Coming up I knew I wanted to be a writer. I wrote all the time. When I wasn’t writing I was reading. I read lots and lots of Henry Miller, finding in him a reflection of myself. In Black Spring, the various Tropics, and the Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy, it felt like the voice in which he was writing was the voice in my own mind. My heart rose up in my throat, and it seemed that Miller and I had an unadulterable communication across the pages. It took a brief bookstore encounter with Under the Roofs of Paris for me to put him down, and I haven’t yet picked him back up. Without Miller I had to branch out and find someone else to read.
While I’d only read a few pages of Under the Roofs, it was enough to make me realize that Miller didn’t think too highly of girls, and by extension, women. This didn’t negate the wonderful times we’d had together, but it did make me think that perhaps I ought to seek out work that spoke of my own experience. I started looking for a heroine like me. There weren’t any in fiction. But I did find what I was looking for in non-fiction. And I found alot of it in Robin Morgan’s 1970 radical feminist anthology. My friend N and I read all through it, and we were entranced by a bullet point essay called Barbarous Rituals.
There’s been a bunch of articles coming out lately against radical feminism, how young women feel it’s an outmoded concept, it’s lack of inclusion for transwomen, it’s supposed detrimental effect on men’s rights. So I thought I’d go back to my earliest introduction to radical feminism– other than the existence of my mother– and see what the problem is. What I found was this essay, this summation of Barbarous Rituals, and while I’d remembered the essay, I hadn’t remembered how personal it was, or how much I saw myself in it. There’s a narrative to being female, to growing up into a woman, and while it’s different individually, and culturally, and economically, there are some aspects of the human female experience that are I feel are transcendent. I went through and pulled out some of the points that speak to me, and share my experience with them.
—– wanting to shave your legs at twelve and being so agonized because your mother won’t let you.
I was in 7th grade math class when Robyn turned around and said “oh my god Libby, you really need to tweeze your eye brows.” Then she noticed my legs, and shrieked. “Libby doesn’t shave her legs!” she whispered, and it spread around the room. I was an even bigger outcast than before. I hadn’t worn stockings under my skirt, even though my dad and step-mom required that as a condition of wearing a skirt out of the house, and now I was doubly ashamed. I went home and, after the outfit was taken away for lack of stockings, I asked if I could shave my legs. The answer was no.
—– being agonized at fourteen because you finally have shaved your legs and your flesh is on fire.
When I went to visit my mom shortly thereafter, I found her razor in the shower, and shaved one leg, hacked, actually. I was a bloody mess. My mom was horrified, asked why I wanted to shave my legs at all, told me never to do it, that if she could go back and do it again, she would not start in with the razor for any reason. But it was too late. She showed me how to do the rest, bandaged up my wounds.
Arriving back home at my dad and step-moms, I was berated for having done such a thing. My mom was called names for having let me do it. I was doubly ashamed, once for having done the thing, and then again for instantly regretting it. I wish I’d never once shaved my legs.
—— being prepared for [menstruation] by your mother, who carefully reiterates that it isn’t dirty, all the while talking just above a whisper, and referring to it as “the curse,” “being sick,” or “falling off the roof.”
My step-mom stocked the bathroom closet with maxi-pads and showed me how to use them. She gave me Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and Our Bodies Ourselves. I read the books. I did the exercises Margaret does to make her breasts bigger. Other girls had bigger breasts and I was just like a hairy ten year old boy. My step-mom told me that my period could come at any time, and I should be prepared. I ran to the bathroom whenever anything felt even remotely vaginally out of the ordinary, which, because I was thinking about it all the time, was lots. I carried a maxi-pad in my pocket from 6th grade through freshman year of high school, when I finally got it. By then my step-mom was mentally out of commission, and once I depleted the supply of maxi-pads in the closet, I started stealing them from the nurses office. I didn’t feel like I could ask my dad, or my step-mom, and my mom was a few hundred miles away.
—- dying of shame because your mother makes you wear a “training bra” but there’s nothing to train, or:
—– dying of shame because your mother won’t let you wear a bra and your breasts are bigger than other girls’ your age and they flop when you run and you sit all the time with your arms folded over your chest.
