How the world taught me what to think about my own arse (and other stories).
This article was first published in BELLYFLOP Magazine in April 2015.
It’s 1993, I am five years old. I’m in a school playground, standing in line ready to return to class. It’s winter so I’m wearing woollen tights that keep sliding down around my child-hips and dragging my knickers down with them. I try to pull them up through my clothes but really the easiest way to adjust them is to lift my skirt, get hold of them directly and yank them up to my waist. So, I do so, without thinking much of it – it is quick and efficient and I’m five years old, so who cares? But the girls behind me laugh at me for it and I learn for the first time that my arse, even in tights, is not to be seen in public and that I should be embarrassed.
I also feel sentimental and nostalgic about yearly holiday patterns, probably more than I should as a seven year old, and a half-term daytrip with Grandma in tow makes me feel rosy.
I am on top of the world, sitting in the car and occupying myself with filling in a questionnaire from the museum that is making me feel hugely grown up.
I’ve never had sex.
“Mum, what does it mean by sex?”
“It means whether you are a boy or a girl. Female or male.”
Skin colour: Pe…
“Mum, how do you spell ‘peach’?”
My sister answers for her, “No, Ellie, you are white. It doesn’t mean your actual colour it means whether you are white or black. You are white.”
Skin colour: Pe White
Aged ten, returning from a regular day at school, I declare “Dad, today I realised I have these lumps in my chest and they are like mini knee caps because they move around under the skin when I do this with my fingers.”
“Yes, Ellie, those are your breasts growing.”
My friend Caroline tells me that her sister puts hot wax on her legs to get rid of her hair. We think that is gross and weird.
I’m thirteen and I rush down from my room in a navy leotard and pink tights, my jeans pulled on and my hair pinned into a bun. I sit at the kitchen table to scoff some tuna pasta.
As I’m eating my mum speaks, gently, “Ellie, did you ever think about shaving your arm pits? Do you want to? Catherine can show you if you want to?”
“Um… I don’t know, I didn’t think about it. Is there time before ballet?”
“Yes, do it quickly.”
It’s not an awkward exchange, I am, in fact, chuffed at the idea of my big sister showing me something new, something that marks growing up. I love growing up. She shows me how to make a soap lather and use the razor. I do it looking in the mirror trying to avoid getting my leotard wet. She tells me that normally you can just do it when you’re in the bath, it’s easier that way.
I transition from being hairy and unembarrassed to hairless and aware – I now feel older. I possess one more of the magical secrets that must be acquired in order to belong to the exclusive club of grown-up women (the first secret being that since my twelfth birthday, every month, lots of blood comes out of my vagina and I have to wear big sanitary towels to absorb it).
Aged seventeen, I want to put gender equality into practise so I stop shaving my legs.
In my early twenties I sleep with a guy who adores my arse. Really adores my arse. He makes my arse (and me) feel powerful and I become aware of it as a shapely thing that is different, and even sometimes superior, to other people’s arses. But when we have sex I want him to look into my eyes and adore me while I look back at him. Instead he turns me around and looks and my arse and I feel like a lemon.
Aged 22, I want to put gender equality further into practise so I stop shaving my armpits.
Last Sunday night at a quarter to midnight in South London two guys passing on a scooter shout at me (something about them wanting to ‘steal that’) so I flip my finger at them. It’s a casual assertion, but they immediately do a u-turn and drive back, straight at me. They are shouting, threatening (to smash my face in, break my glasses etc) and calling me a bitch etc etc. My head is full of words and things I could and want to say to them, but I don’t make a sound. I stay still, apart from making a few small I’m-not-going-to-do-anything shrugs. I stay silent, partly out of fear and partly because I don’t think they are in it for the conversation.
They are masked.
They both get off the bike and one comes towards me as though to hit me.
I step back and say (I like to think venomously), “Don’t fucking touch me”. Then I am silent again.
They posture for a while longer (delivering more threats to smash me and general instructions to not fucking move, bitch.)
I have no idea if they are going to hurt me or not. They are pumped and I am fucking scared.
They eventually drive off.
I go home to my sister and cry.
I spend the next 24hrs running through the encounter in my head and imagining what might have happened if I there hadn’t been another guy at the bus stop to witness it (there was a man who, incidentally, did nothing during the event and afterwards, instead of asking if I was ok, suggested that maybe I shouldn’t have flipped my finger… but y’know, at least he was there).
I glimpsed the masked men’s fearlessness and sense of possession of me and the streets. They were power-tripping. I was vulnerable but at the same time so sure of myself. Oh, how easy it would be to be terrified into never asserting myself again. I wonder how many people have always too terrified.
(FYI, I memorised the number plate and reported the incident to the police.)