J: “It’s like I don’t have the right to feel a certain way about my own body because I’m loaning it out at the moment.”

4/9/13

1) What physical spaces do you feel safe or unsafe in? Emotional spaces? How does this relate to your race, age, sexual orientation, background, class, etc?

I tend to feel unsafe in certain public spaces when I’m alone. I didn’t always feel this way, but it’s fairly recent that since I’ve been pregnant (currently in my 7th month), I tend to feel more vulnerable. This is especially true here in the south (living in SC – if you can believe it). I actually don’t feel that way as much when I’m visiting back in the Philly/Jersey area. I think it has more to do with the culture down here. It’s very conservative and women are more obviously objectified or ignored (one or the other).

Before I was pregnant, I worked as a waitress for over 16 years. I felt incredibly unsafe in the restaurant environment. A lot of it has to do with class, but it was mostly about being a woman that led me to feel this way. In fact, the more that I learned about power dynamics, oppression, and sexism, the worse I felt about my position as a server. I felt kind of like a whore because my income was based on whether people liked me or not (although it was really based on what kind of a tipper they were to begin with). Because restaurant owners only pay 2.13 per hour, it felt to me like I was nothing more than a charity case – even though I worked in some pretty high end places and learned how to provide excellent service. It’s just an internal feeling I always had.

2) How do you perceive your own physical appearance and those of other women? How do you think others perceive you physically? What elements contribute to these perceptions?

I used to perceive myself as attractive, but had some minor things that I would have changed about myself if I could have – although nothing too drastic. I tend to think that most humans feel that way. Before I got pregnant, I had gained 25 pounds fairly quickly and felt like I was inhabiting a different person’s body. Now that I’m pregnant and have gained another 25 pounds on top of that, I feel disgusted with my appearance. I get really annoyed when I express how I feel about myself and someone tries to talk me out of it. That seems a bit insensitive and unsupportive to me. It’s like I don’t have the right to feel a certain way about my own body because I’m loaning it out at the moment. I do, however, keep that in perspective – because I have made the commitment to have this child and therefore my personal feelings about how I look are sort of silly right now…since I know it’s only temporary. I feel a bit worried that I might be stuck this way, but I’m extremely motivated to get back into shape after he’s born.

I don’t really measure myself up to other women because I was raised by a crazy woman who always told me I was ugly and I learned how to ignore a lot of the opinions of other women. I really don’t know how other people, in general, perceive me – except from what they say directly. Pre-pregnancy, not many people would comment (besides sexual/romantic partners). Now that I’m carrying a baby, it feels like everyone (including strangers) feels like they have permission to comment on my body. A lady at the bank insisted that I must be having twins and was very quick to tell me how “huge” I am.

I find certain women incredibly attractive. I think I have a “type” that I’m specifically drawn to when it comes to sexual attraction. I have no idea where that comes from, but all I can say is that petite women with small boobs that have a certain style, certain features, and a certain personality really turn me on. Although I don’t really label my sexual orientation as anything, I’d have to say that on the KInsey scale I’m leaning a bit towards the middle, although I’m mostly hetero-identified.

Aside from sexually attractive women, there are plenty of other women I find physically attractive because I appreciate the diversity of beauty in general. I don’t really follow a lot of the typical standards of beauty because I’m not usually a fan of the barbie doll look. I think that understanding media literacy helps me to say, “fuck that.”

3) How do you feel walking outside as a woman? Does this change depending on where you are, how you are dressed, who you are with, who else is around?

It does depend on where I am, who I’m with, and who else is around. Mostly I feel vulnerable though, unfortunately. I really don’t want to feel that way – especially being a feminist. I want to feel empowered and strong (which I’d like to think I’m still empowered and strong, despite vulnerability at times). It’s just that once my eyes had been opened to sexism, there was no going back. I learned that at a young age instinctively, but then I studied about these things as an adult and it only added more to what I was already feeling inside.
I’m happy that I’m a woman. I enjoy being a woman very much and I love women, but I don’t like feeling like I have to prove my intelligence or worth (outside of what my body may be worth) constantly.

4) What does the intersection of your woman-ness with other elements mean to you? I.E. race, class, age, ability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, I’m sure I’m missing some.

