Tuesday, June 28, 2005

You always remember your first

This is my new project, a journal of my body, my clothing and the reactions they elicit. I want to do this for a few reasons: 1) to enhance my understanding of the limits of my own body, where skin meets space, where the universe ends & I begin; 2) to enhance my understanding of the language of this body, which seems to be sending crazy messages to everybody all of the time; and 3) to get to the bottom, for once & for all, of the sexual harassment experience.

The bottom line is this: when I turned thirteen years old, my body became visible as a billboard. I grew a few inches taller, developed hips and breasts, and all of a sudden, my body was no longer my own. It became a public entity, avidly consumed by the viewing public. Along came judgment and commentary by that public. I have been reeling ever since.

Let me start at the beginning: the first time I recall feeling vulnerable because of my body in the workplace. I remember it vividly because I couldn't believe it was happening to me--I couldn't believe I was being "sexually harassed", this thing that happened to grown women as they worked adult jobs, like Anita Hill.

I was working at my very first job, as a busser on Saturday and Sunday mornings at the Black Forest Cafe in Amherst, NH. My uniform was a white, buttoned-down shirt and khakis. I wore my hair up in a ponytail, and I'm sure I wore some sort of sneakers. I didn't know much about making myself look good then, but I knew what frumpy felt like, and I do recall feeling utterly so each morning as I pulled up to the restaurant in my navy blue 1985 Cutlass Supreme.

It was the end of my shift that day, and I was putting away glassware. I learned early on from my crazy, abusive boss (my first, but definitely not my last) that the only way to earn my stripes would be to work constantly. I had to work as though the minute I stopped working, I might be caught & be fired. Even when nothing was going on, I should work, find a way to have something to do, find a way to make myself look busy and un-fireable. Wiping glassware was the last ditch effort. It came last after filling sugar bowls, marrying ketchups, straightening silver on tables. It was a job I did slowly, so as to drag it out until ti was time to go home. So, I was wiping glassware with a damp cloth, methodically, to remove the spots that inevitably formed as the steamy water from the dishwater dribbled down their sides to dry on their cool, still surfaces.

I was so young then, and a busser, so I had no real experience talking to customers. There was a man at the bar that day, of whom I wasn't aware until I went to put the glasses back in their rightful spot. I remember nothing about him, but for the fact that he was old, about my dad's age, and perhaps a little crazy. As I bent over to place a glass on the middle rack, back turned to the counter guest, and, I suppose, my ass sticking up in the air, a man's voice said "Yeah,that's real nice. Why don't you bend over a little further, sweetheart." I felt the blood rush to my face, quickly dropped to a kneeling-squat closer to the floor, and rushed the remaining several glasses on to their shelves as fast as I could. Then I stood abruptly, head down, face red, and rushed to the kitchen. I could feel his eyes on me, and hear him chuckle softly as I walked away.

I still remember exactly how it felt when the man spoke to me that way, though the details of the day remain fuzzy. I remember it vividly because I reinhabit those feelings on an almost daily basis, each time a man talks to me as though my body is public property. I zoom back to the body of my fourteen year old self: surprised to hear such words spoken; embarrassment seeping from my stomach to the tips of my ears like spilled ink; frozen in the moment with fear, and no notion of what to do next. And I feel so stuck because this man is completely, outrightly demeaning me, but couching his cruelty in the form of a compliment.

Thus stuckness, this confusion, this embarrassment: that is what I want this blog to be about.