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    Breaking the Mold
    by Caroline Williford

    At first I hesitated in sending this piece into HA! It brings out those moments in my life that I would much rather forget than remember. Why should I want to expose such ugly parts of my life to the world? Make myself so vulnerable? Because there is something powerful and necessary about putting a name to something, to surviving, to tell the story that a million other people relate to but are afraid to say. I write this story because I lived beyond it. No matter how much it has hurt or changed me, I have lived beyond it. I want to let it go.

    In kindergarten, Wendy said that Chris had a secret to tell me. She said to put my head very close to his so that he wouldn't have to say it too loud. It was after-lunch-nap time and we could get in trouble if we were loud. "What?" I asked Wendy in a loud whisper. She shook her head and refused to tell me the secret herself. She began giggling and hid her face in her nap mat. "What?" I asked again. Wendy was no help. In my frustrated six-year-old way, I finally leaned my head in close to Chris' and huffed, "What?" He kissed me dead on the cheek. Before my face had fully flushed to its brightest red, my right hand instinctively launched itself towards Chris and slapped him cleanly across his cheek. The teacher found us, both reddened, and separated us at naptime for the rest of the year. Wendy steered clear of me for a while.

    I didn't have to deal with girl+boy-ness for four entire grades (even on Valentine's Day because I was always determined to make the same friendly Snoopy card for everyone in class), until fifth grade when Chad, the boy who said he loved me, gave me a necklace that spelled out my name in white plastic beads. He called and invited me to go roller-skating (my mother answered "yes"), and gave me chocolates in a heart-shaped box with a bunny on it that read: "I (heart) you." I was disgusted. I skated away from him at record speed when he asked me to couple skate and I blushed all the way home in his mother's sports car with the candy in my hands, and made plans to destroy the necklace. The only boy who appealed to me at all in fifth grade was Russel Wilkes, because he was dirty and carried a briefcase.

    In elementary school, sexuality was something terrible that happened to you, something that you had no control over. It descended upon you in the form of individual embarrassing events that your mother later turned into amusing anecdotes to share with all of her friends (considering they were of the hetero sort). Otherwise, they were completely secret and willingly chosen, but wrong. You had no language with which to explain what could happen between two girls.

    As you get older, sexuality turns from individual incidents to drawn-out crushes that you probably don't even know how to actualize. You have them because everyone else does, even on teachers. Like Ms. Winterhalter. The tall big-boned European woman. She made math a necessary challenge. I spent my entire sixth grade year in awe of her perfectly silken black hair and the way it would swish at her back as she wrote long equations on the board.

    And when you do actualize a crush-that first kiss-and the administrator of that awkward slobber session tells you, "Wow, that was better than watching M.A.S.H.," you begin to wonder if sexuality is something you even want to pursue in life. Deep down you resign to ignore it, at least as everyone else defines it. But it's not like you can stop it from blasting into your life simply because you exist and you're female. After all, it's all in the way you look. This is what the world tried to tell me. Everything you wear, the way you move your body, is a sexual message. You had to be aware of it, and you had to be careful.

    I was always hesitating, always re-evaluating the state of my sexuality far back within the subconscious part of mind. Nothing I could explain, really. I'd feel numb sometimes. I'd feel rather disconnected from my body-two breasts, a vagina-until I remembered them. No one ever said how important they were, how to respect them, how to love them. They just belittled them, hushed them, defined me by them, negated them, or hurt them. From the beginning, I refused to let them be taken; I always knew they were mine but could not figure, why must they be under attack? What is lacking in other people's lives that they must pay so much attention to my body?

    It began with my mother. All my life she (forcibly) encouraged me to be "ladylike"; not to go out at night, to wear pastels, always to wear a slip beneath my skirts. One day my mother caught me posing in her antique silken chemise while my giggling 10-year-old friend took pictures. My rebuttal, that I was finally wearing a slip like she told me, got me nothing more than an hour long lecture on how and when to wear the slip. Despite how many hours it took you to pick out a beautiful (sexy) one, it was-under no circumstances-to actually be seen by anyone else.

