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I developed breasts and my life changed. Thirteen years old. Life was never safe again.
This piece is a long time coming.
It’s something I don’t speak easily about. All that harassment. It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating. Best left forgotten. I’m so well trained to please men, to not offend others; I have tucked it under and swept it under. Still it seeps out.
Nobody likes an angry person–especially an angry woman.
This is it. Here goes. Here goes the explosion. Will I post it? I don’t know.
Thirteen years old. I got my period. I got large breasts. They appeared. I don’t even know the moment it happened, but all in the sudden, my breasts were big. As one teenaged girl informed me–and this was the moment I first knew, “Your boobs are HUGE.”
I looked down at my chest and would never feel the same about myself for the rest of my life.
Men on the street knew before I knew.
Summer of my thirteenth year, walking with my brother and Dad in Athens, Greece, I was wearing shorts and t-shirt. It was 1970 something and a hundred degrees outside. My shorts were too short but nobody warned me that in Greece, girls shouldn’t dress like that. What did I know: I saw myself as a child–who would care about me? I suddenly felt the violence, the onslaught of attention, and it terrified me. Men stared. Men grabbed. Men tried to get at me, even with my father and brother there. I put myself between my father and brother, holding their arms. Still, the men jeered with hostility. My brother and father didn’t see–or if they did, they were silent.
When we got back to the U.S. from our European trip that summer, my older sister, who hadn’t traveled with us, immediately noticed the size of my breasts and that I wasn’t wearing the right-sized bra. She gave me one of her larger ones to wear. I felt like a baby who had large breasts strapped to her, oddly marking her. I didn’t identify with them or see myself as any different, but now I was all BREASTS. I wasn’t me anymore, not to others.
For years, I couldn’t walk anywhere without being whistled at, hissed at, or without having strange and disgusting oral sounds muttered at me on the street. This was/is just part of being a young woman. Once, when I was fifteen or so, when a guy in a truck drove by and made a lewd comment, I yelled, “fuck you,” at him and flipped the bird. I told my mother afterwards and she said that it was wrong of me to be so rude.
At seventeen, I lost a career in the theatre as an actress. I was a member of one of the most prestigious theatre companies in the U.S. It was my big break. In acting, you rely on breaks such as these. Backstage, during the production ofOur Town, this big breasted little sister Rebecca (me), wearing a little girl dress, waited with her big brother George (over 30), in a small side area just off the stage. It was cramped and dark and we had to sit quietly and right next to each other until our entrance (all through rehearsals and six weeks of performances–seven days a week, with two matinees). While we waited for our scene in this dark little corner (where the audience could hear everything), George’s hand would go up my thigh under my dress. George had bad breath and bad teeth. I would slap him away, but the next day/night, he’d do it again. After his hand crawling, we’d make our entrance, and do our oh so sweet sister and brother scene together, where I would talk about my friend’s (Jane Crofut’s) strange letter that she’d received from her sick minister– how it was addressed to her street address and then to the universe and the mind of God, and how it got to her house anyway. It’s a speech I will never forget. Not because it was my grand moment on the stage in my small part, or that it bought me good reviews; but because good ole’ George was there with me, breathing his nasty breath, raining on my parade.
Big brother George fromOur Town and his hand. I told no one. Who could I tell?
Then there was Lorenzo, in the next play called, —-. A play about the theatre company itself. Written by a famous author. We got to schmooze with the local theatre elite in making this one. It was so exciting. I was the “Intern.” Our parts were all true to life. I even had a scene where the “Director” tried to kiss me. The guy playing “the Director” could tell I didn’t like him at all (he smelled, never took off his make up and had a coating of it perpetually on his neck and the edge of his face). I hated the stage kiss, would do it reluctantly, and once herr Director yelled at me after the scene because he could tell. Then there was Lorenzo the heroin addict in his forties, married with children. We had a scene in which we were supposed to face out and look at the audience. Lorenzo had to stand directly behind me. Day after day, night after night, through rehearsals, and in performances, as we stood in position, facing the audience, he would whisper closely into my ear, “I want to fuck you. I want to fuck you.” He said it in such a way that really meant, “I control you.” I couldn’t move. I was told to stand in that spot by the director. It’s called “blocking.” An actor has to stand where they are told. Who could I complain to? Lorenzo was the serious and well respected actor. I was the lucky teenage girl, lucky to be in this play. He did this one night with his wife directly in front of us as we faced the audience. “I want to fuck you,” he whispered with his wife looking on.
In real life, off stage, when the show was over, the real director and founder of the theatre company would ask me to come over to talk at his apartment. I would go. I never drank and nothing ever happened. He would drink and talk and talk. He would tell me about my talent. He said I was “green” but would one day be like the leading older actress whom everyone admired. Sometimes he invited another actor, an older man to come with us. They would talk shop. I never wanted to go, but I felt I couldn’t say no. Wasn’t it an honor that the director of the company invited me over? He never touched me. But it was clear that he was offering me a choice: become his girlfriend and become a star, or … I didn’t know what. Nothing. I would be nothing. He was an old man to me. Grey beard, grey hair. A drunk. He was important. I was seventeen.