For me, personally, it’s always been my woman-ness and my class placement in society. I suppose there’s also a mental health component that is very much a part of me. I grew up in an abusive and highly dysfunctional household. So much of who I have become is in response to being female, growing up blue collar, and being raised by a woman who has many serious pathological issues.
I think that I’m lucky to have had a rebellious spirit. My family looks down on women (which is one reason why they are SO happy that I’m having a boy – and that grosses me out to no end that they have this preference). And I ended up a feminist. My family doesn’t understand why I’m still in school, but I am working on a second master’s (and racking up student loans that would make a doctor have a heart attack). And, lastly, my mother’s pathologies continue to haunt me and affect me, but I have differentiated myself enough to understand that I will never be like her in those ways.

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3 thoughts on “J: “It’s like I don’t have the right to feel a certain way about my own body because I’m loaning it out at the moment.”

  1. My annotation/response:

    What it’s like in terms of people’s “rights” to your body around pregnancy is fascinating…and disturbing. That people feel entitled to comment, speculate, even touch, seems not uncommon but horrible.

    The mental health part also plays a significant role for me- although for me it’s more how my own mental health affects how I see things, rather than the kind of abuse/trauma you’re talking about. It’s so cool to me that you found your way to feminism that way, unlike me, being born in the middle of it!

    I’m also kind of intrigued by the fact that you think your mom’s abuse helped you in ignoring others’ opinions rather than becoming more sensitized to them? There is deep resilience there.

    Also the stuff about serving- I don’t even like the word whore to be honest, having been called it enough, but the way that we treat waiting/serving is very intense. This has come up in other conversations recently: the way simply being a woman in a service job makes you “available” in a different way. Prior to this, I guess I’d never given too much thought on what it’s like to be reliant on tips instead of a salary in that way-beyond being conscientious about tipping well- which definitely says something about my own class privilege that I’ll hafta dig into!

  2. J:

    I agree with you about the word “whore.” It’s not nice – which is why I used it instead of the more sex positive “sex worker” to describe how I felt about serving. To be honest with you, I could write an entire book about how I felt about serving, but since I’ve been out of it for a full six months now (after 16 long), I’m just grateful that I’m not there anymore! My mother still waits tables, but does it as a second job (only twice per week) and she enjoys it because it makes her feel like she has friends (because otherwise she just has my stepdad).

    My grandmother was a diner waitress in Philly for over 30 years and my great-grandmother was also a waitress for a very long time. It was one of her second or third jobs as she raised 5 kids alone (since her husband had died of black lung).

    Although I do want to explain a little bit more about the abuse and the way it affects my self esteem today. It wasn’t always that way. My mom had a profound impact on my self esteem as a child. It was my grandmother who built me back up again and who loved me the way a mother should (or – at least, the way I believe a mother should). My grandmother was morbidly obese and never gave a shit about her looks. She was still confident and beautiful to me – even if she wasn’t conventionally beautiful to the rest of the world. That helped to shape my views on beauty and as I grew older I learned more and more to ignore my mother’s negativistic attitude and use it as an example of how NOT to parent.

  3. Annotation/response con’t:

    You bring up a few things that I haven’t delved deeply enough into, due to my lack of personal experience.

    One of them being the idea of “being a charity case,” and “internalizing” that feeling. My family’s career and educational trajectory has always been so middle-class and in terms of social/cultural capital, even higher perhaps. Even during my time as a waitress, I did not have to live off those wages and thus, perhaps internalized the feeling of needing the people I was serving to a lesser degree, if at all. The culture of working at that time (from 16-19) in my life was that of being productive, not earning enough to support myself. The focus was still on ME: the idea that having a job would give value to my life, rather than simply allow me to survive financially.

    The familial culture around gender and education is also so different in my family. My parents have always encouraged me to return to school for my Master’s and are very supportive of my doing so–in fact more supportive of my doing so than my NOT doing so. The idea that women and education are not compatible is beyond my experience, which is surely a facet of privilege and in particular, cultural capital.

    Another issue I have not experienced is that of “sizeism,” or fatphobia, whichever you might want to call it. Although I experienced it a bit when I was younger and a bit heavier, after puberty, I came naturally to a very thin weight. I have always taken this for granted but I’m now considering what it would mean to the way I feel and am perceived as a woman in the world if I were to gain a lot of weight. Say, during or after pregnancy. People feel entitled to comment on my weight as it is (“Do you eat enough?” “Are you anorexic?” or after watching me eat “Where do you PUT that?”) but I don’t find it offensive because “thin is good,” right? We’re taught that being fat is “bad.” So to have my body questioned in THAT way would feel also not good, but worse, I’m sure.

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