    I was encouraged to be ladylike, but was given nothing with which to "make" myself a lady. I had to wear homely House-on-the-Prairie-esque hand-me-down dresses from my cousins who lived on some island near Hawaii and made all of their own clothes. Or else, I wore my mom's polyester skirts, which were many sizes too big. Eventually, I gave up on the skirt altogether and began the ritual of thieving from my father's and brother's closets.

    On my own, I learned that I was supposed to look like the girl in the magazine; so to myself, I never seemed to look good enough. But to my mother, my body was a hormonal time bomb that she needed to disguise or to stop. Every morning before I went to school, I had to pass my mother's "clothes inspection." She would check me head to toe; my face had to be "make-up free," my skirt below the knee, my bra straps not showing, and my belly covered. Then she would flip on my bedroom light or make me stand up against the window so that the light would shine through my clothes. This was to make sure the slip was "working" appropriately and, in essence, that whatever womanhood might be attempting to bud itself at that time was perfectly concealed. I was a well-layered homely stick figure to the rest of the world.

    My best friend made sure to point this out to me. We were playing Ping-Pong. Blam! Kathy slams the ball into the right corner and it ricochets off the wall and goes bouncing onto the floor. "Ha!" she squeals. She's jumping up and down, waving her paddle. "Look at my breasts," she says, "they're bouncing, too. Too bad you're flat. Don't even have a bra yet. You're flat. Flat girl! Flat girl!" I've never thought about them before, if they could bounce or not. I stop and look down. They poke barely out of my t-shirt. I jump up once, watching them. They don't move. I jump again. Maybe I just missed it the first time. Nothing. I jump again, and again, and again. I am angry, I am so angry. Kathy is still bouncing, I see her in the periphery. I take the Ping-Pong ball and slam it at her with my paddle.

    To my mother, I was her decent reputation. If I did not pass the "clothes inspection," I was told I looked like a slut, a tramp, just what was I trying to prove? When my self-esteem was sufficiently pounded down by her words, I would change clothes for her. But at school, I would go to the bathroom and slip back on the jeans that she claimed, "went up my crotch in a suggestive way." I would reach into the depths of my plastic purple pocketbook to fetch the lipstick I had snuck out of her cabinet. I would always make sure, of course, that I was alone in the bathroom. I was sure that other girls were allowed to wear make-up and tight jeans. Those days were awkward. Magazines told me to look sexy and glamorous. But my mother told me to look "proper" and "decent." Yet there was nothing inside of me to back up either of the two ways my body could appear to the rest of the world; neither virgin nor whore.

    Frustrated by middle school, I decided that it was probably best not to be noticed. I would wear a large, trailing trench coat to school and leave it on all day. In social studies class, my brain would beat itself into confusion. I wore the coat so that no one would notice the body beneath. But my teacher kept eyeing me, the kids would stare at me. I'd be the only one wearing a coat when winter was over. Perhaps I should take it off, I thought, but not during class. That would make noise and draw more attention my way. They would be sure to notice my body, then. I would embarrass myself over the trial of deciding how not to embarrass myself. I would burn deep red in my cheeks and count the minutes until class was over.

    As I got older, in a place where how you look is everything, I realized I couldn't hide behind trench coats forever, nor would my newly curved body let me. More than anything I was tired of being the doll that my mother would dress (and undress) according to her Victorian restrictions. So I let the world reach out with its million hands; primping that hair, straightening that skirt, pulling on those long, sexy black pantyhose. I fell asleep inside my body and made shallow attempts at reflecting the glamour of Young Miss' glossy pages. Somewhere inside my mind I was uncomfortable inside those showy dresses and the way it made some people look at me hungrily. I found myself having to stand my ground with unwanted advances from men, those advances based on nothing more than the way I looked. Therefore I took on the only air plausible to save myself from-what seemed to me-grubby hands and over-eager phalluses: I took on that virgin air and claimed purity as my beacon and savior from the recognition of my own sexuality. I could lead people to believe it by firmly stating, "I don't want to." People said I was a tease. Girls resented me and hated that I looked a certain way, but "didn't have to live up to it." I was sick of people defining my sexuality for me and the only way to control it was to ignore it altogether. Despite my tangled reputation, my looks continued to get me places, and I let them-without resentment-because it wasn't something I was supposed to resent. I was pushed here and there in bridesmaid dresses, to proms, dances, and then, into the Homecoming parade - - onto that car trunk where I sat frozen, in black, as we drove slowly through the town.

