I don’t remember when I learnt that my body was not mine alone. That knowledge, that I am partly public, has been with me for years and years and years. I absorbed it in the comments of family and friends on how pretty – or, more often plain – I was. I drew it in from the pictures on the television, the Slimcea girl who was showing herself to the world, perfected through self-privation.; the Playtex girdle woman who knew that hours of discomfort was better by far than being seen to be imperfect; the Harmony girl on whose hair men always remarked. I knew it from my mother’s comments on actresses and models and friends. My mother is a kind woman, and her comments were seldom cutting, and yet I knew all the same from her that X wasn’t as pretty as she might be, due to the size of her hips, or that Y dressed badly for her shape. I knew it through the girls at school who were harsh in their judgement of everything – openly their enemies, privately, their friends, most privately of all, perhaps, of themselves. I’m so fat, I’m so plain, my nose is all wrong, I’m flat-chested, my boobs are too big. Not one of us was content with herself and nor were we encouraged to be. We were female in public, there to be seen and to remarked upon. Sometimes boys were remarked on also – for size, for hair colour – but it was only certain boys, not all boys. It was not all the time. There was no Slimcea boy, no girdle guy, and the Old Spice man was an adventurous surfer. People did not touch my brother in the same ways they tried to touch me, and they did not caution him that his behaviour must be modulated at all times to avoid the wrong kinds of attention from the opposite sex. Boys have powerful impulses. You mustn’t lead them on. It was a double warning: my body was not only mine, and it was up to me to police it at all times lest it cause problems. We are taught, all of us, from early on, that the female form is both desirable and dangerous. We are taught to feel ashamed of it or awed, covetous or intimidated, despairing or resentful. Girls are taught that it must be controlled and disciplined, pummelled and starved, before it can become acceptable – ‘figure faults’ must be corrected, different parts must be displayed or covered, stripped of hair, dyed, strapped in, or out, or down. Yes, some of us opt out of some or all of this. But whatever we do, there will likely be comments.
And you’re wondering, out there, what all this has to do with anything, you’re wondering, and maybe saying, ‘well, men have body image issues too, and people yell things at them too’, and all that is true enough. But what I’m saying is this: we are taught as a culture that women are to be looked at, and both sides accept this. And this inevitably affects the ways in which we behave to ourselves and to each other. The female body is culturally packaged and sold back to us, not as it is – the shape of a person – but as something separate, something at once less and more, and it’s this attitude that leads to the Open Source Boob Project nonsense of a year or so ago (the promoters of that seemed to have forgotten that breasts come attached to people). Being female is an action, in every moment and every space, it is loaded, immanent with meaning, coded, complicated.
When I was nineteen, a man I knew though fandom stalked me for about 6 months. I did not know it was stalking, though I knew it was worrying and distressing and undesirable. I didn’t know it wasn’t my fault. Some of that was down to circumstances – stalking had not at the time been widely discussed and I had no label for it. Part of it is down to my own education: I didn’t know what to do with the situation, how to deal with it. I’m not sure I told anyone, apart from my boyfriend of the time.
He blamed me for it. I must have done something to make this happen. I spent 6 months feeling scared and culpable, trying to avoid the stalker and simultaneously feeling that I ought to be extra nice to him, because somehow I had made him do this, I had brought this on myself, while all the time inside me all I could hear was fear and revulsion and a desire to get him as far from me as I could. Another young woman might have reported him, made a fuss, made threats: I wasn’t that woman, I hadn’t been told that was allowed.
I’m lucky: that man didn’t hurt me. In the end, he found another young woman who was actually interested in him and entered into a long relationship with her. But all these years later, I wish that 19-year-old self had known she was allowed to make a fuss, to summon college porters, to threaten him with the wrath of college authorities. Because I didn‘t have to endure that, I didn’t have to hide in my room like that for all that time, it had never been my fault. He was attracted to me. I was not attracted to him. That should have been the last of it. But my context – and that old boyfriend – convicted me of being female in public, contributory in my own fate.
I was lucky.
I’m not even sure I should write that, though my head is full of sentences which start that way. I’m lucky, I’ve never been raped. But what about the man – a different man, around that same time – who insisted on spending the night in my room despite my protests, and on handling me despite my protests, because he was unhappy and I owed him? What about the man who verbally coerced me into sex? The man who forced me into his car? The man – a complete stranger who openly groped my body in a con lounge? The man who informed me I would be providing him with sex due to my hair colour? What about all those men who looked and saw my shape or my clothes, saw Woman, but not Person? Was it luck that meant none of those situations got out of hand? Lots of time, no, it wasn’t, it was other people – the good guys and gals of fandom who came over and intervened, who protected and helped, who helped me when I didn’t know how to help myself. Sometimes it was… I don’t know. Not luck, just a sense that I had to get through this and out the other side.
Not all the situations I’ve listed above happened within fandom, but all of them happened. I’m not particularly pretty: I was just sometimes in the wrong place. It’s a sad fact that most women have had brushes with this kind of thing. Which is not to say that all men are bastards, all men are abusers, all men are the enemy. Nothing is that simple. Nothing is that easy.
And fandom can be extra-complicated, because it constructs itself as a safe space in many ways. It’s often said that fans include a fair number of people whose experience of wider society has not always been kind, and who are perhaps thinner skinned or less comfortable with some forms of socialisation. A lot of people expect to be more readily accepted within fandom. (I’m not 100% sure that this is true: fandom can look pretty unkind sometimes. But this is not the place for yet another discussion of the Myth of Fannish Tolerance.) Fans can be more touchy-feely with one another, they may dress a little (or a lot) oddly. It can be hard to see where boundaries lie. It can be very easy to cross those boundaries by accident. It happens. But there is a huge difference between accident and intent. And that’s where the difficulties arise. That’s when safety for one person becomes danger for another.
If you dress like I do – I have done – then it will draw attention of all kinds. I accept that (and the only time I resented it involved a hotel employee who was hoping for a bribe). I accept that if I wear a short skirt, someone may comment and the comment may not be complimentary. I accept that I may be asked for contact or more. I dress as I do because it’s how I am, who I am. And I accept the consequences.
Up to a point, and here it is: it’s still my body, my self. I’m still a person, under the clothes and the flesh. I have the right to say no. I have the right to say no and walk away. I have the right to say no and walk away and to have that respected. It was the chant of the Reclaim the Night marches: Whatever I wear and wherever I go, yes means yes and no means no. It ought to be easy.
It isn’t, of course. People get confused, or resent what they see as rejection. People misinterpret, they hope, they imagine. We all do it. But the thing is that once that ‘no’ is established, that should be the end of it. My reactions are my responsibility. Yours are yours. I didn’t owe that young man who stalked me anything, but he didn’t understand that, and for month on month, he made my life unsafe.
And it really is that simple. It’s okay to ask. But no is no, and that should get to be the end of it.
Endnote: I'm 50. I'm average looking. These days, I'm fairly sharp-tongued.
I've yet to get through a single con without someone behaving inappropriately to me. Touching, backing into corners, talking to my (modest) cleavage, asking creepy questions, standing too close. I am, I repeat, 50. I've been with the same man for nearly 26 years and we are usually together at cons. And men go on doing this, sometimes in front of him.
This is not how the world should be.