The women in the theatre company scorned me. I wanted to turn to them for help, but they didn’t like me. They saw me as what–a potential competitor? It became so difficult to navigate these waters–drunk famous actors, non-drunk ones who looked at me with scorn for being trapped in others’ nets, constantly saying no, and yet feeling dirtied anyway, as if this were all my fault–even though I had done nothing. I just wanted to act.
It was my big break. I left this theatre and my big break because of those men. I never had such an opportunity again.
* * *
There was high school and a rape. I told my girlfriends. They were so used to hearing these stories, they didn’t blink.
* * *
The man in the subway in Paris. I was sixteen. He walked right up to me, put his hand on my breast and stared angrily into my eyes.
* * *
The man with the gun who got off the bus in Oakland, California, tapped on the window and aimed the weapon at my face. The look on his face frightened me for years. I would dream of his anger, his steely eyes.
* * *
The owner of the restaurant where I was a waitress in New York at South Street Seaport. Three handsome young male Italian owners. Some said they were Mafia, what did they know of restaurants? This one had a wife who appeared occasionally in a mink coat. He had a waitress mistress, too, whom he kept in an special apartment. She told me about it. He’d come up behind me when I was picking up dishes, and slip his hand across my breasts. If I said anything, he’d fire me.
* * *
The man at the party with the live-in girlfriend. A neighbor of my friend. I was nineteen. He walked up to me. Put his hand full-on my breast. Walked away. No one saw.
* * *
The men (mostly married) in my building in Soho when I was in my early twenties (they were in their forties, with children) who hit on me endlessly. It was a cooperative artists’ building. We painted our own hallways, put up walls in the basement. I had to pass them every day as I walked up four flights and they never stopped hassling me. They were not so different from the men in trucks who hissed and yelled obscenities. One, who wasn’t married (yet), a well-known architect, never mentioned his girlfriend or impending engagement; he asked me on a date only a few days before the celebrations. It was summer. I could hear his party from my apartment. Loud music. What was the party for, I asked a female neighbor–“oh, he’s getting married, didn’t you know?”
* * *
There is more. I will stop here.
* * *
Years later, I went back to college, and in graduate school became a scholar of 18th-century literature. I focused on women writers (as well as on race and colonialism). Lost women writers. Important women writers in their day.
Dale Spender, a feminist scholar, says: there are a ‘100 great English novelists before Jane Austen’.
That was the work I entered into in graduate school–to recover these important writers—to give them voice. Yet, despite years of hard work among many scholars, do you know their names?
Of course you don’t.
They are: Aphra Behn (very prolific and popular playwright in her day, probably wrote the first English novel, and the first English woman to earn her living by the pen), Eliza Haywood, Frances Burney, Frances Sheridan (mother to the famous playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan), Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Inchbald, Sarah Scott and many more. These women writers influenced Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, they deeply influenced the canonized male writers of their day–but they are rarely taught in college (I had to fight to teach them) and their work is hard to locate for the layperson. We have brought some of their books back into print, but these are published mostly by small independent presses, ones you don’t know about unless you’re a scholar.
The vast majority of their writing is not available to buy anywhere.
These 18th-century women writers wrote openly about rape, abortion, forced marriages, abusive husbands, fathers and brothers, forced prostitution, venereal disease, death from childbirth, sexism, fathers who sold them off to men, violence against women. These women authors were honest, real, and very popular in their day, and they were a major part of the new genre at that time: the novel. I have plenty of research and evidence to prove that the novel is a female form and a female form that expressed the real condition of women.
These women were silenced.
* * *
This is my story, or part of my story. I don’t pretend that my own tales are unique or special. I tell these vignettes to break the silence and to help others. There are far worse stories than mine: child-brides, girls dead from rape, gang rapes, wife beating, child beating, women and girls shot at, strangled, kidnapped, and locked away, girls forced into sex trafficking, mass murders, women shut out of education and equal treatment in the workplace, women hating themselves because of misogyny, and living failed, broken lives, and of course the insidious self-hatred, and self-repression brought about by the beauty myth.
In my case, I have conquered sexism to a large extent. I’m not a girl anymore and I have the tools learned from years of feminist study. I have a room of my own, a checkbook of my own, legal status of my own. Nobody owns me. That’s huge. I stand on the shoulders of the feminists before me.
Still, I carry the wounds. What damage has misogyny done to me? Who can say? How has this sexist world impacted my relationships, my heart, my soul? What joy or creativity was lost?
Who can say?
Sexism permeates us all so deeply. Sexism silences fifty percent of the population. Sexism is a future denied, cultures vastly diminished.
* * *
I have a teenaged daughter. She loves acting and the theatre. She’s in France right now, performing in a play. No surprise, I have strongly discouraged her from pursuing an acting career. “Go into the sciences,” I tell her. “But I hate science,” she quips back. “Okay, well, if you go into the theatre,” I insist, “be the director or writer, not the girl who is chosen for her looks, who is at the mercy of others telling her where to stand and how to move.”
Be the girl who does her own directing–that is what I wish for my own daughter.
Don’t be at the mercy of men or anyone for that matter.
* * *
I will publish this after all.
These stories must be told and violence against women must stop.
Instead of being like those actresses in the theatre company who did not stand up for me when their support was direly needed, I will speak up now, as millions, no billions, suffer worldwide.
I must speak out against misogyny, violence, and oppression in any form.
#YesAllWomen. All women.