thoughts.
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1) Policing and shaming one child can cause unexpected harm to other children.
When I was about 13, I wore a lot of punk and goth inspired clothes. It was fun, and it was a way to avoid the aspects of more “mainstream” fashion trends that I was uncomfortable with. Unsurprisingly, this included painting my nails dark colors.
I had a childhood friend whose parents were significantly more controlling than mine, and one day we were hanging out and she complimented the dark blue nail polish I was wearing. I offered to let her use it, and her face fell and she shook her head; she explained to me that she wasn’t allowed to wear dark nail polish colors because they were “too sexy.” While my external reaction was roughly “that’s silly, I’m sorry,” internally I was worrying about myself. Was it true – were dark nail colors “too sexy,” or was this as arbitrary as it seemed? Part of the reason I wore the colors I did was to avoid this whole mess of “sexiness;” had I inadvertently stumbled right into the middle of it? Worst of all, did this mean her parents thought I was “too sexy,” or even a “slut?” I felt judged by them, and they weren’t even there.
I have no idea if they actually had negative opinions of me. They were never anything but kind to me, but I would always wonder what they might secretly think of me or my parents (for not placing the same type of restrictions on me) after that. Regardless of intent, my friend received the message from her parent’s rule that I was “sexy,” something I was actively trying not to be, and that message was passed on to me. Once again, I received the message that “sexy” or “slutty,” despite my intent and best effort to be otherwise. It was like it was something I just was.
It felt beyond my control, but simultaneously was something “bad” and “wrong” that I was doing; it felt like simply by existing I was “sinning,” and all of this exacerbated the suicidal ideation I was already struggling with. I wanted to be “good,” and it felt like the only I could do that would be to cease existing – but suicide was supposedly a “sin” too, so these thoughts also reinforced the feeling that I was inherently “bad.” I was left with a self-destructive impulse and a death wish that I still carry with me; it felt like the best thing I could possibly do was to put myself in dangerous situations while doing “good” things and hope that I ended up some kind of martyr – and I followed this feeling into all sorts of problematic situations.
2) Policing and shaming provides cover to sexually predatory adults.
There was an instructor (who was and still is also the dean of students) at the boarding school I attended who was notorious for saying awkward sexual things in class and other settings and made many of the students, especially the girls, extremely uncomfortable.
One day I was wearing a knee-length argyle print skirt that had these big buckles on it, with thick black stockings and studded patent shoes. One of the RAs said something about my outfit to the other RA, and the second RA paid a surprise visit to my room as I was getting ready to leave for class. The RA who came to see me seemed utterly confused (I have no idea what the first RA must have said, but apparently it must have been pretty bad), apologized for interrupting my morning and reassured me that my outfit was fine, complimented my tights, and I went on to my first class of the day feeling even more confident in my choice of clothing.
My first class that day was with the previous mentioned creeper teacher, and we had a quiz that day. I had the seat in the back right corner, my roommate had the seat in front of me, and there was an empty desk or two in the front of the row. The teacher was walking up and down the rows, and paused for an uncomfortably long time over my shoulder so I looked up – and his gave was very clearly directed at my lap (which was fully covered by my skirt), not my paper. He then proceeded to sit down in one of the empty desks, lean forward, and look straight back. My blood ran cold; he was very clearly attempting to find out if he could see up my skirt. He was so fixated on my lower half that he didn’t even notice when I grabbed my coat with one hand, and then I leaned out to the side until my head was at the same height as his and looked forward, making direct eye contact. While giving him the stinkiest stink eye I could muster, I put my coat over my lap and asked my roommate if she saw all that. She confirmed that she had, and her perception lined up with mine. I resumed the quiz, shaking with anger and feeling really violated. I briefly considered reporting the incident somehow – but I had no idea who I would talk to, or what I would call it. By the end of class, I had resolved to simply put it out of my mind, because what else could I do? He was the dean of students, and I already had a reputation as a “problem student;” he had more influence over our daily lives than any other single person on campus, and I was already used to faculty members assuming I was lying or had bad intentions. I couldn’t win and I knew it.
However, I did end up disclosing the incident later and having my worst fears (that I would be blamed and nobody would do anything) confirmed. I was having dinner with my family and my pastor’s family while home for a break, and somebody started talking about how wonderful this teacher was during dinner. I became increasingly visibly upset, and announced “well, I don’t like him,” to which one of the adults responded that it was their opinion that many students don’t like him because “he knows what’s going on,” and essentially that only students who get into trouble dislike him. On the verge of tears, I burst out “well you’d probably feel differently if he’d looked up your skirt in class, too.” The discomfort in the air was palpable; my memory of the rest of the night is fuzzy, except for a singular moment when I saw tears hitting my plate and realized I was crying into my dinner. I tried to recount the story to several adults in my life after that night, including that my outfit had actually been explicitly approved and that I had a trustworthy witness (my roommate had a strong reputation as a “good girl” – and interestingly enough, her father also strongly disliked this teacher) in the hopes that this would give me some kind of credence, but to know avail. It was explained to me – every. single. time. – that he must have simply been trying to make sure my outfit was “appropriate,” and that I must have misinterpreted his behavior (and this is still the response I get if I try to discuss the incident with my relatives now). No action was ever taken. Nobody even spoke to him about it. I was given the impression that apparently people in authority positions were simply entitled to attempt to see my undergarments (or whatever else might be visible beneath my skirt), and that it was my fault if they succeeded. I felt defeated.
There was another similar incident with the same teacher and a different student, in which a memo was sent to the girls’ dorm titled “Robin’s Egg Blue” – named after the color of undergarments the student was wearing when he looked up her skirt. Despite how obviously inappropriate and disgusting this was, no action was taken in this case either.
This teacher is also involved in the biannual “room raids,” in which students’ rooms are ransacked while searching for “contraband” like rated R movies. I very vividly remember opening my normally meticulously folded and sorted underwear drawer, seeing it in total disarray, and feeling violated. No matter what I wore, I still couldn’t keep him from seeing what I was wearing over my intimate areas, and I knew it, and he knew that I knew it. It was, and is, disgusting.
And he gets away with all of it, because these parents have determined that he has the “right” to inspect children like livestock for the purpose of policing their bodies and shaming their clothing choices.