I was pretty comfortable with my body until I was a tween. That’s when I discovered that being a girl can bring on unwanted sexual advances from boys and men. After that, I tried to hide my femininity.
I was molested by an extended family member a couple times as a girl, and never told anyone for 40+ years until a disturbing conversation at a family party revealed that my cousins knew about another victim. When news stories come out about rapes and other sexual assaults, the “Why didn’t they tell sooner, if it really happened?” comments really bother me. Mostly, you just want to try to forget about it and move on. In my case, I was too young to realize what he was doing at the time (I just knew it was wrong and icky), and my molester was very beloved to me, so I didn’t want to get him in trouble. It wasn’t until I was in love and sexually active, as a teenager, that I grasped fully what had actually occurred. I still never told anyone, until that revelation by my cousins many years later. I told them, and some of my family. The perpetrator and my mother were already deceased, and I still haven’t told my 90-year-old father. Why upset him now, and make him feel guilty that he didn’t protect me? So I mostly just bury it, but I relive it every time sexual assault victims are vilified in the news.
Of course, I’ve been groped, followed, and called horrible names by complete strangers, too. It saddens me that just being a girl means you will experience these things and some people think it’s natural, and that you should just “get over it.”
Starting when we were teenagers, my mother would tell me and my four sisters to wear long shirts to “cover your rear end,” and discouraged us from wearing anything that could be considered alluring. I’ve since concluded that my mother was probably molested by the same family member, and in her misguided way was trying to protect us. (Of course, we now know that sexual assault is about having power over females, not about how sexy you were dressed.)
We spent summers at the seashore, and I did wear relatively modest bikinis, but was careful to cover up with a long shirt when walking on the street, to avoid the dreaded wolf whistles and comments. I spent the rest of the year wearing boy’s pocket-Ts, tunic tops, and my “old man” cardigans, trying not to attract any attention of the wrong kind.
Our mother was a great beauty as a young woman, but was now overweight and unhappy about it. She would criticize us for our weight, even going as far as calling me “fat.” I’ve spent every spring since I was 13—so, for over 45 years—doing a “countdown to summer” on my calendar. Starting in the new year, I write my current weight on the calendar and plan how much weight I’ll lose every week to get to my ideal weight for Memorial Day and bathing suit season. Of course, I never reach that goal. But I can’t seem to stop myself from doing it, year in and year out.
Now that I’m “fat and old” (my words, my thoughts), I wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants year-round, even in the hottest weather. To this day, I’ve never worn a tank top without another shirt over it. I haven’t gotten over my body shame, and I guess since I’m already 60, I never will. The irony is, even though I don’t want to attract attention, I do want to be considered attractive.
The one quirk about my physical appearance that doesn’t bother me is the scar on my face, the result of being bitten by a neighbor’s dog when I was about 4. In my family it is affectionately referred to as my “dog-bite.” My sisters and I did a lot of drawing and cartooning, and it was always prominently featured in drawings of me, illustrated like a Frankenstein scar. When I was in college, my roommate’s father said it was good that I had the scar, because it gave my face some character. Otherwise, he said, I’d look like “the average All-American girl.” I liked that I didn’t.
— Tracey Diehl