Was it abuse…?

**Trigger Warning**

7ca9eef108abb83766a54b21d314ba03I see a young woman when I close my eyes. She stands on ashes and rubble, her head hangs. She breathes long, deep, exhausted breaths. Her body is covered in gaping wounds. The blood glistens in the light of dwindling flames. And yet she stands tall, breathing, breathing. She fought. She won.

What is abuse? To this day, despite all the conversations I’ve had, the therapy, the articles I’ve read, I don’t know. Intellectually I could tell you that abuse involves regularly punishing, manipulating and violating a person physically, emotionally or psychologically in order to control them. But I struggle inwardly to own this narrative. When I use these words I feel like my story has been co-opted. It has been squeezed into snug little lexical pigeon holes; “abusive relationship” you say? The listener paints their own vague picture of what this means with whatever knowledge they have. And I feel unheard, glossed over, silenced. These are just words. They do not tell you what I feel. They hang a veil over a deeply visceral experience, an oppression felt deep to my core, deep in my cells. A slow suffocation. A drawn-out death that I chose. Yes, I chose. Everyday I chose to stand by a man I loved in full awareness that it wasn’t right. I chose to stay because I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t leave because I felt empty. He completed me as much as I, him. I do not feel like a victim, I was a partner in a toxic dance that broke me.

These words are hard to write. It is difficult to put words to an experience that, at times, feels unspeakable. Such terms do not do justice, either, to the man I knew. I held dear the brilliance, the power and potential that I felt in his heart. Our connection was deep and real and I made it my sole purpose to find a solution to the pain of our relationship. The hours I spent reading books… Watching videos… Attending seminars… Thinking up conversations, or the perfect combination of words set in just the right order that might, just might wake him up… There was nothing I didn’t try. And when nothing worked, I was not defeated. My final option was to change myself – I knew he would either grow with me, or we’d fall apart. I prayed, and prayed, and prayed it would be the former… I prayed on my knees, I prayed while I wept. And of course as perfect providence would have it, it was the latter.

I do not believe this man knows the significance of what happened. My heart cries with the knowledge that he probably never will. I wish I could show him the gift he’s given me, the depth I’ve experienced, and the woman I’ve become. Could he ever know? I think this will remain a sadness with me forever. In the quietness of my heart I hope to show him one day; I hope he will have the eyes with which to see me. And yet, none of this truly matters. He lives now in a sacred place for me, where he will stay.

When I met this man I felt beautiful, free, and open. Though I had not been looking for a relationship, I fell in love hard and fast. The beginning was intense, an overwhelming and utterly consuming experience. This should have been my first red flag, and when I look back I see there were many. But they all passed me by.

I remember the first time it happened; I had forgotten to take his clean clothes out of the washing machine. He stormed into the room and, to my disbelief, exploded into a violent rage. I sat, silenced, shocked and bewildered while he steam rolled into me with disproportionate hate and anger. We’d been together for a couple of months by then, and shared what was for me a life changing intimacy. A tenderness, a joy, and a deep care; emotionally, I felt I’d found my home. Yet I was suddenly at the receiving end of a punishing and brutal diatribe. Over clothes? I couldn’t believe it. Is this for real? I attempted to rationalise with him, which only added fuel to the fire. When he left I curled up on the bed and attempted to absorb what seemed like a totally bizarre experience. He came to lay beside me not long afterward, and held me tight. He told me it was nothing. “How could you do that?” I asked. Ti amo bella, he said, everything’s okay.

But it wasn’t. I had begun to feel ill at ease. A week or so later I made the mistake of putting a metallic object in the microwave. I joked about how silly that was, thinking surely this won’t be an issue. But it was – he exploded again, and stormed around the flat. I was irresponsible, clumsy, anais copy 3disrespectful. Anaïs! I remember how he bellowed my name when I spoke up in defense of how ridiculous he was being. His voice boomed across the flat with controlling authority when I challenged his behaviour; You’re always trying to discuss things! You’re too smart, manipulative! Incapable of admitting you’re wrong! His flatmates heard it all. I would’ve laughed out loud if I hadn’t felt completely humiliated, and spoken to like a child. I remember thinking, I cannot be treated this way, this is ridiculous. This can’t be real.

