by: Christina Rosso ((Header art by Hervé Martijn.))
“Why must being a woman equal disgrace? Why must I hide my body? My sexuality? Why do I have to fit inside a box?”
I was five the first time I felt the shame of my sex, my pale pink lips exposed to a classmate, my oldest friend, a boy named Connor. It was the first time I remember feeling a fiery heat rising in my cheeks, the pressure of emotion hammering the space of skin between my pale yellow eyebrows. A part of me was exposed for the first time, and somehow I knew that it was supposed to be hidden.
When I was eight, I chopped off my long strawberry-blonde locks and starting wearing jeans and rainbow-colored tank tops from the Gap instead of floral pattern Heartstring dresses, patent leather Mary Jane’s, and large pastel bows. I declared that my mother would never decide for me how I dressed again. I strutted around my third grade classroom like I would a crowded college bar ten years later. This confidence was short lived however; for a classmate, Marissa, had developed rosebud breasts, and she started wearing a bra to school.
My older sister told me I was so flat, I was jealous of the wall. Yet still I wanted to grow up, to sprout perky little rosebud breasts of my own. So the next day I wore a neon blue and green bikini top under my Gap tank top and over my indented chest, my version of a training bra. Marissa saw right through my attempt at maturity, and in front of the class said, “Are you wearing a bra?” Of course I stuttered “No,” as that familiar feeling of fiery heat spread out across my face and flat chest. For years after that incident I lost confidence in my body.
One evening before middle school play practice I sat on the tea green toilet in the bathroom my sister and I shared. Crimson stickiness so dark it was almost brown ran through my thighs. I knew what it was. In fifth grade, we watched the girls and boys videos. This monthly blood was natural, normal, yet it didn’t feel that way. The fiery heat, my frenemy, was back as I wiped and wiped the bloody thickness from my thighs and stuffed a wad of toilet paper into my panties as a makeshift pad. I had to tell my mom, but I felt like my body had betrayed me, that I had betrayed my expected innocence.
In high school, what caused the fiery heat one day, was praised the next. My shame and shamers were ambivalent. The girl previously jealous of the wall sprouted lush melon-sized breasts seemingly overnight. Boys and girls whispered about me, wondering if my melon breasts were the result of plastic surgery. My full breasts weren’t my only transformation – as my confidence had returned with their sprouting – and I was ready to explore. So I did. Words like prude, tease, whore, and slut weaved through the walls of my high school. My classmates, friends, and boyfriends couldn’t decide. Was I a virgin or a whore? By my junior year, I wasn’t even sure.
College was the same cycle; rinse and repeat. How could a woman be comfortable with her body and express her sexuality without receiving a humiliating label? I was a sophomore when rumors started swirling about a guy from the baseball team and me. While fooling around one night his nail sliced into the soft pink flesh of my lips. Drunk in bodily ecstasy, neither of us noticed. The next morning my inner thighs were sticky, and his sheets were soaked in blood. My blood. The fiery heat surrounded me – what could I do? I left, my entire body stained in shame. I stood in the bathroom stall looking at my sliced labia that would never heal and would continue to be a source of shame for years. He told everyone I got my period in his bed. He never apologized for mutilating me.
Twenty years after my first exposure I sat on a toilet, my panties around my ankles, when the door of the bathroom opened. I was at a conference for the weekend, a professional now, an adult, and two little girls exposed me. They burst in with their freckles and fluorescent bows high on their heads, giggles erupting once they saw me. I sat there, exposed, just as I’d been that day in kindergarten. Sure, the fiery heat started to flicker under my cheeks, but I shook it away. I waited for them to shut the door, pulled up my panties, and walked to the sink. As I washed my hands I studied myself in the mirror. In twenty-five years I had seen so much shame, so much exposure, simply because of my womanhood. I’ve seen this shame and exposure in my female friends and family, across social media, on countless blocks in countless cities around the world. Why must being a woman equal disgrace? Why must I hide my body? My sexuality? Why do I have to fit inside a box? Gazing at myself in that mirror I realized how pale my cheeks were. For the first time, I wasn’t ashamed by my exposure. I was empowered.
Christina Rosso is a writer, educator, and dog mom living in Philadelphia. She has a MFA in Creative Writing and Master’s in English from Arcadia University. Since August 2016, she has been an English professor at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, PA. When she isn’t writing, teaching, or snuggling with her two dogs, Atticus Finch and Kaylee Frye, she is a tour guide at Eastern State Penitentiary. You can find her on Twitter @Rosso_Christina or follow her blog meditationsofaloquaciousnerd.weebly.com. Her work has been featured in Supposed Crimes and Twisted Sister Lit Mag.