The other day, I noticed that several blogs I read, along with a fair number of friends and family in my Facebook feed had posted responses to a viral post called “FYI(if you’re a teenage girl)”. I went, read the post, and found it to be a veneer of sneering concern attempting to mask the very real contempt this woman expresses towards the subject(s) of her letter. Add in an extra helping of hypocrisy as the author had posted plenty of shirtless photos of her teenage boys showing off in their bathing suits – exactly the type of behavior the author had been decrying for teenage girls. Double-standard much?
Truthfully, plenty of brighter and more articulate people than me have tackled the original post, modesty culture, and the agency of teenage boys as well as men in choosing to see women as merely sex objects and not as fully rounded human beings. Additionally, let’s face it, I’m a 30 year old barren woman who has pretty much zero skin in this game. I’m too old to worry what people think of my body and out of as far as having to help my adolescent children deal with it for at least the next 13 years – and that’s if my upcoming IVF cycle takes.
That being said, I found myself very, very angry when I read the post. Because I was one of those teenage girls. Because I am now still trying to extract the malignant roots of self-doubt, self-hatred, and body insecurity such words caused.
For the record, I was one of the ‘good girls’ in high school, at least outwardly. I grew up in a very conservative, mostly evangelical Christian community. I should have known it was not my destiny to fit in with that particular subculture, as I grew up with one parent who is a mainline progressive Protestant and one parent who is Baha’i. I was quite the odd one out in my circle of friends, one of the only ones who had not grown up in a ‘Christian home’, and I think some of my eccentricities such as my budding feminism, attending a church headed by a female pastor, and drawing nudes to work towards developing my art skills instead of refusing as a proper female ought to do were chalked up to this fact.
There was a lot of talk about modesty. I learned to put my hand across my chest if I bent over to prevent my shirt from gaping even slightly, lest a teenage boy get a hint of my cleavage. I wore my bikini on family vacations so that no one in my hometown would see me in it. I endlessly debated clothing options with friends: will this cause someone to look at me? Is this shirt too short, too tight? I remember clearly the shame when a young man actually approached me once at school and told me that a my beautiful, soft shirt with a small keyhole in the neckline (that exposed skin all the way to – gasp – about two inches below my clavicles) caused him to “stumble” and want to look at my breasts.
I became ashamed of my body. My body was changing in ways I couldn’t control and wasn’t entirely sure I wanted. I gained weight. This was apparently bad, at least according to the peanut gallery of commentators. I lost weight. Then I bought new clothes that fit and prompted some fairly snide comments about “showing off my goods.” There is no winning in a culture that treats women’s bodies as common property, belonging to the community, not to the individual woman and her tastes, choices, likes, and physical realities.
In other words, I’ve been the teenage girl nervously reading “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)” and wondering if I’ve blown it. Felt the frisson of fear shiver up my spine. Thinking, if my clothes have tempted some man into sin, if my shirt has meant that now I will never find a man who will love and respect me as a ‘woman of character’. If doors will slam in my face by grown-ups who find my teenage self to be lacking. My parents try to temper this, to protect me from it, but at that age, I dismiss their words that I am worthy. I hear sermons from youth pastors and other adults about how I need to be more modest and I ignore my parents in favor of hearing these other adult voices.
Fast forward about twelve years, and I have, in the words of Caitlin Moran, stood on a chair and yelled out “I AM A FEMINIST!”. I am grateful that my parents always reminded me in the face of the judgmental world that I am worthy of respect and love and made home a shelter from the storm. I dress in ways that suit me, make me happy, find clothes that I enjoy and don’t hide in changing rooms wondering if I should size up so that I don’t accidentally draw attention to my breasts. Now, instead of feeling shame when that young man approached me, I would feel anger at his refusal to accept responsibility for his own eyes and thoughts. I would point out that for heaven’s sake, even women in burkas get leered at, so where do we draw the line? Women hidden behind gates and forbidden to go out, lest they tempt men?
Then I got my infertility diagnosis. And in the cavalcade of irrational thoughts, the pain, the self-blame, women like Ms. Hall come out of the woodwork to point their fingers. It’s like the scene in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:
“But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.
Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison…
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.”
Oh, Ms. Hall didn’t say any of that in her post? Well, I lived in this culture, and it’s not all that hard to parse out from where I’m standing. She talks about the “women of character” she hopes her sons will come to love, which is code for “beautiful, feminine virgins with no past (or at least are properly ashamed and self-flagellating about any past)”. Implicit in all of this is the fact that in conservative culture, good women have babies. Only evil feminists don’t want or don’t have children. Children are a gift from the Lord, a gift for virtuous women. Think about that for a moment and what that implies about infertile women.
It touches a nerve. I thought that I’d managed to extract the roots of the shame I felt for my body as a teenage girl from my mind as an adult woman, but suddenly made deeply vulnerable again by my inability to control my reproductive organs, these words echo in my mind: “And so, in our house, there are no second chances with pics like that, ladies. We have a zero tolerance policy… If you post a sexy selfie (we all know the kind), or an inappropriate YouTube video – even once – it’s curtains.”
I led men on. I wasn’t modest enough. I wore a bikini more than once. I somehow managed to marry a wonderful man that should have married a really good girl, one who actually deserved him. I’m not really a woman of character, and now the chickens have come home to roost. I have been struck barren, my inability to produce a baby standing out like a scarlet “A” on my chest so that everyone can see the real sinner underneath. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.
I don’t deserve to have insurance pay for my infertility. It’s a zero tolerance policy, lady! You messed up, used birth control, waited to have children, became a feminist, showed off your body that hadn’t had children, reveled in your waist! And now, your womb is closed and you pay the price. Why should all of us virtuous people pay for your sins? No, this one is on you. Her fault, her fault, her fault.
Is this what you want, Ms. Hall? You might forget ten years down the line a snarky post directed at a teenage girl (if it hadn’t gone viral, anyway). As a former teenage girl, I guarantee I haven’t forgotten those words that women like you aimed at me. Those words that continue to impact me, to trigger strong emotions and pain when I’m at my most vulnerable. You, who took all the power that comes with adulthood and directed it towards a young woman just beginning to understand life and the world. It’s hardly a fair fight.
I think there should be a zero tolerance policy for that.