As a child of the late 70s and early 80s, I was convinced that glossy “magazine women” were a distinct subspecies of human females who came out of the womb painted like colorful aliens, born complete with purple eyelids, black-lined eyes and thick-coated lashes, bright pink cheeks, and shiny-plump red lips. I studied them for hours, fascinated by their colorful flawlessness compared to the plain imperfection of “normal women.”
My mother and two maternal half-sisters—seven and ten years older than me—reinforced this distinction by endlessly critiquing themselves and each other. Dressed in high-waisted bell-bottom jeans or prairie dresses, their thick brown hair feathered into wings, my sisters would stand in front of our full-length mirror frowning at their reflection as they fretfully pinched excess skin, sucked-in stomachs, smoothed thighs, and pushed shoulders back and chests out while repeating a constant mantra of I look so fat, I’m so fat, I feel so fat. But they always looked amazing to me. Full-bodied and voluptuous. Like sleek cats with freshly preened fur. I admired them to a point of reverence. I wish someone had been able to convince them of their beauty and worth then. I wish we wouldn’t have had to go through a lifetime before we finally understood the forces wielded against us, before we learned to question the world we’d been born into.
In the tiny backwoods Idaho logging town where I grew up, many of the neighborhood women spent hours of their days watching soap operas: General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, As the World Turns. My friends and I got hooked too, eagerly settling into darkened midday living rooms whenever allowed, absorbed by the plots of seduction—woman after woman falling into some man’s arms, and then bed.
We fell hard with them, lust and power and sex a heady mix that left us swooning and wistful even at a young age. My friend and I reenacted the soap-opera storylines with her Barbie and Ken collection, dressing them, fixing their hair, sitting them down to dinner, and taking them for drives in their pink car, but mostly what I remember is undressing them and lustily coupling their hard plastic bodies together despite our dissatisfaction with their blank-slate underparts.
At eight years old, when my grandmother sent me a Dolly Parton Barbie for Christmas, I kept the doll hidden undressed under my bed. My friends and I would pull her out for study sessions, meticulously gauging her enormous breasts, tiny waist, long legs, and perfect blonde hair and made-up face like acolytes preparing for our future. Her prototype was everywhere after all—in every movie, TV show, commercial, and magazine, whether mainstream, religious, or pornographic—and we weren’t too young to realize the ultimate goal was to be a woman desired.
We further instructed ourselves with pornography we found strewn outside the Dumpster or stashed in our neighbor’s houses. Decades later, I still remember the story lines, the photographs: women bound and left waiting, women in positions of surrender, women splayed apart, unfurled and raw, designed to fulfill a man’s every dark desire.
My friend’s older sister’s bedroom was pasted full of pictures torn from Playgirl magazines—four walls of shiny, naked men with prominent erections. We would sneak in when she was gone, horrified as we peeped through our finger slats, studying the lurid show. When the sister caught us in her room once, she pointed to the line of hair growing from the men’s navels to their hardened groins and told us it was “the road to paradise.”
A neighbor I babysat for kept stacks of full-exposure porno magazines in their bedroom. At ten years old, when the toddlers I was in charge of were napping, I would shut myself in the musty bathroom and examine the magazine photos, educating myself on how to be female, sexual object of desire. The images branded into my mind, and a part of me responded, a part that later as a religious teen I worked to pray out, cast out, and deny—a carnal mark that threatened to spread and overtake me. Overtake us all.
Perhaps it was early exposure to a world where women and girls were seen and treated as sexual objects, or perhaps it was just a natural function of hormones beginning the maturation process, but at eleven years old, my own physical awareness began. Preparing for a fifth-grade school function without parents to oversee us, my friend and I shaved our legs without permission—a new thing fraught with bleeding nicks and razor-burn—then spent hours getting dressed, fixing our hair, and applying forbidden makeup, marveling at the transformational power of liners and coatings and creams.