For my twentieth birthday, he took me to Venice. My heart breaks when I think about how this trip could have been. With the right person it could have been full of fun, joy, and discovery, but to me it felt like purgatory. I had suggested that we get to bed early the night before our day out, which was enough to set him off. You are selfish, egoistic! You think about nobody but yourself! Who do you think you are! If this wasn’t serious, it would be laughable. This was now after months of regular exposure to such abuse, and I had lost the ability to see things clearly. There is a sad transformation of the heart, a deep heaviness that takes up residence when you get used to being verbally battered, trapped and unheard. It clouds everything, and one forgets what a ‘normal’ relationship is or even feels like. At this point, most of my energy was spent trying to avoid the outbursts, obsessing about how to change the situation, and doing everything in my power to downplay what was happening to those around me. I felt humiliated, ashamed of what I had allowed to happen. I couldn’t afford to let people find out.

In Venice I was subdued, nervous and clumsy. He spent the beginning of our trip in a threatening mood, making it clear that if I set one foot astray there would be trouble. When I dropped the top of our bottle of water into the canal he scolded me angrily, protesting vocally about how clumsy I was. 100925 Venice Narrow Canal-1-EditI had become an expert at silencing myself in public, so I said nothing. The rest of the morning continued in the same vein. There are photos of that day in my wardrobe somewhere… Photos that, to anyone else, would seem like we were a happy couple on holiday. But I know differently. I see a young woman in a straight jacket, unable to lift a finger for fear of retribution. In truth, they disgust me. I don’t recognise myself. From her smile to her posture, this woman hides the ball and chain around her neck. I remember the delight when people heard where we’d been, and the intense pressure in my chest when I couldn’t tell them the truth.

I have lost count, and memory, of all the times this happened. A regular pattern of gratuitous & random outbursts of rage and punishment was in full swing by then, and after a few months of this I started losing weight. It was, unconsciously, the only way I knew how to cope. At the time I didn’t 51da8c8a13f3eeven consider that leaving was an option, though I couldn’t admit it to myself. Not eating was the only way I knew how to take up less space. Food became repulsive to me, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why. “You have to eat beba, I want you to be happy, healthy” he would say. It’s only recently that I discovered, in therapy, a buried belief at the core of my anxiety. If I disappear, he won’t see me. He won’t feel threatened. He won’t punish me. When it got bad people began to notice, but I never knew what to say. When my parents freaked out I shut them down. It never got so bad that I had to seek medical support, so I figured I could manage it fine, thank you very much. I got used to force feeding myself just enough to be okay, and until 7 months ago I had actually forgotten what hunger felt like. I have only recently really begun to enjoy food again.

Two of my friends staged an intervention that winter. I sat down with them at a cafe and they admitted they’d been talking and were concerned. “You’re not the same friend we knew a year ago” I remember them saying. I had made the mistake of bringing him along to a social occasion earlier that month (something I quickly learned not to do) and they had noticed something was wrong. I believe they tried to be as diplomatic about it as possible; they knew I’d react badly to being cornered and having my relationship challenged. I am only sorry I couldn’t hear them. Unconsciously, the only message I heard then was that I had failed. Failed to make him stop, failed to manage my relationship, failed to hide the pain.

Though the abuse took up a lot of space, it wasn’t all there was to our relationship. When Mr Hyde wasn’t rearing his head, my partner was loving, tender, sweet and kind. I couldn’t accept that he had issues that would not be overcome. But the penny dropped during the last few months of our relationship. We had been living apart for some time by then, and I believe I was gaining some perspective. My food problem had stopped becoming manageable, and I was no longer able to force feed myself. I was tearful with relief when I decided one day to stop torturing myself with food. It was a relief to stop eating, to finally give in to what I felt. I started wishing that I could disappear, just switch off and end the pain. I remember looking him in the eye and saying “you have to understand what you are doing. I cannot continue like this.” I explained to him why as best I could; he looked at me then with such sadness and confusion. He was never able to admit to his rageful episodes. Until the end, he acted as if they never happened or rationalised them away. Over time his denial of the abuse led me to believe that it was probably nothing. I could not deal with how totally he denied and rejected the effects his behaviour had on me. There was no place for my story. There was no place to be heard. To this day I often struggle with shame when using the word ‘abuse’ to describe what happened. He never hit or beat me; how dare I complain when some women experience a physical violence that is really worthy of the term. I know I will struggle when publishing this blog to stand by what I’ve written. I will want to delete it. I still harbour a deep and persistent desire to deny the experience.

