Diane Vogel Ferri is a teacher, poet and writer. Her essays have been published in Scene Magazine, Cleveland Christmas Memories, Raven’s Perch, and by Cleveland State University among others. Her poems can be found in numerous journals. Her chapbook, Liquid Rubies, was published by Pudding House. The Volume of Our Incongruity was published by Finishing Line Press. Diane’s essay, “I Will Sing for You” was featured at the Cleveland Humanities Fest in 2018. Her novel, The Desire Path can be found on Amazon. She is a graduate of Kent State University and holds an M.Ed from Cleveland State University.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Assault on the Spirit of a Girl

I have never been sexually assaulted, unless you count the assault on my innocence and self-image as a young woman. This long overdue “Me Too” movement has prompted me to think of how much I was shaped as a female and a human being by the actions and words of men. Men who felt free to comment, stare at, and belittle me without hesitation or the least bit of concern for what they were doing. We have heard a lot about unwanted advances and physical attacks. I have not read anything about the subtle damage that can be done to young girls by consistent objectification by men. It traumatizes the spirit and self-esteem of females. It’s something most of us just learned to live with, even if at times, traumatic.
This is something men cannot possibly understand. There is no equivalent for a boy’s experience. Men often think mere comments are harmless and should be taken as compliments or jokes. But they are not. They are damaging and demeaning to a young woman’s sense of self and understanding of her place in society.
At the innocent age of thirteen I developed breasts much too large for my 5’2” petite body.  I didn’t ask for them and I did not enjoy the attention they received.  Up until then I only knew the love and affection of my father and grandfather. My favorite teacher in sixth grade had been a man. Males were safe until my breasts showed up.
Suddenly men were hanging out of truck windows and shouting at me as I walked home from school. Boys were staring at my chest in the most obvious ways. Adult males commented as I walked through a mall, even turned around and gaped. My mother was shaken by this turn of events and started buying me matronly clothing and swimwear which just furthered my humiliation. I went from being a carefree and happy girl to receiving the message that I must cover-up and become inconspicuous as possible so I didn’t provoke male attention.
Unfortunately, the things I loved to do involved gymnastic outfits and performing on stages. I was a natural gymnast. I spent my childhood cartwheeling and flipping across the front lawn, but by eighth grade I dropped out of gymnastics because of my discomfort with my body and the uniform I was required to wear.  
At that age I discovered I could sing. My parents were thrilled and supportive. My church and the musicians there provided me with plenty of opportunities. I felt self-conscious in front of people no matter where I went, but at least church often included a bulky choir robe. Later, I did pursue musicals on stage but I was always aware of how the men in the audience were viewing me.
Throughout my teens and young adulthood my breasts were a millstone, a burden. Every piece of clothing I tried on in a store was evaluated by how much it de-emphasized my chest. I hated the off-handed comments of men like, “If you drop some food at least you have a shelf to catch it,” or wearing a Disneyland shirt, “Boy, does Mickey have big ears!” I’m sure men thought those comments were harmless, but they diminished me more every time I heard them.
At my first teaching job at age 22 the principal would comment on what I wore everyday. Each afternoon he would stand at the door of my classroom and stare at me—not the students or the lesson—just me.  I wouldn’t have dreamed of saying anything. When I think about how insecure and unworldly I was then I am almost sure I would not have reported a sexual assault either. My breasts were a part of me and I considered them my fault and my responsibility. It would be decades until I found my voice and would be strong enough to be assertive or defend myself against anything that would diminish my personhood. 
At the age of 40 I had breast reduction surgery at the urging of my respectful and loving husband. At the time I was teaching a college class. When I returned after the surgery it was the first time in my life that I felt comfortable standing in front of people. The very first time.

In our society there is terrible assumption of men believing they are entitled to say what they want to a woman, to look her over, sometimes to touch her as they desire. Not all men, of course. But that is the point. It is not an entitlement of manhood. It is not natural or just a “boy thing.” I don’t believe that crudeness in referring to women is part of “locker room talk” because the men I know, the men I have the utmost respect for, also respect women.  Most men are capable of loving a woman for who she is not just for their favorite body part. We need to teach young boys that it is not a presupposition to treat a woman as personal entertainment. Adult men who think it is need to grow up.