TW: Child sexual abuse
Over to M.
“As a child I was the definition of a good girl. I excelled in school, extra curricular, followed the rules, was the teachers’ pet, my parents were happy. I maintained my status of “good girl” by pleasing everyone. My favorite thing to do after coming back home from school was to do my mathematics and art homework … yes, I was that kid. In the limelight, winning competitions, the stack of certificates was higher than my pile of books. I loved it, the attention, compliments and praises.
However, I did shy away from any kind of athletic activity. I did not like running, jumping, climbing or swimming because this category of competitions was not something I could win. I knew my weaknesses and I was totally fine with it too, but my friends teased me about it calling me, “Fatty.” I was probably a few kgs over my recommended weight but I wasn’t bothered by it because you know I was not fat, I was “healthy.” I was “bhaalo shaasto” as they say in Bengali, of good health. All my friends teasing and my extended family members concerns made my parents think I needed some additional exercise. They enrolled me in swim lessons.
I was nine. I didn’t want to do this but I had to please them. The first few days of swim lessons weren’t bad at all. I was even getting the hang of it. And then it happened. As I was walking to the pool he cornered me, dragged me to an isolated area (in broad daylight) and abused me. I tried to scream but he shushed me. I stayed quiet while he proceeded. There was anger and violence in his eyes. I will not forget the power his eyes had on me more than his hands. Someone walked by and he ran away leaving me confused, scared, clueless, shivering. Yet all I could think of was that I couldn’t miss swim lessons. What happened after that is still a blur. It’s as if I woke up from that state of daze when I felt something between my legs. I was in the over-crowded pool. What I was feeling was someone’s hand under the water. My swim instructor. His fingers were where just half an hour back someone else’s had been. I cried silently but didn’t stop him, didn’t scream, didn’t say anything. The water camouflaged my tears.
Some other student got his attention, he stopped. I stood there in the water, surrounded by other students, the sounds of water splashing around me, kids laughing, squealing. I stood looking at my body, my hands, my shoulders, my chest and a very wavy blurred view of the rest of my body under water. Time stopped. It was silent. This is when I first became aware that I’m a woman and men want my body.
The next day I went back to swim lessons and it happened again. This time I had had enough. I left. My parents were disappointed that I wasn’t going to the classes. They scolded me for wasting their money, for being irresponsible and for not realizing that everything they did was for my benefit. I cried. I remained silent. For the first time in my life I wasn’t following the rules and doing what they said. I didn’t tell anyone about what had happened because how could anything like this happen to the ideal, perfect student/ daughter? I was worried I would lose my status. I wanted to guard it with all my life because that’s all I had left. I decided I was going to make up for it. I faked a super cheerful outwardly self while excelling in school. My friends’ teasing didn’t stop about me being fat. I remember my sweet sixteen birthday gift, a poster with Garfield standing next to a hippo saying, “If you want to look thinner hang around people fatter than you.” I smiled and took it. Heck! I even hung it in my room. That’s who I was, a pleaser. Always smiling. Always cheerful.
I was crumbling inside but puberty was working in my favor. Now that I look back at pictures from that time I realize that the boys who called me beautiful, sexy, who were leaving me secret love notes weren’t kidding. I was beautiful indeed. At that time, though, more than anything I had found a crutch. Boyfriends. Teenage boys who were lining up to be my special chosen one boosted my confidence. They told me that they loved me and my body. I used men to get over the damage other men had done before. I used their compliments but I never let anyone get too close. I was worried about getting hurt and I was worried about how I would tell them about my past because the rule was you had to tell your loved one everything about yourself.
Oh! Rules! When I did find someone who loved me unconditionally, who I did tell about my past, who wiped my tears and told me that he was there for me no matter what, I let him go because now it was time to please the parents again and move to the US.
My life changed when I came to the US. My heart was broken, but now I was “petite.” In this country of Super Size Me, American boys called me “small.” Wow! What a compliment I thought! And I began to eat, chocolates, cakes, ice-creams, anything and everything sweet. I put on so much weight that one day as I was crossing the street a homeless guy shouted, “Get out of my country, you brown fatso.” Who me?! Oh! Wait, but a boyfriend could fix that. I got into an abusive relationship. There was shouting, screaming, hurt and pain. This boyfriend couldn’t fix that! Maybe another one could. Nope, no that one. And not the next either. That’s when I found therapy. Maybe I will always be an outsider in this country, but I do have to recognise that the counseling and therapy I found here brought me a new life. I have struggled for the last almost thirty years with episodes of my abuse flashing in front of my eyes, my weight and what is the right thing to do be it with my career, hobbies, parenting, relationships. Above all I have struggled with finding a balancing point, between what I want and what others want or what I think others want out of me.
When I finally did tell my family they said, “Why didn’t you tell us then? You should’ve screamed, complained, done something!” I should have. I should have? I should have! That’s all?! Even after all these years all I was told was how I reacted was wrong. A list of things I could’ve and should’ve done. I ignored them, besides J.K. Rowling said, “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents,” so at thirty five enrolled myself in swim lessons. I finally confronted the water, the wavy image of my lower body under the water as I stood there waiting for my female instructor to arrive. My heart still races every time I see a swimming pool but once I get in I can swim laps, thanks to my very patient swim instructor and my therapist. No, this is not a glorious story about someone who goes onto become a pro swimmer. This is the story of me who can now find joy in splashing water in a pool, but still struggles every single day with recognizing and owning my identity. A work in constant progress.”