A month before our relationship ended, I told him I wanted to be polyamorous. Polyamory would not have been possible for him without a complete overhaul of the relationship he had with himself. In essence, it was my last attempt to shock him into personal growth. But most significantly, it was my attempt at clawing back my freedom. I still could not bear leaving of my own volition, yet had to escape out of what felt like a death sentence to me. I never once perceived him as abusive, never really believed that he meant it. I saw that the man I loved was hurting. He was hurting so badly that he took it out on me, and I had to do anything in my power to help him. I believed I must 1281946-Lsomehow be guilty, somehow I was bad. I deeply needed to win him over, and felt I had failed when I couldn’t take it anymore. In order to even come close to the realisation that I wasn’t somehow failing, I had to begin loving myself enough to care about what the relationship was doing to me. I was hurting myself badly. I had begun fantasising about cutting my skin open to relieve the tension, and wishing to give my struggle up for a peace I thought I could only find in death. I started therapy before I could entertain any of this much longer, and I think this was my saving grace. Letting go is the hardest thing I’ve had to do, but it has given me the most sacred experience of all.

Self-love isn’t just a commodity to be bought in self-help books. Self-love is a lasting experience of the most precious relationship there is; the relationship to oneself. Falling in love loses all meaning when one finds that the essence of the self is love. Suddenly, there remains nothing but the joy of intimacy, with yourself, with others, with the sacredness of life. There remains much for me to heal, but I bow in gratitude to what I’ve experienced. Without it, I would not have discovered the depths of my heart, its incredible resilience and power. I no longer have to repeat these patterns, as I bring them tenderly to the light of my awareness. There is no longer anything in my way now of pursuing the life I am here to live. I cry as I realise I am free. I am free. I am free.


Shame & Women’s Body Hair

IMG_1357editedI was 13 years old, standing in the playground stark naked from the waist down. I don’t think the girl who pulled my trousers down expected my panties to come with them, but they did. I stood there, my pubescent hair suddenly exposed. “What can people see as I bend down?” I thought as I pulled my trousers up. A hot wash of shame spread through my body. No one followed me as I turned around and walked blankly to the girls toilets. I was shocked, mortified and wished the ground would swallow me up.

I repressed the experience. In order to face spending the rest of my day around people who’d seen me stark naked, I donned a mask of stoic indifference. They had borne witness to the exposure of a deeply private, uncomfortable and unowned aspect of my changing body, brought into plain view of eyes and minds that, along with my own, conspired to keep it shameful and concealed. My transition into womanhood was heavy with the discomfort and shame of what my body grew and where it grew it. Without my consent, these eyes had seen a part of me I was keeping safe and hidden for a time IMG_1784EDITwhen I could accept it. That time never came.

As I grew older it was an undiscussed rule that all girls and women should remove the hair from their bodies. From my legs and my bikini line, to my armpits and my upper lip – and these are just the obvious places – the hair was regularly waxed, shaved, bleached, plucked or somehow concealed.
The whole process was kept under wraps like a dirty secret, only shared with my beautician and best friends; a bizarrely rigorous operation carried out to make sure that no one noticed we grew any hair at all. Today my girlfriends and I delight in disclosing to each other how hairy we are, or how long we’ve gone without waxing our legs or shaving our armpits, as if our temporary break from hair removal is a cheeky and rebellious ‘up yours’ to society (that we keep safely under wraps, of course). I did find some sanctuary from the relentless cycle of hair removal during my most serious relationship to date. After time spent apart I kept myself preened and ‘fresh’ when reuniting with my beloved, yet was more lax with the regrowth after some time spent together. Though this was only ever a minor deviation from standards imposed. Generally speaking, not having smooth child-like skin in the presence of a man (or woman) one is, or could potentially be sexually involved with, is done at one’s own risk – a woman can only really relax when she is hair-free.
IMG_1756 Edit 2For this blog post I have photographed myself and a group of close friends ‘wearing’ our hair without shame. An obvious reason for this is to rip the lid off the taboo that is female body hair by showcasing the confidence, self-acceptance, sexiness and even sensuality with which one can wear it. I have not had the resources to include other ethnic groups, age groups, or transgender women (if it hasn’t already been done, I would strongly encourage such a project). Yet, for me personally, I could not have photographed a more inspiring group of women. They have each touched me deeply through the lives they lead, the choices they make and the attitudes they have chosen. I am honoured they now grace the pages of my blog and join me in exposing their hair.

