What She Says
The Unexpected Damage of Tiny Harassments
#MeToo allowed me reclaim the self I’d buried
At 14 years old, I was at the home of some older teenagers with a friend. We got way too drunk and I passed out in a bedroom at the house. I vaguely remember one of the older teenage boys being on top of me in that room and my friend coming in to yank him off, rescuing me from what could have been a horrible fate.
At 16, dressed in a somewhat revealing camisole and Indian print skirt, I was at my boyfriend’s home for a summer dinner with his family. At one point during the meal, one of his brothers turned to me and said for all to hear, “Julie, your breasts are looking very lovely today”.
At 24, a supervisor urged me in a meeting to go out with a potential client. He said, “It’s ok. If you get pregnant, I’ll pay for the abortion!”
At 32, I was jumped in a taxi by my boss after sharing about a recent difficult break-up. He said, as if to excuse his behavior, “You don’t get it. I fantasize about you!”
This is but a small sampling of the steady drumbeat of put downs I learned to live with. Each memory brought a familiar shame, a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. The constant humiliations served up at company meetings, parties and classrooms colored my perspective on myself. I was drunk, inappropriately dressed, flirtatious: heck,maybe I asked for “it”. Since I never had a witty comeback to lob back at my harassers in the moment, I just froze with embarrassment and shut up. Fast forward many years. The teenage boy died in a fire. But the rest simply moved on, unscathed by their lewd, inappropriate behavior. The brother with the off-color comment led a successful life. I lost track of one of the bosses but the other became a prominent figure in his profession. I moved on as well, but I grew a coarse outer shell to bullet-proof my tender inner self and allow me to survive in this unchallenged man’s world. I became brazen, bold, confrontational. You want to harass me? I will harass you back! Grab my ass at the company holiday party? I hit you with a profane comment about your small hands?
I am not proud of taking the low road but, mostly, it worked.
Over time, I stopped fearing the small insults and put downs.
I got drunk again. I wore clothes that showed some skin. I kept the jobs and excelled.
I’d found my voice, my survival mode.
But the rise of the #MeToo movement in the last few months has created a kind of reckoning for me. I have held these small rages about these accumulating humiliations beneath the surface where they festered for years. Bills needed to be paid. I needed to show up for my life and stop worrying that another lecherous man enabled by a boss or friend or family member saying something cutting.
Listening to women in every profession and from every walk of life tell their stories with such defiance and vulnerability has made me realize that I need to, in my mid fifties, reopen all those old wounds, clean them out, and finally heal. Healing hurts like hell. But with other women speaking out, I feel that for the first time I’m allowed to grow a softer skin. It is frightening. It is exhilarating. It is also about time.
Julianne Pressman is partner in a global consulting firm. She lives in the NYC area.
Ending 100 Years of #MeToo Silence (March 2018)
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