Written by Rhiannon Ingle.
I was ten when I first started feeling ashamed of my body. Contrary to all the women in my family’s hormonal trajectory, my body decided to begin menstruation slap bang in the middle of Year 5 and, by the end of primary school, I was already a C cup.
I felt proud, at first, being one of the first girls in my class to have an actual, proper bra as opposed to those multipacks of vests from M&S we all seemingly lived in under our school shirts. It was new, exciting and all I really considered was the novice of my changing body.
The first time I remember feeling responsible for a man’s actions towards me was during a sex education class in primary school. The lights were off and a blue light shone through the whiteboard where some government-authorised film on pubes or erections or condoms was being played. I was sitting opposite two boys who kept whispering to each other whilst pointing and laughing at me. My naivety assumed that they were either laughing at the hilarity of the word penis or the cartoon diagrams depicting only what I can now call the most unsatisfactory-looking sex. But I was wrong, and quickly realised why.
Their eye level wasn’t at my face or the screen but directed at my chest. The blue light brought out the neon in my bra and it was shining through my school shirt. They were laughing and staring at my breasts. It was the first time I ever felt uncomfortable in my body. Even though it was summer and even though I was boiling, I put my school cardigan on. It was the first time I also ever policed my body as the result of a man.
Classroom giggling became street catcalling, playground touches became nightclub groping and unwanted “love” notes became unsolicited dick pics.
As years went by and my body further changed, I almost got nostalgic for the first time I ever felt objectified. Classroom giggling became street catcalling, playground touches became nightclub groping and unwanted “love” notes became unsolicited dick pics. I hated this new part of girlhood. I felt like it was some awful coming of age tradition or twisted right of passage we had all been enrolled in without even being asked.
While I hated these reactions to my young body, I also eerily found myself craving them for validation. I began to measure how good I looked based on how much I got catcalled. Effectively, I was using my levels of discomfort as a woman as some sort of barometer to my attractiveness.
It was like a skewed sort of Stockholm syndrome. I hated my captor and I hated the treatment I received, but I’d become so accustomed to it, that I didn’t really know how to live without it and, because of that, I started to hate myself.
I couldn’t understand why I kept performing and pandering to the male gaze – the exact thing that made me feel so unsafe, uncomfortable and, basically, unhuman.
I was filled with shame and embarrassment. I’d no idea how to reconcile my rage for the way I, and many others, were being treated with my dependence on the exact treatment that made me feel so worthless. I couldn’t understand why I kept performing and pandering to the male gaze – the exact thing that made me feel so unsafe, uncomfortable and, basically, unhuman.
Fast-forward a few years, where I was well past the “of-age” category that should have been freeing but was actually terrifying because you were no longer “jailbait” but an actual, legal and viable sexual option, and the pandemic changed everything.
I stopped going out during COVID – point-blank. I went back home, as many other students did during the start of lockdown and, for a summer, I lived with my dad who was shielding. I didn’t leave the house, really, and if I did, I was accompanied by my dad or brother.
I hadn’t experienced what it was like to be a woman alone on the street for a whole summer. In that time of harassment hiatus, I’d been given a reprise to the constant kissy noises, car honking orchestras and senile starers. In an overnight epiphany, I realised I didn’t need this grotesque form of validation that I felt my self-worth was so inherently bound to. I was finding my own sense of self-esteem internally and began sharing what I once held as my deepest, darkest, and most shameful secret. It was the first time I ever felt alleviated from the undeserved guilt I’d placed on myself.
A couple of months later, and nearly a year after the UK went into lockdown, Sarah Everard was murdered. I put my rape alarm back on my keychain, I started sending my location to friends again, I stopped wearing headphones off main roads and, just like how I did in Year 5 during that sex ed class, I started dressing in a way that no one could ever blame me or say I was asking for it if my body was ever found in a ditch somewhere.
Why was it that I had to spend extra money on Ubers because walking alone wasn’t safe again? Why was it that I had to walk out of my way just to stay on well-lit streets? Why was I having to change my actions and behaviours when the perpetrators of these crimes were doing absolutely fuck all to change theirs?
The injustice is more than unbearable to me and if I think about it too much, I burst into a hot and teary explosion of pain and disappointment. Disappointment in our government, our education system, our justice system and the rape culture that is woven into the very fabric of our modern and so-called “progressive” society.
In retrospect, I forgive those two boys from the sex education dark room. I’m not critiquing them and their pre-pubescent shock of one of their classmate’s changing bodies. I’m calling out the wider society we live in that tells women to police their own bodies while allowing men to completely relinquish any social responsibility for their reaction to one.
Rhiannon Ingle (she/her) is a Manchester-based journalist, writer and poet. She writes mostly about epiphany, lust, youth and revolution – calling on dadaism and the avant-garde as her muse.