I have a pair of legs that are roughly the same size as each other, and they are wonderful. They carry me over hills, propel me over streams, can do a pretty impressive plié, and can scramble up a gnarly and ridged surface. They aren’t perfect; I have a scar running across the left knee, the length of your average strand of spaghetti, and another one down my calf. My right knee twinges sometimes, succumbing to my onslaught of impact and pain with small mews of protest, but I love my legs. It seems like an innocuous thing to say, but not when you’re a woman.
I’d be hard pressed to find a woman who has not, at least for a significant portion of her life, had a contentious relationship with her body. Every tiny detail, from body hair to eye shape to the stomach and thighs, has cropped up as a battleground between a woman I know and her body. Not even earlobes are spared. For me, my hatred of my body stemmed more from the rigid policing of it than it ever did with its form.
When I was 15, I had a White Maruti Swift drive by my house on a daily basis. The man in the car was significantly older, in his 20’s, and spent hours on end waiting for me to step out of my house to walk my dogs. I was petrified, and would radically change my dog walking timings, often inviting my neighbour to come with me. I would dress in my (6’4”) brother’s clothes, aiming to drown my body in a sea of cotton and nylon. I clipped my hair, buzzed in my own bathroom, from down to the small of my back right to my scalp, and it felt like safety—like I was not only shedding a whole bunch of hair but also millions of eyes. It felt like freedom, but my heart breaks thinking of myself in that bathroom now.
It was not freedom, and it would take me years to come to grips with that reality. When I settled down to watch the Netflix documentary on the Yorkshire ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, late last year, I had been neck deep in feminist theory and literature for a few years. I was actively peering at my life from under a microscopic lens of feminism, privilege, race, nationality, and class, and peeling away at the layers of myself, trying to see what came from where and why. At this point, my penchant for baggy, loose fitting clothing, often hand me downs from my grandfather, had nearly cemented itself into my signature. I was under the impression that my fashion choices were a rejection of dressing for the male gaze, and that I had more important things to worry about than the styling of my hair. This interpretation erupted a few episodes in, and I began to entertain the idea that the real reason was shame.
In the documentary, a woman who was nearly murdered by Sutcliffe, discusses how she refused to change her routine out of fear of a man. She had, against the advice of the people around her and the culture of fear, walked home after a night out at a bar with her friends. As she talked, passionately and adamantly about her decision not to alter her behaviour because of men, a previously slow and rackety cog in my brain fell into place and began to whirl. This was not a new argument, in either feminist discourse or my own personal reflections, but something about hearing it in that moment, in that context, hit home.
A lot of who we are today, as relatively static adults, has been built through our experiences (and traumas) as children and young adults. What felt like an act of rebellion in my little bathroom, holding a trimmer to my head a decade ago, seems less like resistance and more like submission in the light of today. I had wanted to be free so badly, to be able to walk the streets, my streets, without fear that I had chosen to alter myself, even knowing that the problem was not with me.
At least, I knew on a surface level that the problem was not me.
I did not, despite my relatively ‘cool’ and ‘progressive’ mother, grow up in a vacuum. Despite all my privilege, I was a young girl in a horribly sexist and pervasively masculine town, and it was bound to leave its bruises, even if I believed I knew better. Because that’s the thing with abuse, you think you can ignore it, but you internalise it.
After a lot of painful and intensive thought I can only conclude that at some point that Maruti Swift drove into me a feeling of shame. Maybe I was already vulnerable from when my family criticised the length of my shorts (even though I fought back). Maybe it was compounded by a boy in my class arguing, the morning the Nirbhaya attack case went public, that women should not wear skirts (though I fought back). Maybe all of these tiny little knocks built up over the years until the shame could gush in and leave me hiding. And yes, even if I fought back.
I’ve recently been curious about how you can know better but still not know better—how you can cognitively be aware that something is not your fault, but still feel as if it is. It’s the plague of millions, particularly victims of abuse, and I’m sure there is an answer to the internalisation of hate, shame and guilt, but I’ve found that making myself uncomfortable is the only thing that helps.
And so I’m loving my legs. While I no longer consciously cover my legs to hide them from prying eyes, I have internalised a shame over their existence, and deconstructing that may not be something I can accomplish within my lifetime. I feel acutely aware of their naked shape under my chin as I stand in a crowded room, and of their stretching out before me, slamming down on the pavement as I jog by rush hour traffic, and they feel alien. But hopefully not for long. I’m now consciously allowing myself to realise who I am, and what I want, without hiding and without shame. Maybe that means breaking out my grandfather’s ginormous trousers again, or maybe that means embracing short shorts. I’m not sure of much, but I won’t be altering my behaviour out of fear any longer.
The writer is a student, bookseller and mother of two dogs and a cat in Bournemouth.
Also read: Building self-worth is a life-long journey