Warning: possible trigger for those who have experienced sexual harassment or abuse.
“My uncle says Puerto Rican girls are F-I-N-E FINE,” he hisses at me, his hands groping for me in the traffic to get on the school bus afterschool. He is in third grade; I am in fourth grade and, already, I have grown ashamed of my body, of my looks, of who I am supposed to be because, as I see it, my speaking Spanish changes what people think about me.
This is what happens everyday afterschool. A band of boys who have decided that I am a target because of my Puerto Ricanness swarm at the bus door when I try to get on it, sticking their hands out, trying desperately to cop a feel of my non-existent bottom.
I swat their hands away. I cover my body. I say No. It doesn’t get better.
And so I start missing the bus afterschool. I take too long to leave the building and when I come out, the last bus is rolling away. The principal sees me and loads me in his car and drives me home. He knows my parents work on the military basis thirty minutes away. He can drive me home now or wait forty-five minutes for them to get me. Though I don’t tell him what’s going on, I keep missing the bus because it is the only way that I know that I can keep myself safe.
The boys at the bus door are just one example of how my body begins to mean something I am not ready for it to mean, something that isn’t me, something that is beyond me. And, over the years, I will find another way to keep myself safe. I will disassociate from my body. I will bind it, cover it, ignore it. I will pretend it doesn’t exist. I will not derive pleasure from it. I will unknow it, because what I am learning from the men around me is that my body, unleashed, could be dangerous to me. It could put me in harm’s way. I am so scared of getting any attention for my body that I pull away from it completely. I fill my brains with as much smarts as I can fit in there. I do as much good as I can. I become the living embodiment of the good girl, because my body, I have heard, can be very, very bad.
But, still, there will be moments- moments that I will later read as me not being careful enough- where my body will startle me. On the day of my high school graduation, I slip on a dress my mother has sewn for me. It is a white halter dress that falls to my ankles. Days earlier, a friend chopped off my long curls. My hair falls in a bouncy bob, the shortest it has been in years. In the mirror, I don’t recognize myself, but I smile at that girl. I imagine she will start my new life as a college student.
That night, when I peel off my graduation robe and turn to a male friend, his eyes grow wide.
“You look slutty,” he tells me, disapproving. I cross my arms over my chest for the rest of the night. Later, I will look back at this moment and know it was just a dress and I was just a girl. But, in that moment, I am ashamed that I have this body and that it can be misleading if I am not careful.
I start college months later with a body that I still don’t understand. Eventually, I develop a significant crush, a crush that will follow me for the next few years. Because I am petrified by what I feel and acutely aware that falling for him would mean I could no longer live in my disassociated world, I pretend to care less for him than I really do.
Then, one night, he calls and asks for help with a mutual friend who is in trouble. Trouble is my specialty. As a good girl, I know how to smooth most everything over. This situation proves no different, and when the crisis passes and it is just me and my crush left to talk about it, he moves to me, and I look at him, shyly. My eyes track over his olive-colored skin, chocolate brown eyes, ebony hair, and the mole on his face.
“You did great.” He slips his fingers under my chin, tilting it towards him. I close my eyes for a moment and then reopen them to find him pressing towards me, surprising me with one of our many kisses that I will replay for years. We will argue about this kiss for years, the debate of who kissed who never settled.
We stumble over idle conversation on the path that leads to my dorm and the fraternity houses.
“Come out with me,” He pleads, and, in that moment, our pattern is born. I want nothing more than to be out with him. But it terrifies me, too, the list of possibilities such a decision would create.
“I can’t.” I whisper, placing my hand on his arm, and then slowly backing away. My fingers touch the inside of his forearm for as long as I can before the distance becomes too much.
Over the years, I battle this intense attraction. I am terrified of my feelings for him, overwhelmed by how much there is to lose so I play it as safe as I can. We kiss, and I walk away. He shares intimate details of his life that he has never told anyone. I do not match his candor.
Early on, he senses my withholding, and confronts me.
“Why are you so damned close?” He asks as we walk together one afternoon.
I can’t answer him, my paces speed and take me away from him. If I open myself to him, really let him have my heart, can I ever get it back? Getting to know him would mean that I would have to get to know me. I would have to face myself and my safety mechanisms, and even though it hurts to silently say no to him, it is even more scary to think of facing myself. Even as my heart races as he nears, I lack the courage to depart with everything that has kept me emotionally safe until now.
We never date as much as we watch each other across rooms, take long drives and spill secrets, call each other from foreign countries, kiss at inappropriate times or in inappropriate places, visit each summer across state lines; we never make our relationship official. But over time, with his lead, I realize that what is sexy about me does not come from my body. What is sexy about me is the way I work ceaselessly for my passions, the way I embrace my heritage and experiences, my whole-hearted love, my unfaltering conviction, my self-sufficiency and independence, my surprising edge and developing confidence.
He asks me once, “What if we had ever dated, could we have made it?”
I tell him no, my bursting heart pounding inside me with a desire to scream a different answer, to tell him, “let’s try now.” But, inside, I know that it will take me more time to reassociate with my body and that I can’t really love anyone else until I am no longer scared of what my body means, until I love myself.
Still, it takes me years, another lost love, a health crisis, and a surgery, among other things, to decide to reassociate with my body, to realize that my body does not have to scare me, that no one will ever control my body or my self but me, that the boys by the bus door are long gone from my life and that, even if they weren’t, I now have everything I need to chase them away. I do not have to run from anyone. I do not have to run from my body. But I can run. And I do. I cycle. I race. I push up. I dance, letting my body feel the beat of the music. I paint. I write my truths. I take chances. I let myself fall in ridiculous love, despite its inherent risk. I learn to swim. I Namaste. I travel. I live with all of me.
And I file this little piece of information away: that it will always be easy for me to disassociate from my body, that when things get hard, I will choose my default and my default is to go all mental and cerebral and whole heart with no body awareness in sight. So I create a world that is sensitive to the fact that I have in me the ability to disassociate and I do what I can to ground myself to prevent it from happening and to create a system where I can catch myself when it does. And because it took me so long to figure it out, to mend, to create a world where all of me can live, I do what I can to empower others to create a world where they can be their whole selves so that we can all be ready for the love of our lives which, as it turns out for me, isn’t that beautiful boy with the mole, is not even dear, sweet, tender BF, but is me.
Have you ever disassociated from your body? How did you bring yourself back to it? How do you protect yourself from falling back into that pattern?