I was not invited to the panel discussion. From what I remember it was to focus on the beauty myth, body image and Barbie, a popular plastic doll.
The person who did not invite me had left the women’s circle after a racial slur from a new member to the ‘fucking French!” who had bombed some harbor in New Zealand. The comment was not directed at anyone in particular. The new member was unaware that she was sitting next to the woman in question of French descent. One would think a bomb had gone off in that room, a vibration ripped through the circle and it was never the same after that. The woman immediately took offense, decided to leave the circle, blamed me for the racial slur; that I failed to protect her and that she felt violated.
Before she left, questioned a link I shared in good faith simply reiterating the rules of the circle. Doing this in full view of the circle I too was violated. “Pay Back!” When we talk about violence against women, do we include the quiet violence that exists among women? To somehow render the other woman wrong, in order to assert the ego.
I did not play with Barbie as a child. The dolls I played with, Christmas gifts from Aunties, looked like little girls, or babies, I role-played my own Mother.
An Auntie with practical ideals once gifted a set of five white huge underpants. Maybe I’d grow into them. Much to my disappointment, I wanted a doll. I wore them because a gift became a necessity and we did not have a great deal and at the time they were the only underpants I owned. They were loose, and I was forever hitching them up. I remember jumping on the trampoline at school, and my dress was flying up to reveal these bloomers, a girl watching below, laughed her head off, much to my naïve little brain she thought I was an idiot for wearing such large apparel-I reflected a humiliated red face of embarrassment.
From the age of conception I worked my little arse off- the daughter of Italian immigrants, we worked hard to ‘get ahead’. I just did as I was told, the good daughter, third in line of a suite of six.
I had many chores to tend to, the cow (that’s another story) washing, cleaning, cooking. I complained, of course, only as a child might complain, but I worked along side my brothers and sisters, because if I didn’t, punishment reigned. Sometimes I played with my dolls and escaped into my fantasy world. But I never had a Barbie.
It’s terrible to admit this, for all the beauty myths we believed as little girls- I recall saying to my Mother, “Why aren’t you like other Mothers who wear makeup? You are not beautiful like other Mothers.” How hurtful that must have been to her. She replied that I had no idea what it meant to be beautiful and that she was more beautiful than I would ever understand.
As if wearing makeup is what makes one beautiful. As if the mere surface is an indication of beauty. That a deeper strength, that comes from years of endurance, of bringing up a family, of working consistently to make a life because there was little money and that’s all you knew. And you were committed, however hard, you knew that everyone had a cross to carry and this one was yours. This was what God had given to you and thus you had to make the most of it. That was and is the beauty of my Mother.
Her beauty today is the wisdom she carries in the knowledge, the memories of the past, stories of her homeland made new again. As children we learnt about Italy through her memories, but I have not yet been able to afford a trip to Italy. (I’m saving for it.)
Illustrating the quiet violence I have observed amongst women, in 2001 I recall that I worked for a women’s choir. I did not last long, for no sooner had I arrived, employed for five hours per week with my enthusiastic, youthful demeanor- I was horrified by the reception I received and left very quickly.
My role was to “market” the choir. And so I embarked on a project that involved documenting the stories of each and every individual woman. My community development experience was minimal at the time, but my desire to impress and do well was too much for the choir. I was an imposter, so it seemed. This was not my tribe. I was ‘not welcome’ here, because why was I asking so many questions and why did I need to know all this information?
I used the “L” word to demonstrate respect (never use the L word!). I thought nothing of it until the President called me to explain that the women did not take too kindly to being called “Ladies”. I asked what should I call them? How should I address them? To which the President was not able to enlighten me and so I took my leave, knowing this was not a place for me. The quiet violence that exists among women is subtle.
I joined a women’s choir and found that I became a target, bullied by those who had been members for 20 years. It seemed that one must tread lightly in this territorial labyrinth of belonging. I was physically pushed and prodded as we stood in line to sing. When I stood away to avoid this, I was told that I was not a team player, and the last-straw, that I was singing in the wrong key. The choir leader often asked me to take the lead, because I could sing very well. She involved me, supported me and wanted to bring me to the front.
I soon decided that I wanted to do pleasant things with my time, even though singing in a choir is supposed to be fun, but I kept finding myself in situations where “blame” and “fault” slapped at me like the flicking of a pin ball, that never quite finds its place.
Starting a women’s circle, the ability to make a difference to women’s lives, create a place where women might reflect each other’s aspirations.
The narratives that we play and replay, establish pathways, neurons that may blind us to possibility- instead the narratives unfold on the treadmill, loop by loop, the belief, ingrained in our psyche, sending us loopy. Scenarios that reaffirm our world view and justify to ourselves our own truths. In those truths shun the other and seek to throw blame. Here we remain fixed on an idea.
Stories from the past define us, only played and replayed in the way we respond to adversity, as the challenge we face, we have learnt from a young age how to manage or not.
I am a work in progress.
I bring forth the quiet violence amongst women and I risk the backlash of the offended tongue.
I relinquish ‘victim’.
I choose my own tribe in the practice of peace.