Sexual harassment can begin at a very early age. For me, it started at the age of eleven.
That was when I had to start wearing my first bra. My birth mother and her mother were large busted women, and it seemed I had inherited their body type. I can’t remember being particularly excited about my first bra. It was just a plain fact of life in the eyes of the mother who raised me that I needed one. I do remember it as white, most likely a Playtex.
But what I remember most were the comments I received on the playground the day I first wore it to school. I had on a white sweater and neither my mother nor I thought about people being able to tell I had one on. It was not a “sexual, coming of age” moment for me. But it did give me a refresher course in shame when several of the other girls said I was being a “showoff” and should have worn a slip with it. I guess the boys had noticed. It would have been the first time any of them had paid me any attention.
I hated full slips; I only owned half ones. But I never wore the white sweater again.
My next sexual shaming was in the 8th grade. By then my figure had fully blossomed and I was wearing a junior size 7. I thought I was still the same fat girl I was always told by my schoolmates I was. Thinking back, I probably had a cute figure I would give anything to have back. My mother had bought me some new dresses for spring. One was tight fitted at the bodice and flared out at the hips. It was a plaid of yellow, light green and white. I remember feeling pretty in it.
That was until I got to my locker about midday. As I opened it, a note fell out. It read something about wanting to know where I got my big “boobs” and if I had a “p—y” to match. (Sorry, I am not as comfortable as the President with that word.)
I was horrified. I started crying and ran into the girl’s bathroom and wouldn’t come out. I felt so dirty and vile. A kind junior I knew lent me her oversized mohair sweater to wear for the rest of the day. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye.
In fact, looking people in the eye had always been difficult for me. I was shy, introverted and had been told so often I looked like a plucked chicken when I was born, I figured I didn’t look much better later on. The other school kids were happy to reinforce my supposition.
Cruelty in kids can be very harsh. In fact, I wonder if it is inculcated early enough if it ever really goes away.
It was certainly on full display during my Navy years. I don’t know if I believe the story of how it happened – that Admiral Hyram Rickover personally picked me and another woman for our assignments after Yeoman school because of our grades – but I ended up being one of two women to ever serve at a Naval Nuclear Power School command. Sarah went to Personnel; I became the second Yeoman to the Commanding Officer of the school.
To say we were highly visible in a crowd of 1500 male sailors is a slight understatement. I don’t know if “teasing” is the same as “harassment,” but let’s just say that the young junior officer who called me “Bubbles” at work never used that nickname with my Chief, a big burly guy you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.
Mistakes were not tolerated. One day the Captain came out of his office, threw something I typed in my face that had a typo and sniffed “I thought you were an English major in college.”
There were the unbearable walks through the hallways in between the class bells, when I would be walking down the stairs to take documents somewhere and the male students on the way up would whisper “nice knockers.” There was also the time I was walking to my car at lunch and a bunch of guys leaned out the window and yelled “moo.”
The Personnel Officer, a Lt. Commander, called me into his office on a Monday morning and apologized that he had to reprimand me. After the command school picnic at the beach that weekend, an officer’s wife had complained about my bathing suit being too revealing of my breasts. I wore a one piece. There were officers’ wives in attendance wearing bikinis.
I thought I had made headway with the crusty Lt. Commander who ran the officer’s training school on the upper floor of our building. For nearly a year he gave me nothing but grief about being a “feminist” of some sort. I don’t think I had ever heard of Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem at that point. I was pleased to be invited as a special guest to the graduating class’ picnic party. I wore a white top and light blue jeans. I later learned that movies of me playing volleyball were routinely shown at their next school duty station for the reactor simulators in Idaho. I am sure it wasn’t the ball they watched bouncing up and down.
My list is very long, from married men who claimed to have had affairs with me that never happened to the Navy teacher I fell deeply in love with and had a 9-month romance only to learn he had been engaged the entire time and never told me. Nor had anyone else bothered. I guess they assumed I was that kind of slut. I wonder if my suicide attempt told them otherwise. I don’t know. That night after I learned of his engagement, after I had taken a bottle of Valium and ended up at the Naval Hospital, I never went back to that command.
And the whole time I was in the hospital, all of those men who had so many comments to make – from the Commanding Officer on down – were suddenly silent. Not once did anyone reach out to see how I was. I never saw any of them ever again. Nor did I want to. Neither did I want to be seen. I just wanted to disappear.
Shame is a toxic thing. It poisoned my life for a very long time.
What is unfair to me and to most women who are sexually harassed is the shame shouldn’t belong to us. It should belong to those who did it to us.