I distinctly remember the thrill of going “out” this way—made-up, legs smooth and exposed beneath our skirts, catching the boys’ attention, making the other girls turn their heads in envy. Although I didn’t know enough yet to call it that, I felt sexy. The first understanding of what it meant to strut my stuff. But the church ladies in attendance recognized the threat. A danger named Jezebel—a bud to be nipped, skin to be covered, color to be erased. They didn’t view our trespass as the whim of some preteens playing grownup; a girl wearing makeup, showing herself off like that, was a sin to take seriously. The possible risks and consequences were clear. My own family had already demonstrated that.
At seven years old, my mother took me aside to tell me my father had “touched” my sisters, his stepdaughters, when they’d each been around eleven years old. That there had been a foster-daughter in the mix once too who’d run away from my father’s advances, although nobody believed her. My mother told me that I needed to be careful, guard myself, that my father might try to touch me too.
But that wasn’t the only family darkness. Over the years, one story after another came out. I learned that my paternal grandfather had molested his daughter, my aunt, when she was a child. I learned that after my father’s abuse, a close neighbor—my friend’s stepfather—had molested my middle sister for a year when she was twelve. I learned that my two paternal half-siblings had both been violently and extensively sexually abused for years at the hands of their stepfather and uncle when they were as young as seven and ten years old.
And it didn’t stop there—one family member or friend after another with dark, heartbreaking stories. Suddenly everyone in my world was either a victim of sexual abuse or a perpetrator of it, but in every case, always the burden of blame lay on the girls, no matter how young they’d been, no matter what had been done to them. There were never any consequences for the abusers—all the fathers, all the men. Instead, my mother warned me to present no temptation, to tuck myself in, to guard against the dangers of myself. She told me that my sister, an early developer at eleven years old, had been “pretty proud of her boobs,” and I understood that this was what had lured my father in, made him molest her. It was a girl’s fault: drawing attention to herself, catching a man’s eye.
At eleven, when I hugged an older male cousin goodbye, my mother pulled me aside to say I shouldn’t hug boys with my chest touching theirs—it might give them ideas, be seen as a “come-on.” I was overwhelmed with deep shame—my wayward body transferring physical carnal knowledge, demonstrating female sexuality in all its danger. I knew better after all.
One night when I was twelve and had been visiting my nineteen-year-old sister and her two young children, my twenty-eight-year-old brother-in-law drove me home, unexpectedly turning off into the dark woods. He parked, pulled out a six-pack, and put his arm around the back of my seat as he sweet-talked me, guzzling one beer after another as he tried to coax me into joining him, telling me I just needed to “relax.” At one point, he got out of the car, exposing himself in the bright headlights as he urinated. I kept my eyes down and held my body very still until he finally took me home, everything inside me in full-flashing danger-warning mode. I was only a few years younger than my sister had been when he’d first gotten her pregnant at fifteen.
The perils of being a girl were inescapable. At the time, there were reports of a “white-van man” who’d been kidnapping, raping, killing, and discarding girls across the west. Everyone warned us of “stranger-danger,” but even as a child I realized the threat wasn’t just with stranger-men. The threat lay in wait for us inside our own homes, at the hands of our own families. The threat was being born female in the first place.
From childhood into adulthood whenever I heard men coming, I ran for cover like a spooked deer, diving in ditches, ducking into culverts, crouching hidden in tall roadside weeds. There weren’t many females in the backwoods and that made the men there all the more dangerous. The instinct to hide was survival instinct, prey-animal instinct. The hunted versus the hunter.
The few times I didn’t hide in time or resisted my own instinct to do so only proved the reality of the hazard: fully-armed and camouflaged hunters stepping silently out of the shadows of trees, examining my body without restraint from feet away, the air thick with implied threat; work trucks full of men catcalling and whistling when they drove by me out for walks, stopping to ask if I wanted to get in and “take a ride”; men in hound-hunting trucks following me at an idle for miles, ogling me from their open windows; men in the night training their truck’s headlights on our tent as they called out all the terrible violent sexual things they wanted to do to me as my husband and I held our hands over our children’s mouths to keep them from crying out. Growing up female in the backwoods was a kind of violent exposure—one that brought out the lurking sexual threat in strangers as well as the ones you were meant to trust the most.