Another reason for this post is to encourage deeper discussion. More than just making a statement, I wish to seriously question the norms we take for granted as women, but also as a society. I am hardly the first woman to take issue with these norms, and the rich history of feminism(s) bares witness to such questioning around issues – many that are far more urgent and more violently oppressive than these. I stand on the shoulders of giants, but stand on their shoulders I will; until we truly begin to heal our individual and collective shame, such conversations will remain necessary. Many different avenues can be used in order to open minds and start chipping away at the unconscious seeds of oppression that germinated long ago and have a stranglehold on our hearts and minds. We can start anywhere – today, I have chosen to start with body hair.IMG_1495

There is no real understanding of oppression of any kind without unpacking the factors that keep it in place. To women who feel that removing their body hair is an empowering choice made out of their own free will, I ask you – how many of us have consciously chosen to opt into a paradigm that treats aspects of our bodies as shameful or repulsive? I respect the choices of women who wish to remain within the confines of normative behaviour. I often choose to do so myself – to transgress these confines often means looking our shame in the face, requiring the practice of both courage and vulnerability. Yet let us know that we were socialised into hair-removal through shame, and that shame is a tool used to control behaviour. In other words, we are buying into oppressive practices. None of us were naturally born disapproving of the hair on our bodies. Our early friendship groups, our early experiences of the male ‘gaze’, our film culture, the corporations that own hair-removal beauty products and spend billions on advertising – these factors amongst others have imposed upon us a standard that we cannot meet naturally. Not only can we not meet it naturally, but we must pay for the privilege of meeting a standard that shames us.

IMG_1657editedAt first, much of corporate advertising is intended to create the market it hopes to exploit. Simply put, corporations are in the business of duping us into believing we need what they want to sell us – by pulling on the strings of shame, belonging and self-worth, they manufacture our needs. In 1915, while female fashion was evolving to reveal more skin, Gillette saw an opportunity to cash in on what was a ‘gap in the market’ and put out its first womens razor. The beauty industry and other corporate
competition honed in on the profit-making, and the rest is history. Since then the likes of magazines, beauticians and girlfriend cultures have been the gatekeepers of our body-shame, reigning us in lest we ‘let ourselves go’ to the wilderness of our own hair. Natural creatures we shall not be – not if capitalism has its way. My dear friend and model Ruth E expresses the sentiment behind this paragraph perfectly: “Don’t try to tell me my [facial] hair is ugly. Don’t try to get extra money out of me by making me feel disgusting and inferior and imperfect. Don’t hold me to a standard I do not consent to being held to.”

We pay a far higher price for conforming to these standards than what it costs us to ‘look good’. While growing up, belonging was a matter of survival and so we perceived no choice in the matter: conform or be ostracised. For many women this belief remains. Not only do women conform to what they think men want and expect, they conform to the expectations of other women too. A woman unconscious of the shame that keeps her oppressed will be strongly affected by the unspoken competition amongst women for desirability, as well as the need for approval from other women for her looks. In order to belong, a woman has had to unconsciously agree that her value is not inherent but found in the eyes of others. So giving up her purposefully planned hair-removal routine (which often carefully coincides with plans from nights out to holidays) would mean totally revolutionising her self-image and, crucially, reclaiming her body. Are women ready for such radical inner change? Are we ready to consciously explore our bodies, minds and hearts for the shame that oppresses us? If we are we can begin the serious work of healing. We can plant the seeds for true and lasting self-liberation.

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All images © Anaïs Charles 2015. All rights reserved.