By Ivana Rihter
I had gotten into the habit of constantly running around naked around the time I turned 3 years old. I remember the smell of sun screen and sea water. I chased the ocean waves as they receded and they chased me back up the shore across the broken shell floor, making imprints on the soles of my feet. I didn’t notice at the time but it was in this serene moment a woman approached. Quietly she confronted my mother with feelings of ‘discomfort’ over my nakedness. It has become an intrusion on the beach day her and her family had planned she said through tense lips. Only then did I look up to see her sports sunglasses turn towards me and motion abstractly at the whole of my body with her well-manicured hand. I remember my mother did not dignify this woman with a response, instead turning to me and instructing that I was never to be ashamed of my naked body. I was never to feel I must hide it in order to preserve its value. She told me that bodies are beautiful things and what I do with mine is entirely in my hands. She then turned to the woman and told her that she was absolutely insane for sexualizing the body of a toddler. She would not dress me under any circumstances and especially not for the comfort of a perverted stranger. She said it all with a smile and I remember thinking she was beautiful standing there defiantly with wild curly hair and a bright red bikini. I was peeing on the ground for the full duration of their conversation, embracing my womanhood.
I was 10 years old and my babysitter had all her friends over on an evening my parents were out. Looking back now, they were about 16 at the time which technically makes them children as well but Brian was 18. God knows why he was hanging out with high school sophomores, but he was there. My babysitter had straightened my hair and put makeup on me, ensuring me that my eyes were deep set and perfect for gold eyeshadows. I looked in the mirror and barely recognized myself, it was fun to dress up for a night. Brian stared at me a lot that night. They started playing spin the bottle and I stood near them watching with a smile, not fully understanding the goal of the game but just happy to be near so many older people. I went to the bathroom and as I exited, Brian was in the little dark hallway that led to my laundry. He asked if I had gotten my first kiss yet. I said no. He said that he thought he should give it to me so that I would know what I was doing later. I said no. He asked if I was sure and took a step towards me.
I was 15 years old and it was 8 pm and someone pushed me against a wall. His name was Danny and he was 20. He leaned in close and whispered that I was the most beautiful girl here that night. I laughed at him when he put his tongue in my mouth, I don’t even remember feeling lips to be quite honest. I had to hide in the basement when I found out he was looking for me. My friend said that he couldn’t be reasoned with when drunk so I shouldn’t let him see me or he might do something. I woke up the next morning realizing that I had gotten my period and my stomach hurt. I finally left the basement to take up what felt like permanent residence on the kitchen stool, eating generous spoonsful of Nutella to try and feel better. I remember watching a high school track team run outside and taking the Nutella outside to wait for my dad to pick me up.
I was 18 the first time my ass was grabbed on the CTA. I turned to find a smiling man who got off at the same stop as me, I hid in Walgreens until I saw him stop lingering outside and looking around.
I was 18 when the first boy I loved visited me at college. Even when I was 15 and kissing him for the first time on his couch, I still felt like I belonged to myself. So many people told me that in your first relationship, you make the other person your world. I did not. I adored him but I did not need him, did not feel alone when he wasn't there and did not feel he had a god given right to any part of me. I remember him standing at the Orange Line Midway stop, I saw clenched fists and tears and wondered if I was the cause. I was. The series of conversations that followed all circled back to why I had found it necessary to destroy him with my rejection and give my body to someone else. He threw a bottle of apple juice across the room because I wouldn’t sleep with him, as if that notion just didn’t make sense.
I was 18 and working a night shift at Clarke’s Diner when a table full of boys flagged me down by putting their hands on the small of my back and pulling me into the booth with them, asking for more milkshakes and sweet potato fries. I found one of their numbers in the back pocket of my jeans after I was done rolling silverware. I put my tip money in my sock and walked back to my dorm ripping up that intrusive little paper bit by bit.
I am 19 now.
I am 19 now and I am angry because the weight of the involuntary miracle of being born a woman is not evenly distributed, some must carry far more gruesome memories than others with them wherever they go. These stories are not unique to me; they are the story of every little girl wrapped into a pink blanket from day one.
My body is not something that any one has a right to. Looking at that 12-word statement on paper it seems like a simple enough concept. It is something that I knew from the time I was little and someone would grab me at recess. Standing there proudly wearing a hand-knit sweater vest and sporting a bowl cut I knew I was not theirs to touch.
This must have come from the strict matriarchy I was raised in, with 9 generations of women before me not only outliving their husbands but outdoing them. The women in my family are embedded in my roots. They taught me how to make a home in my body and love every nook and crevice. They showed me that being a woman is a gorgeously dangerous existence and I was going to feel it but I should never fear it.
The women that raised me did so in a tiny apartment in Toronto and made me feel like I was all I would ever need. My mother was fiercely independent and often times brutally honest with no regard for people’s unwillingness to hear the truth. It sounds like mythology now but she once physically threw a grown man out of a crowded bus for pinching her ass. She worked three jobs to put herself through school, studying biology with a concentration in genetics. She was only 21 when she married my dad to save him from the war, something she will never let him forget.
My grandmother is a 4 ft. 11-inch storm of homemade bread and poesy. She gave me my first journal and told me to write down everything that made me feel something. Growing up in Macedonia, she had men basically weeping at her feet for a chance to feel her warmth and read her writing.
My aunt was unapologetically sarcastic and taught me how to identify every single Jelly Belly jellybean by both taste and sight. She showed me the wonders of 24-hour gas stations and told me about her first time.
The lessons I learned from these women have become a part of me. I carry them with me into every room I enter, and not always gracefully. I am a messy force of nature with no time to do laundry and even less time to overthink. I am often wearing socks I found in the back left corner of my closet but I have accepted myself. The recounts of male entitlement that began this essay do not define me, they are just stories now. Some I can tell my little sister with a smile, preparing them for what it is to exist in the world as an unapologetic female. Others I keep just for me and I try not to float them back up to the surface of my mind because they do not deserve to occupy space. This essay is not about men and definitely not the small ones that have stolen little black spots for themselves in my memory, this essay is about women. I am just one of so many cis women/trans women/queer women/women of color that I know could write full scale memoirs about times their bodies were touched without their permission.
Women carry the stories of their times being grabbed on the playground and their times being grabbed outside of bars. As they grow the stories grow with them, the words of their struggles are not confined to the bedrooms, train stops and parties they occurred in, instead making imprints that last longer than most can imagine. I am just one person with a fairly good memory trying to navigate womanhood, writing it down helps.
I am 19 now and there is a boy sleeping next to me who looks at my body like there is god damn sunlight shooting out of every pore. He does not touch me like he owns me and I think that’s why I kiss him so hard.