My college roommate, freshman year, told me to go buy a bra. I’d never worn one before. Growing up, my Dad always insisted I wear undershirts, under all my clothes. This is what I was still doing when I hit college. I was so embarassed, at not knowing that a) I should be wearing a bra, b) reliving the embarassment since the beginning of when I should have started wearing a bra, and c) not having any idea where to get one or which kind would be the right kind. I ended up asking my mom to take me shopping, which she did. The whole experience was made all the more akward by my mom’s confusion at how I could possibly have no idea what I was doing.
A few months later she and I were driving to a family party, and my mom, seemingly appalled at how I was dressed, complained “you’re not even wearing a bra!” I was wearing a bra. I guess it just wasn’t working. I wore the wrong bras for years until I finally got it sorted out.
—– feeling basically comfortable in your own body, but gradually learning to hate it because you are: too short or tall, too fat or thin, thick-thighed or big-wristed, large-eared or stringy-haired, short-necked or long-armed, bowlegged, knock-kneed, or pigeon-toed– something that might make boys not like you.
My grandmother would tell me to eat more because I was too thin. At a certain point she started telling me to eat less because I was too big. I wonder how I could have missed the point when I was just right.
I always wonder which fetish proclivity my body fits into.
—– dreading summertime because more of your body with its imperfections will be seen– and judged.
I always say that its my overly moral Christian upbringing that leads me to dress like a British colonialist on the beach in summertime, but really it’s body shame.
—– masturbating like crazy and being terrified that you’ll go insane, be sterile, turn into a whore, or destroy your own virginity.
—– getting more information any way you can, and then being worried because you’ve been masturbating clitorally, and that isn’t even the “right way.”
I read about masturbation and really wanted to try it. I looked into Our Bodies Ourselves for a map of the anatomy. Nothing seemed to match. I was doubly ashamed, once for trying, then again for failing. It was ages until I tried again, and then longer until I got it right. I’m glad I didn’t worry about if I was doing it wrong. The ladies of the 70’s and 80’s had already done the hard work on that one.
—– brooding about “how far” you should go with the guy you really like. Will he no longer respect you? Will you get– oh God– a “reputation”? Or, if not, are you a sqaure? Being pissed off because you can’t just do what you feel like doing.
Virginitity felt like something everyone wanted but me. I just wanted to get rid of it so it didn’t feel like I had something with such high value anymore. I said to my friend “don’t you just want to do it and get it over with?” forgetting she’d been raped by her uncle when she was 11. Then I felt like a shit, but the feeling remained. When I lost it, at the urging of a good friend, not the boyfriend, I wondered “was that it? Did that really happen? Did I like it?” And in my own personal narrative I’ve tried to imagine that the guy I lost it to was the next guy, not the first guy at all. After that it just felt like something that I should just be able to do, without all the frustration and wondering and awkward pauses. But it wasn’t. So much shame.
—– faking an orgasm for the first time: disgust, frustration– and relief (because he never even knew the difference).
—– feeling guilty for not having an orgasm: what is wrong with you?
I went out with a guy who would say “why are you stopping yourself? It’s okay.” But I would always stop myself before the orgasm. In retrospect, I can say that I didn’t want to lose control, that I wasn’t prepared to be even more vulnerable in sex than the experience of vulnerability that sex itself created. Isn’t it enough that I have my legs over my head, now you want me to lose control of my consciousness, too?
Women are vulnerable. That’s why we still need feminism. Feminism isn’t about protecting women, or blaming men, it’s about empowering women to feel their own worth, to believe as suredly as the Earth spins round the sun that the sexes are equal. The fight for women’s equality has been raging since the Suffragists. And just like the women fighting for the vote, for a voice, feminists now are fighting to claim their rights, not to be granted rights. Equal rights belong to us, and we want them to be acknowledged. That’s what radical feminism is to me. And maybe not being quite so ashamed of my personal experiences.
italic quotes are from “Barbarous Rituals,” Sisterhood is Powerful, ed. Robin Morgan, Random House, NYC, 1970.