    I was alone. All the other girls in the homecoming parade were coupled together, two to a car. They organized us by last names, and that put me at the end, and number thirteen at that. On the football field that evening, my father walked me, by the arm, to the middle of the field, all thirteen of us standing there in the freezing air, our mandatory hose providing nothing against the wind, and I wishing for my sweatpants. Then, they called my name. HOMECOMING QUEEN. What? I tried to hide some strange embarrassment that I didn't fully understand and smile (in part for my father who stood beaming beside me) and I took the flowers and hugged last year's winner. I felt sickeningly conscious of all those eyes looking down at me from the stands and putting the words "homecoming queen" and my name together. I felt uneasy and I didn't know why. They put me on the trunk of the oldest shiniest white convertible in town and drove me around the football field. Later a friend asked, why didn't you wave at everyone? Or at least smile? I swear you almost looked like you were afraid of something . . . didn't that make you happy? I guess so. That was all I could say.

    For a while the whole town seemed to know me as homecoming queen; giving me a dollar off here, a free drink with my meal, offering me jobs, would I please be the hostess at their restaurant? I felt uneasy and I wasn't sure why. And then, I knew. I went to college. I survived the first semester believing it was just some continuation of my life before but my parents weren't around. And then, I knew. I go to a friend's house for hot chocolate at midnight.

    Instead, I get raped.

    This man I call my friend grabs my arms with tight bruising hands. He bears his full weight on me, forces himself into my mouth, calls me slut, bitch, cunt, forces himself inside me, my throat closes off from the rest of me, I hear myself choking, pants torn, waist down I am numb, forces himself between legs no longer mine, this body is not mine, this body is not mine, comes all over me, poison, leaves me shaking, crying, speechless, gasping for air, grasping for life . . .

    My body retracts into the tiniest ball, pulling so tight into myself that I might disappear.

    The room is dark, save the light on in the next room. I see him walk back into the doorway; his shape a horrid, shadowy pain. He says, "I'm sorry." I run from there on legs I don't remember. The cold night air hits my lungs, quiets my voice for good.

    Someone had cut through the earth I knew with a jagged rusted blade, leaving the knife in my gut, leaving me to bleed. I woke up. All those years of complying with how everyone said I should look; my mom making me the virgin, magazines making me free, sexual, available. Well, nothing worked. It took the physical oppression of one bastard of a man upon my own body to force me to see the oppression that had been bearing down on me for years. My woman-ness took on a significance. I became categorized. Not just a person but one of a specific kind that society chose to single out and mold to fit inside its culture. I was a woman; another "victim" of rape. I realized I wanted to break that mold, claim my own woman-ness. Not to be a victim, but a survivor. I wanted to put the words woman and power together; to abolish the links between virgin and woman, or woman and whore. Those were the messages I grew up with; you can be good or evil, simple as that. Well, maybe I wanted to be neither. I wanted to name myself.

    The sorority girl down the hallway in the dorm told me about Women's Studies 50: Introduction to Women's Studies. She said it was an easy A. You got to talk about sex and stuff. It was not an easy A. It was world shattering. There was talk about sex, sexuality, but there was also talk of the word rape, and the word healing. The words woman and power were put together in a way I had never imagined. It was as if there was a fine army of radical fems inside my head all along. It was them at the homecoming parade when they called my name and I was uneasy, they were pulling at my brain saying, "This objectifies you, this makes you mad, you want recognition for your creativity and your brains, not the thing that everyone wants to grasp onto and manipulate in some way: your body." I started paying attention to my inside rather than my outside like everyone I grew up with had wanted. They let me know that I let them down: "Your hair was so pretty when it was long . . . You are such a pretty girl, why don't you wear clothes that compliment you? Don't you wear skirts anymore?"

    I would laugh. I felt suddenly whole. My inside and my outside finally agreed with each other. That anxiety that I felt on the football field was my inside retreating from the outside that I had rather nothing to do with. It was the creation of family, peers, and magazines. My inside grew into my outside and I practiced in full my intuitions that had existed all along: to look like whatever the hell I wanted to look like, and to nurture-inside out.