Originally written/published June 13, 2016 on my old blog.
In a fluorescent-lit microcosm of the so uniquely American fast-and-easy brand of consumerism, a sixteen year old girl does the unspeakable: dare to exist, without apology nor demure self-suppression. Limbs long and tee shirt slightly small, the barest lining of soft belly peeking through, her feet tread restlessly against the scruffy, cheap carpeted floor of the neighborhood CVS. Into the cosmetics aisle, critical eyes squinting at the assorted inane manifestations of a societally-funded industry constructed upon the deliberate exploitation of sexist insecurity; doubts her self-control, fiddles absentmindedly with some torturous and highly unnecessary device called an eyebrow shaper.
If it makes you happy, if you actually want to, not because you feel you must.
She stops mindlessly browsing for a prolonged moment at that feeling, one not unfamiliar to her, one that hangs in the peripheral expectations embedded intrinsically into her female existence, apparently. That of the male gaze, the silly name rather fitting, rather apt. Eyes so unrelenting they destruct even her self-awareness; even the most ferocious of self-made strength. Eyes that follow, eyes that hunt, eyes that stalk the creature; the- yes, believe it, folks, because it truly is real- the Existing Teenage Girl, with an actual body. She stiffens, as she always does, as she always will no matter how much it disgusts her to do so. His gaze forces it, that stiffening. Not unlike a corpse, she thinks. As if I were ever more to him than a void; than a body lacking a person; a body lacking mind. As if I were prey.
Her uncomfortableness evident in the tilt of her head, a bumbling rush of clumsy feet frenzied to abscond the confinement of the aisle, the entrapment of the gaze.
It doesn’t matter, though, not really. Each path she takes, each aisle, despite its contents, he easily, almost ridiculously easily, can sweep by, casually, languidly, but that gaze, those eyes, that feeling, it follows her everywhere. How simply and unnoticeably he does it destroys her and yet she can do nothing but walk quickly to her mother sitting, awaiting her prescription. She can do nothing but escape. No fight is allowed or encouraged or even really tangible, for he simply looked at her. If gut feelings could present themselves as evidence, it’d be a much safer world, but that will never happen. The stiffening sensation and that feeling of utter and undeterrable smallness that devours her senses from a gaze, it cannot be destroyed because no man will ever admit to it, no society in this world will ever make the victim the victim.
If she were different, would her sense of self still persevere, in the end? Would each and every moment compiled into the perpetual cycle of these feelings not matter? Perhaps she could suffice on breadcrumbs of self-worth. Perhaps solace would be found in the idealistic, quixotic rationale that not all men are like that; sexism is over; etc, etc, in every unimaginable word uttered by every white man dictating what constitutes oppression, in every whistle, every catcall, every grope on public transport, everyday existing everyday being everyday seeing everyday holding back your tongue because your mouth was made to do one thing only, apparently.
And it isn’t to speak. Something they forgot to teach you in school.
Maybe, in another dimension, in another universe, things wouldn’t be what they were, and she wouldn’t be the girl she was. In this world, on this planet, though, her girlhood refuses to ignore itself. Her gender refuses to be something unrelated to her capabilities as a human being, or, completely detached from her interests and sexuality and self-importance. Perhaps she would be a person worth her own thoughts rather than succumbing to that goddamn gaze.
And maybe, there would seem no need to invest herself in the cause. Perhaps there would exist no cause to invest in, if binaries had never been constructed, if she were more than Girl, if things were started differently, if equality felt palpable.
As if a look could break her into pieces. She should be stronger than that, she’s told, mostly by boys meaning well, not quite comprehending why something as small and as imperceptible as a look could stain her entire understanding of herself, could make her feel all the things she did, or, rather, make her into a nothing rather than a someone.
The I’m fines and the it’s okays come like a first language nowadays. Each misunderstanding expected. A tactile agreement entrenched under years of accumulative accustoming that she’ll keep herself down, try not to be too much.
She sits in her classes at her liberal, progressive , diverse, tolerant high school and nods along to the deafening rhythm of the boys speaking over her and every other girl in the class just to hear their own voices. She wonders, admittedly, how they do not grow exhausted of their own voices, of talking so much, contemplates how their throats do not go raw and raspy with all of the talking and interrupting they do, but she does not ask. She coughs quietly. Each action is mild and calculated. But what is most interesting is how she holds herself as if to make the world forget her existence.
In trying to disappear, the anger begins to fester. Rage like a hidden maelstrom. Rage like thunder boiling patiently beneath her skin, awaiting the best moment to strike and execute itself onto the unlucky perpetrator. Thunderous as she may be, she feels like she has to apologize for it. Admittedly, the storm flares at the worst of times, onto the least deserving of people, and she knows it, hates it, allows that hatred of her thunder to infect, allows it to transform into self-loathing that has no cover or disguise.
If she apologizes one more time for snapping, she doesn’t know what will happen to her. It hurts, deeply, inconsolably, after shaking her head or retorting an unsolicitedly bitter and sardonic response at a boy who truly meant to be helpful or kind. The flushing of cheeks, the mumbled sorry, that came out wrong. Not a hint of understanding of the people around her because she is too tired to understand any longer, and even the ones she wants to know are keeping away from her.
If likability is congruent to passivity, she doesn’t want to aspire for the trait.
The sea she sinks into, deeper and deeper every minute of every day, feels far too tempestuous and too thick to swim out of. Each time she tries, moving thin arms in desperate circles, kicking ankles as hard as possible, it rocks her back and forth until she is nauseated and lightheaded with the weight of its current.
A tally invisible, covering her entire body, each line shakily drawn by unstable fingers. The trick is to never allow the tally to be visible. If the marks become apparent, god knows what will happen to her
She will not stop.
This is the world; the undercurrents of self-doubt and self-disgust forming a cold sweat and an unshakable unease. This is what happens when you are sixteen, a female-identifying human, a body, an unsteady heartbeat, a clump of evolving, scarred, flawed matter. This is who you are, and this is hell.
There is another world, and it exists concealed underneath thousands and thousands of ruins. It hangs quietly in the stillness beneath the waves, at the bottom of the proverbial swimming pool, and no longer will she raise weak gnarled claws to swimming pool concrete walls, no longer will the mind ache with unresolvable disaster. There she is, and there is stillness.
Often, her body becomes absorbed by the crashing, violent maelstrom of life, of adolescence, and she cannot escape. Yet there will be solace, a burning, bright, haven of tranquil absolution, and to enter this transient peace she must understand not to combat cold unruly seas but rather, to coexist with them.
These waves break bodies. These waves carry. These waves swallow living beings whole and devour them into a lightless infinity, cold and flat and dark. These waves do not devour if there is no fight.
She finds herself in the fluorescent CVS, her body a prison, her skin awake with nerves, but she does not break his gaze this time. The awake and exhausted human girl does not live in hell. This human girl lives in stillness and storms, in cold and light.