Despite the church-ladies’ warnings, despite the dangers I already well understood, as a twelve-year-old, I worked hard to replicate the magazine women, layering on makeup—purple shadow from lashes to brow-line, heavy black eyeliner and mascara, hot-pink blush, and frosted pink lipstick. When my father tried to ban me from makeup, I threatened to use permanent marker instead. A concerned friend spoke with my mother about my makeup obsession and my mother said, “I’d rather she look like a hussy now than later when it’s actually possible,” but it was already possible—many girls my age already bragging about how much they “gave out.”
During those years, I got a reputation for being good at makeup. Friends stayed overnight for makeovers, exclaiming in delight at what I could accomplish, transforming them from simple girl to sultry woman. We practiced our “asking-for-it” looks as we danced along to our favorite songs, everything centered around sex, all the lyrics heady and full of meaning, reflecting our longings back to us in a world laced with threat.
While raising my sisters and me, my mother’s beliefs were widely eclectic: she spoke in tongues and smoked pot; read Thoreau and attended Bible studies; sat aaahhmming in sun-worshiping circles and held Catholic holy-water anointing sessions; worked at a new-age health-food store and cast out evil spirits; joined in women’s prayer retreats and had affairs with the neighbor men; rode her horse naked in the woods and took us to church clothed in full-coverage dresses. Then, in the charismatic excesses that defined the late ’80s and early ’90s, she became a fully-immersed evangelical. Under her tutelage, I too became “saved,” speaking in tongues and pledging myself to purity and chastity, to deferential and compliant female behavior. I made sure to be “a good girl,” denying the devil entry, but I was torn. I wanted to be the proper Christian girl and Barbie/Hustler perfect too. Hot and wholesome; desired and chaste; sexy and pure.
At fourteen while helping my mother in the health-food store, I answered the phone to an older man breathing hard, his voice rasping close and intimate through the receiver as he told me what beautiful breasts I had, that he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off of them when he’d been in. I hung up quickly, trying to cover my nervous alarm, not sure whether to take his words as a threat, a compliment, or a marker of my own guilt and failure.
During those early teen years, I became anorexic, consuming as few as a hundred calories a day, obsessively tallying and re-tallying every bite until I was nothing but sinew, bones, and skin. My sisters had been bulimic, my mother a binger and body critic who had pointed out how I was “starting to get thighs,” so I starved and worked out and pinched and pulled, measuring folds of skin, wielding an exhilarating control over my body—a kind of self-flagellation that satisfied my desire for both physical and spiritual flawlessness.
While encouraging my thinness and obedience and good-girl behavior, my mother and one of her non-Christian friends became concerned with my considerable restraint. On a long summer walk the two of them cornered me, talking to me about what it meant to be a woman and own it—the it being your body, your sexuality, your very femaleness and the latent power held within. But it was too confusing—how to be one way and the other too when they were at direct odds with one another. The good, modest, obedient Christian girl. The strong female with frightening sexual powers. I was confused. I remained confused for years.
In my mid-twenties, dressed in shorts and a fitted tank top on a sweltering summer day, my husband and three young sons in our car, I ran inside the grocery store for a few things. Standing in line behind a sixty-some-year-old man, I examined the display of glossy “magazine women,” still drawn in even though through my education I’d become a feminist, voicing my critiques of women’s objectification and our patriarchal society. Looking at the magazines, I didn’t see the man ahead of me reach back, just felt a sudden full palm-and-finger clutch of my breast, his fingers pressing and fondling as if checking an orange for firmness, a grapefruit for ripeness.
I jerked away, incredulous and aghast. “He just grabbed my boob,” I said, my voice growing as I repeated it, looking at the checker in disbelief, at the customers in other lines, everyone staring. Nonchalantly, the man turned and shrugged, said, “I was just moving my bread.” He paid for his groceries and whistled a jaunty little tune as he walked out of the store.
