While I am not religious now, I was raised Roman Catholic. (I emphasize the “Roman” part as we were lock step in line with the Pope’s mandates, and since moving to California, I have found that there are many varied versions of Catholicism that aren’t as strict as the catechism I was taught).
Growing up, our neighbors were the McManuses, with Mr. John F. McManus becoming the eventual President of the John Birch Society when its Founder, Robert Welch, eventually promoted him into the role as his successor in 1991. (The John Birch Society is a group focused on hatred of “others” and Communism, straight from the arms of former Senator Joe McCarthy. I won’t go into them here, but you can google them to see just how far their doctrines have strayed from the teachings of Jesus to be generous with others, and to help and provide aid and succor when an opportunity presents itself).
At any rate, I tell you all that to tell you this: I was raised to wear the Lady of Fatima chapel cap when in a church setting. Yes, it was the dark ages. Yes, my hair was long and worn down very much like the young lady in the photo, above. I had no idea of the stereotype or fetishism I was being groomed to appeal to; I was a child, so I had a child’s perception of the wider world.
Everything about my image and clothing were my family’s business, because I was taught I not only had an obligation to present myself in the world in a “respectable” and “feminine” manner, I also had to give the image of a chaste yet sexually appealing young woman, who was able to bring pride to her family simply by the blessing of my appearance alone.
(Not my chest scar, but similar in appearance after 50 years of healing)
Due to the scars on my body from the repairs made to try and repair my birth defects, I knew from a young age that my body would never measure up. I knew this from every glance at my body in a swimsuit, and from every intrusive question asking for my story, or every childish finger point and shouted condemnation demanding that others look at my scarred and refurbished body when in a swimsuit. Needless to say, from a young age onward my goal was to keep any scarred parts covered. Everything was complicated by our tight budget due to my repairs, and the fact that I was related to a number of lithe teenage girls, whose hand-me-downs regularly circulated among our relatives’ houses. Every swimsuit season was a nightmare as I wanted a 1-piece or a more “modest” suit. I would be gifted bikini’s, and there would be fights because I didn’t know how to be “grateful” for the nightmare I’d been handed in the form of a simple piece of clothing.
Add into this “age-appropriate” rite of passage the fact that I had been bullied, physically abused, and taunted by my peers as part of my status as a big-mouthed, female, social misfit who found it incredibly easy to draw the ire of others. Both adults and children. From a young age, people either loved or hated me, and my refusal to follow the social norms for a female of my age, race and parental income brackets led to societal pressure to comply with individual expectations or be punished. Punished by social exclusion (yes!) or physical abuse because I was seen as weak, female, and easy prey (no!).
This battle of what was appropriate for me to say, to wear, and when, plus endure orchestrated social events that related to opportunities where I might be shown off and displayed to best advantage in order to snag an appropriate life partner were exhausting battles. I didn’t have the language to defend my reluctance to be vulnerable. My life was already hard enough, just trying to endure and get through every day without being chased or hit by my peers if I failed to get away.
There was no discussion about PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – and whether my circumstances were so very different from those of my parents, friends and peers that their social pressure was actually another form of abuse. There were lots of attempts to “fix” me, to get me to want what others of my age and gender were supposed to want. There was no room for discussion of how I viewed my life or my future. There was no discussion about how I failed to measure up to the desired cultural norms. I just knew that I was an expensive person in my parent’s lives due to my many repairs, and everyone was anxious to have my future settled.
Similar to both Jo and Beth of Little Women fame, in that I had a big mouth but preferred to stay at home, especially if social events with strangers were involved, I somehow got the impression that I wasn’t expected to live to adulthood, but if I did then everyone would be happier if I pursued Meg’s path than in pursuing Jo’s choices for autonomy before anything else.
As a society, I don’t believe we realize just how much we have always judged and shaped our young people into images we can approve of, admire, and also often bask in their reflected glory as we manipulate or steer them into situations where we can observe them going through societal rituals related to the mating dance and their futures as sexual beings. Nor do we consider the very different ways we encourage and discourage young boys and girls to comply with our particular income bracket’s social and cultural norms, or how to be good adults who care for the feelings and needs of others… never mind the specific other to whom you are supposed to hitch your financual and social wagon.
So, I tell you all that to tell you this – as a society, we have such complex ideas of right and wrong, good and evil, plus lack of understanding of our own sexual mores and motivations, that it’s a wonder our two genders manage to get along at all. Our desire to control our young women and men, shepherding them along paths we feel will suit them best, is especially maddening.
Maybe I’m just a slow study, but I knew from about 5 or 6 years old that I didn’t want kids. I didn’t want to be yolked to another in marriage. I couldn’t articulate my mother’s suffering with each miscarriage, or her very deep depression when my baby brother was born and died from SIDS – sudden infant death syndrome – before he even made it home from the hospital, but I knew such a fertility struggle wasn’t for me. My birth defects made my practical choices obvious to me. While I grew up saying I never wanted to be married, I couldn’t say it was due to never wanting to be seen as vulnerable. Never wanting to be pressured to have a child that might have my same birth defects. If you speak, especially as a woman refusing to occupy her customary role in society, people try to talk you out of your beliefs or fears. It’s often easier just to remain silent while continuing to go along with most expectations until you can escape.
While I can come here and blog with the inner voice that is otherwise silent in the real world, the fact remains that I don’t fit anyone’s idea of what a person, a woman, “should” be. I am someone threatened by style, because I know how often the image we project is not the truth of the person. 54 years after I began this social journey and encountered violence from the bigger world, I still can’t easily go along to get along, and I can’t forget how physically vulnerable I am, even as I pass for a happily invincible older woman.
I started this blog back in August 2020, when I was dealing with the houseguests’ issues about how she chose to live her life, and how cheated she feels with her level of life choices at age 65. I couldn’t post it when she lived with me, and I’m still trying to wrap my brain around her level of entitlement. But, I purged today’s bucket of mind clutter, so that’s a start for reclaiming my motivation to participate in life.