By Ayana Ardal | 24/12/2009
The experiences of one woman in the public domain
When did I first feel that my body did not totally belong to me? And that other people were deciding who I was? I think that I began to have this feeling when I emerged from my hidden childhood and entered adolescence. I get that feeling again whenever I experience from time to time frightening, evil moments, and I am today a grown-up 32-year-old woman. Because the feeling that your body does not belong to you, that it does not totally belong to you, that your identity is determined not by you, but rather, first and foremost, by others is the most horrible feeling on earth. For that reason it never totally vanishes, and, in moments of disaster, I experience it all over again.
I was 12 years old when I slapped the face of a boy who had been taunting me. While the boys used to clobber each other to amuse themselves or to prove that they were not cowards, the girls would simply scream and run away. I decided that I would act differently: This boy insulted me and I slapped his face to show my annoyance. I remember sensing how an immense silence suddenly enveloped all of us, how surprised everyone was by my action and how everyone soon began to mock me, saying that I was “crazy.” When a girl hits someone else, that means that she is out of control; when a boy does so, he is simply fulfilling his role in life, which is to be a man. The surprise that my reaction generated in the hearts of all those who were around me taught me an important lesson: This is simply not the way girls are supposed to behave. And that was the last time I ever slapped anyone in the face.
When I was 13 years old, I visited my grandmother one day. She lived in an apartment on Jerusalem's Palmach Street. In the passageway between two dark apartment buildings, I heard footsteps behind me. Suddenly, I felt someone's hands covering my eyes. At first, I thought it was my brother who was also going to visit our grandmother and who wanted to surprise me. Then I felt someone biting my forearm and I began to scream. The hands were removed from my eyes and the man vanished. However, just before he did, I did manage to catch a glimpse of his face. He was a religious Jew of about 30 years of age. I ran to my grandmother's home and she telephoned my father, who accompanied me to the police station where I filed a complaint against my assailant and helped the police prepare a composite portrait.
The next day, when I came to school, I wanted to warn my classmates and I wrote in the wall newspaper that was aimed at all the students who were in the same grade as me about what I had experienced. A few days later, I saw that someone had written in the following comment: “One day, Little Red Riding Hood went to visit her grandmother….” When I saw that comment, I was hurt by its sarcastic tone and by the lack of empathy it expressed. Its “author” was trying to hint to me that next time I should keep such stories to myself because, if I disclose that someone has harmed me in any way, someone else will only harm me even more seriously the next time.
I remember one day going with my mother to buy a brassiere for myself. The salesperson was an elderly woman and she entered the booth where I was trying on a bra; I was mortified with shame. The brassiere that my mother and I purchased was stiff and ugly, and I never returned to that shop. Were there not more attractive brassieres for my cup size? Perhaps my mother simply did not know where they could be purchased? Was this bra really so ugly or did I feel that way about it because I myself felt ugly? Many years later, I felt considerable anger towards my mother for not having provided me with a more pleasant experience at this critical moment in my life and for not having known how to make me feel that I was a pretty girl.
Every woman considers the question whether she is beautiful or not to be of crucial importance. When I was a young girl, I felt like an ugly duckling. What caused me to feel that way about myself? Was it my parents' attitude toward me or was it the fact that physical changes in my body were a surprise for me and were leading me to feel a stranger, and a bizarre stranger at that, in my own body?
How is a woman supposed to act? I had to learn the answer to that question very early in life because my breasts were growing on my body like two alien organs. I did not know what to do with them, but men in the street would look at me with eyes full of malice. They would stick out their tongues and would then wet their lips; they would make sucking sounds; they would utter all sorts of coarse words; and they would make all sorts of dirty propositions. As a young girl, I hid my sexuality inside an overweight body and underneath very loose fitting clothes. But all my efforts were in vain: The men in the street could still clearly perceive what I was trying so hard to conceal.
