CW: Graphic detailing of assault, sexual harassment
Chloë Maughan discusses her journey towards accepting her body in a society that uses it against her
All too often women’s bodies become weapons to be wielded against them, whether from internalised narratives of not being ‘enough,’ to media depictions and street harassment.
It’s an assault that starts young. Indeed, research by the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Body Image has found that body image worries are prevalent in girls as young as five, with one in four girls aged seven attempting weight loss.
These are issues that are pervasive, echoed in magazines and billboard designs, in ill-fitting clothes in restricted, dowdy ‘plus size’ sections of stores, on the number that always strikes wrong on the scale, and in the words of strangers, and worse our loved ones.
Indeed, my own body issues started at home, with a mother who fed my desire to SlimFastTM from an early age, and who didn’t question, but embraced, the cereal diet her 10-year-old daughter embarked upon. I suspect an insecurity of her own, that grew into mine, as she filled our house with advice on how to think yourself thin, and low fat, low carb everything. In this respect I sadly grew into my mother’s daughter.
It never dawned on me, however, how much these issues were internalised, and how negative and complex my relationship with my body had grown. In primary school my mother’s critiques were cast into the background by bullying. My weight was banded around for public comment and used often to refute the worth of my opinions and feelings. Sometimes the content wasn’t so poorly intentioned. I’m sure the boy who told me ‘I’d be pretty if I was thinner,’ thought he was giving me some sense of hope. Though all it fed was an over pre- occupation with my weight, that for far too long led to comfort and happiness being conflated with the life I’d lead ‘when I was thinner,’ but that I didn’t believe could ever be attained in my current frame.
I never learnt to just be in the body that caged me, but I did learn to resent it, to skip lunch, and punish the frame in the mirror. I taught myself that I would never be happy, because I would always be ‘too big’ to be loved. To a big extent this shaped my early experiences of harassment.
At some point, almost overnight, my body changed. My breasts developed, my limbs grew long and slim, and while I always hated the way my tummy stuck out further than the rest of my frame, it became more subtle. My insecurities were for a while replaced with the compliments of strangers. Men yelled at me in the street to tell me I was beautiful, and for a brief spell that fed me flattery – enough to dispel the insults I’d doled out too many mornings on the scales.
I can understand in this regard, why some women appreciate the glances of strangers, and the passers-by who tell them they’re beautiful. I know I did.
But these are not simply compliments.
There are first those issues that reek, not of flattery, not of admiration, but of danger. My first taste of this was when a much older man cornered me in an otherwise empty alleyway, as I walked the path to college one morning. He encouraged me to accept an invitation to dinner, and for the first time a firm ‘no thank you’ didn’t feel enough. In that first moment the benefits of my new ‘better’ body were shattered – for it was not my weapon to wield, but instead an object for others’ approval, commentary and use.
Encounters that once felt complimentary were replaced by threat. For every well-intended comment about my looks, there were 10 car horns that only ever made me jump. There were the guys who wouldn’t take no for an answer, and who followed as I walked through town. There were the men who felt entitled to grab my arse as I stood on the pavement handing out flyers for work. And there were the men who grabbed me and assaulted me in an empty road.
In the onset of my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – an illness triggered from a culmination of significant and serious assaults – I punished my body. I wanted to feel once again ‘undesirable,’ to feel like I might take back control. While these feelings are imbued with my own internalised insecurities, as I allowed my body to grow, and stepped further and further from the ‘ideal’ frame, I began to grow more confident. The harassment didn’t stop completely, but I noticed it lessened significantly, as I became this invisible woman.
It came with its own violence and territory, however. This bigger body, in its own way became a tool to be used against me. Indeed, while working as the Women’s Officer at my university, I found my body used as the basis for critique in the comments of articles. Comments about my arse – ‘the size of a greyhound bus’ – and suggestions I should change my diet plan. Once again I felt like my body wasn’t my own.
I found myself left in an odd sort of catch 22. Rightly or wrongly, my experiences meant that the thought of shrinking down had become entangled with the threat of sexual harassment. And staying broad had become synonymous with online harassment of another kind.
But this body has also saved me. Indeed, when I was eighteen and grabbed by a gang of men and assaulted, it was my tummy that made my tormentors flee. It was only when their ringleader slid his hand up my skirt, and discovered my protruding stomach, that he backed off, fearing I was pregnant. This body that I’d felt ashamed of for so long, had set me free.
So while my body may often feel like a weapon too often wielded against me, it is also strength. It is the bodyguard that stepped out of the shadows in shaky situations, and brought intuition to the fore. It is the tension I feel in my thighs, when I am unsure about the hand that rests on my leg. It is the tummy I’ve resented for far too long, that once made a tormentor flee. And it is the case that once let to grow, gave me the confidence to walk a bit taller.
Image by Joy Molan
Originally published in Issue 11 of That’s What She Said Magazine. To read the full magazine, visit: https://issuu.com/uobfemsoc/docs/twss_issue_11