Struggles of Inhabiting a Body Deemed Female in Public
BY SOHINI CHATTERJEE
For me, inhabiting a body deemed female has entailed living with an acute, persistent awareness of it in public. I have tried imagining my own invisibility in the world I traverse, by pretending to remain impervious to the unrelenting, unseemly, invasive stares of men who threaten to consume me whole: on pavements, busy streets, public transports and in the unnamed, unremembered claustrophobic spaces I have only fleetingly occupied. But I have now begun to realise that ‘I’—the thinking, feeling individual—is not invisible but is frequently rendered inanimate in public spaces. I am denied my mind, my soul and am only accepted as a body.
My blue shirt holds little appeal to me, and yet I have worn it for years. It is unflattering, and this is precisely why I choose to wear it. It possesses no threat of “attracting attention” and I hide under it in search of safety. But as I give in to this pragmatism, I get enervated. I know this arduous task will not yield fruit; yet, I do not have the privilege of believing my truth. Hiding my body, as best as I can, I step out. As my journey begins towards my destination for the day, I am made aware of the fallibility of this ploy. My body feels vulnerable and exposed. I am in the monstrous grip of this obstinate feeling that has claimed me; it refuses to let go. It feels like I am carrying a curse that would never be broken; it would hover around my consciousness and also haunt my subconscious.
I am on my way to school in an auto. The young man sitting beside me has his eyes transfixed on my breasts. As he shakes in egregious and palpable excitement, threatening to transgress boundaries between us, my revulsion towards him has me nauseated. I am revolted. But my helplessness and anger find no immediate outlet; so, I sit in silence, waiting for the journey to end without incident. Moments later, I see the man stretching his arm towards me out of the corner of my eyes. I suspect him of trying to grope my breasts. I turn towards him in a fit of rage that engulfs my being, and which also, strangely, makes me aware of myself. Remaining within the oppressive bounds of civility, I give him the sternest look I can muster. Even as he desists, I do not escape unscathed.
I became conscious of the sexualization of my body and the threat of violence that comes with it before I knew about sex, became aware of my sexuality or learned how to exercise sexual agency. The sexualization of our bodies is communicated often, and continually non-verbally reinforced, as we go through the daily grind of life. My body is visually exploited everyday to derive the erotic gains it is imagined to proffer. Given the gendered nature of our social relations, male entitlement to erotic visual pleasure from bodies deemed female violates our space and person. I am taught to live with this gaze even as my humanity, ineluctably, gets invalidated. I avoid meeting strangers’ eyes on the road out of the fear that I will experience the reduction of my humanity to mere body parts. And anyway, I have never had to make eye contact with men to know that in public spaces I am nothing more than my breasts, thighs and hips. Feeling violated is my quotidian reality, but the alienation I suffer as a result is always intense, absolute, and unceasing. Every “incident” that has never been validated as such reinforces my isolation from my body. I fail to establish a positive relationship with it and present myself in the world exactly as I want.
My friend and I are excited to be visiting the local fair. We have resolved to spoil ourselves silly, eat to our hearts’ content and have as good a time as two women in the public space can possibly have. As she and I walk hand-in-hand with childlike glee, I find a man staring at my breasts long enough for me to take notice and re-experience the familiar, albeit intense, sense of violation visiting me. Silence does not agree with me this time and I protest, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” It is less than what I want to offer, but I settle. He is evidently flustered but manages to feign bewilderment. I am more afraid of consequences than he is. I ask myself: “What could we possibly do if he came back to avenge the ‘insult?’”. A woman protesting against casual objectification belies common sense. I imagine that if people had heard me confronting him, they would have unhesitatingly flocked to his defense: “He has not done anything!” “He did not even touch you.” We are not allowed to express our revulsion at every act of harassment we survive, especially the ones that do not seem to deviate from accepted social norms. Language often fails to make our sense of violation intelligible; I surmise that this is because the dominant discourse surrounding harassment has invisibilized women’s everyday gendered struggles. These struggles are often silenced as they are comprehended as insignificant and inconsequential to our bodily autonomy. My truth acknowledges them as neither. Regardless, my discomfort would be read as a failure that I must learn to overcome. The terms of my survival were laid down before I came into existence, so it goes without saying that I am considered of little consequence. It is audacious of me to want my story to be fully my own.
Out of my various longings, the longing of the inner self to dissociate from the body—so that I am ‘seen’ as a person first and body second—is the most relentless. I suffer alienation from my body despite the ability to identify with it and find comfort in the home of my skin—a privilege not shared by all. But this privilege is not unqualified; it is overburdened with the weight of terms and conditions I labor under. Growing up, I was cautioned against exposing too much skin lest men on the streets felt “compelled” to sexually assault and harass me. The inherent cruelty of this narrative escaped the conscience of tellers who could not comprehend how disempowering it is to be told you have the power to invite or disinvite assault when you have none. The trauma I incurred from trying to imagine that I possessed this power and that it was entirely possible for me to save myself from dehumanization was profound. It was so great that I ended up carrying my public trauma into private realms.
At 16, I refused to sleep with the man I was dating. He did not understand this “prudishness” and began to “reason” with me to obtain coerced consent. His insistence made him unattractive and the relationship became odious to me. I had to leave. The sexualization of my body in the everyday had induced within me deep-seated paranoia about sex, which I had begun to unwittingly conflate with violence and objectification. At 16, I was not exposed to feminism. I had no academic knowledge of gender or sexuality or power. The experiential knowledge I had gathered by that time had made me wary of sex: I was convinced that I would feel dehumanized in that experience. I imagined that if I consented to it, I would experience alienation in its most severe form, inadvertently becoming complicit in my own dehumanization. It would take me years to have healthy relationships without the specter of violence looming large on my mind. In hindsight, I realize it was only with the privilege of education that I learnt to view sex in a positive light. If I were to rely on cues from my everyday experiences of violation to comprehend sex and sexuality, I would never learn to establish a relationship with my body through it but only by resisting it.
For me, the sexualization of my body without my consent is violence. As a person capable of articulating active consent, when my body is consumed by men on the streets to derive momentary sexual pleasure—the kind of male behavior that is normalized as expected, acceptable, unchangeable across space and time—I mourn the loss of my sexual agency. I grieve the loss of boundaries that are casually transgressed as if I were a quiet source of pleasure that fuel fantasies on the go. As my personhood is routinely dismissed, I traverse unfamiliar territories without letting go of the fear of being dehumanized. Despite excruciating efforts to plot my strategies of survival, I have been rendered a victim more times than I can claim to be a survivor. Not all wounds leave their mark, and some hurt without promising to heal: until the source of my pain and anguish is acknowledged, I cannot embark on my journey of healing.
Sohini Chatterjee is a Content Editor at HYSTERIA. She holds an MA in International Relations and writes and researches at the intersections of gender, culture and politics. Her work has previously appeared in Kindle Magazine, Cafe Dissensus, Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, Rag Queen Periodical, The Lookout Journal etc.