My disbelief turning to rage, I followed him out, catching my husband’s attention by gesturing angrily at the man as he walked back to his car. My husband jumped out to block the man’s path and when I told him what had happened, he threw the man against a parked car, pinning him down, fists balled and ready above his face. Our sons cried from inside our car as police sped into the parking lot, surrounding us. Unbeknownst to me, a store manager had called the incident in and when I told my story, the officers released my husband, took the man into custody, and bought our children stuffed animals from the store, trying to soothe their upset.
That night, lying in bed, I wondered how many girls the man had groped over the years, how much he’d gotten away with his whole life to be that bold—his cocky whistled tune like a victory song. But I wasn’t a child any longer, warned not to lure a man in. I knew that neither a girl nor a woman is responsible for a man’s trespass against her body. So I pressed charges, holding firm as the man’s attorney attacked my “memory” and “interpretation” of the events. I was determined that in at least this once small instance there would be consequences for a man’s actions.
The man pled guilty and among other punishments was banned from the store for life. I hoped his reckoning might somehow protect some girl or woman down the line, hoped he would be exposed to others—his wife, his daughters, his granddaughters—before it was too late. But in my deepest thoughts, even though I knew better, I pondered these things: the dip of my tank top, the pull of fabric against my breasts, all that exposed man-tempting skin, and felt a sense of guilt.
As a professor now, I straddle two small western college towns—towns where, most of the time, girls and women can walk around without the fear of too much danger, where after all my years of instinctive hiding, I don’t often feel the need to dive in a ditch when men approach, even though I still remain wary, on guard.
At the university where I teach, students, faculty, and staff are required to complete sexual harassment training. There are rallies for taking back the night, for “No Means No,” for combating date rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. We host panels about how to be strong and succeed as a woman, navigating the challenges of our patriarchal society. Often, my female students complete projects related to self-image and gender issues as they try to reckon with their own life experiences and make sense of the world they were born into. They share their stories of sexual abuse and harassment, crying “me too,” building strength together. But even though things are supposed to be better than when my sisters and I were coming of age, even though girls and women now can more often actively fight the destructive forces wielded against them, I see the same old battles being waged over and over again, our society still failing to fully grapple with all the perilous and contradictory realities involved in being female.
Men I know have been escorted off campus by police, subject to Title IX investigations after inappropriate and troubling sexual relationships with female students. One local professor hunted down a female grad-student whom he’d been in a relationship with and shot and killed her on sidewalk. My son’s pregnant, grade-school teacher was killed by her husband who, after choking her to death and lighting their house on fire, went to our gym for a workout. Another local woman disappeared after visiting her ex-husband at his mechanic shop where he and his friend killed her, then soaked her body in acid and dumped what was left of her off a bridge. A local thirteen-year-old girl was courted and nearly kidnapped by a thirty-year-old man active in sex trafficking. And at the start of two recent local mass-shooting killing sprees, the shooters’ first victims were either their wife or their mother.
But these are just the headliner stories, not the hundreds of sordid tales of a father or uncle’s “touching,” a church leader’s sexual advances toward his teen parishioners, or a workplace’s culture of commonplace sexual harassment. As a nation, as a community, inside the privacy of our own homes we reel, staggering through the crushing weight of one story after another after another. Mother, daughter, sister, wife, lover, good-girl, bad-girl, sexual object of desire. A navigation that never stops. A navigation that continues to define us all.
Annie Lampman is an honors creative writing professor at the Washington State University Honors College and fiction editor of the literary journal Blood Orange Review. Her essays, poetry, and short fiction have recently been published or are forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as The Massachusetts Review, Orion Magazine, and Women Writing the West among numerous others. Her work has been awarded a Best American Essays “Notable,” a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, first place in the Everybody Writes contest, an Idaho Commission on the Arts writing grant, and a national artist’s wilderness residency through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. She lives in Moscow, Idaho with her husband, three sons, two huskies, a couple of hens, and a cat named Bonsai.