Sometimes, before falling asleep, I would imagine myself as I once was – a young girl with a smooth, flat, childish chest; however, in my nightmares, I had huge, threatening breasts and a pair of cats were sucking sour milk from my nipples. When I would walk down the street, I could feel how all the men were gazing at me, how they were making rude gestures at me, how under their breath they were uttering vulgar phrases that expressed their lust. They undoubtedly felt that they had every right to react in this manner in response to the provocation of my huge breasts. In my yet-immature threatened womanhood, I sensed that, each time I walked down the street, I was engaged in a desperate struggle to secure my right to exist in a body that I had not asked for. My father thought that he had to intervene; arguing that he was actually worried about my health, he suggested that I undergo surgery in order to reduce the size of my breasts. My breasts were so large, he maintained, that they were causing me chronic backache. I felt so alienated and so frightened. My breasts were being perceived as some alien organ that must be removed, that must be cut out of my body, that must be shrunken.
From that moment on, I waged a war on my right to live inside my own body, and, after a while, I learned how to be beautiful and how to enjoy those looks that had frightened me so when I was a young girl. When the men realized that they were dealing with a self-confident woman, not with a frightened young girl, their reactions were less crude and they knew, from the way I walked and from the expression on my face, whether I would respond to them with a smile or with a look of total indifference. They tried their luck but they could see that I was in full control of my reactions just as I was full control of those men. When I was a young girl, every sentence or movement could cause me anxiety. I had no norms of behavior, my actions were unpredictable (even I could not predict them), I would react to events, but my conduct did not reflect an awareness of my identity. I could respond to any man and could answer any statement directed at me. I reacted to circumstances and was out of touch with my self; I did not respect myself enough or perhaps I respected others more than I did myself. The men identified my temporal nature as they watched me walk down the street with my huge breasts.
How is a woman supposed to look? Whenever I set out to shop for clothes, my excursion inevitably ended in bitter disappointment. I gradually learned how to do without new clothes and I stayed away from apparel shops completely. When I was growing up in Jerusalem, an overweight adolescent girl had not even the slightest chance of ever becoming beautiful. Only when I was recruited into the army did I see the beautiful curves of young girls who were my age and who were fatter than I; I could observe their ability to love their bodies, to be sensual, to find appropriate clothes for themselves and to flirt with men. Only then did I learn from them what I should have learned from my mother.
Apparently, my mother's beauty and talents prevented me from being beautiful and talented. My parents were divorced, and my mother remarried. I think that I felt then that I must remain an adolescent girl and must not become a woman in order to avoid posing any threat to the delicate balance that existed in the house. As in the story of Snow White, there was room in that house for only one beautiful woman. The second woman had to be distanced, had to be ostracized, so that she would not threaten the only real beauty in the home. Consciously distancing myself, I entered deeper into my shell; in our home, I did not participate in any of the happy events nor did I share any of the concerns regarding its maintenance. I felt ostracized and evil. At night, I had a recurring dream: The house was being renovated and there was no place for me. I would dream that an orphanage was being opened in our home and that the orphanage had many beds; however, in my dream, I would ask: “But where is my bed?”
I felt cramped in my own home, and the looks and continual rebuking of my mother's husband kept me constantly on my guard, while he feared my sharp-tongued remarks as if I were a venomous snake. On some occasions, I spoke my mind, while, on others, I was stone-silent. When I was angry, I expressed my anger. However, my mother made it clear to me, in some manner that even today I do not really understand, that I should not try to be too smart, that I should not talk about what I could see right before my eyes, and that I should not tell the truth. My truth could deal a grave blow to the delicate relationship that had developed between my mother and her husband, to the status quo of his living with us and to the money he gave her for our maintenance.
It was only my writing that truly liberated me. In my writing, I could express things the way I saw them, I could give substance to my memories and my feelings, which I could make more sustainable than those memories and feelings which had always pushed me to the margins because I did not know the facts. Once I was weak; today, I have become strong thanks to my writing. I began to publish poems, I met other poets and I sensed that I had found people who spoke my language. I knew that, with my writing, I could overcome whatever happened to me; I also knew that, in my writing, I could even utilize bad feelings, the aggressiveness of others and my fear of those people. I wrote poems that described my encounters with men, and I could also use my poems to express the grotesque sights I had witnessed; I could even imagine what had never taken place and I could make what had happened disappear. I became aware of the power of words. But how is a woman supposed to act? From now on, it seemed to me, I was completely free to act as I pleased.
Ayana Ardal is a teacher and a poet