By Jen Pastiloff.
**trigger warning. Sensitive material contained in this piece. Mention of sexual assault.
Relentless Over Apologizing.
A few years ago a man I knew walked into the café in NYC where I was having lunch with a friend, and before I realized what was happening his hand was on my breast. “Damn, Look at those things,” he’d said with a fistful of my boob.
We chatted for a few moments about irrelevant things- yoga, weather, eggs, before he walked away and sat down at his own table. My friend was dumbfounded, the most natural response, I suppose. She was shocked that he’d grabbed my breast like that. In public, no less. I was embarrassed and made excuses for him. That’s just how he is. He doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s just a flirt. He’s harmless.
Did I think it was okay on some level? Did I not want to embarrass him? Why was I the one who felt embarrassed when he was the asshole feeling me up? Was I flattered in some creepy shitshow way? Why hadn’t my friend said something right then as he’d had my breast in his hand like it was his? And would I have said something, if the situation was reversed and it was her breast and not mine? Oh, the shame. The hot shame on my face and my arm hairs standing on end, I felt incompatible with my own body as I pushed my eggs around in a soup of Cholula sauce.
My breasts felt like they were no longer part of me. It was if he’d walked away with them. Or at least the one he’d fondled.
Why had I not said anything to stand up for myself? Perhaps on some level I felt the disgust I’d always felt towards my breasts had called out to him, in their own subversive language that some people are trained to hear. Maybe he could smell the disgust on me, how much I hated the weight and size of them and the way they popped out of my bra on the sides (commonly referred to as “side boob.”) Maybe he had sensed the hatred I had towards my own body and how I’d fallen into the anorexia trap when I’d gone to a doctor at seventeen and asked for a breast reduction. “Breast reduction? You don’t need it. Lose five pounds.”
I wonder how many times do we swallow our words? Women. Men. All of us stuffing down what we want (or don’t want) for a variety of, often psychologically confusing, reasons.
I let a man give me a “free” massage (that should’ve been enough of a red flag) when I was eighteen years old. It wasn’t until he had his fingers near my vagina, almost slipping them inside of me, that I rolled off the futon he’d haphazardly turned into a massage table. I panicked and asked him to leave, albeit too politely for the fact that he had tried to stick his fingers in me. Soon after the massage, I found out he’d gone to jail under the three-strikes law in California. With the three-strikes-law, habitual criminal offenders, under mandates of the state, are required to serve much longer sentences than they might normally serve. Apparently, he had been preying on women for years and had finally been caught. I’d met him at the place I’d been obsessively exercising in my sports bra and short shorts. My teeny tiny anorexic body of those years. That body that allowed me to feel nothing at something at once, all the are you sick? you look sick questions giving me a high like nothing else. I wanted attention as equally as I abhorred it.
Before I asked him to leave however, I had lay there with my heart beating wondering “Is this normal? Is this what massage is? Should his hands be there?” It was the first massage of my life. And yet, despite the internal dialogue, I stayed on the weird futon massage table. I questioned my own judgment and intuition. Until his hands got too close to my vagina. Then a panic button went off.
But why did it take so long?
After I found out he’d gone to jail, I’d wondered if I had enticed him. Too short shorts? Too skimpy of clothing? Too friendly? What had I done to provoke him? Nothing. But as a nineteen year old I pondered my own complicity, my addiction to guilt needing a fix. I must’ve done this. I still look too sexy. If I was smaller he wouldn’t have wanted to touch me, I’d thought as a teenager. My boobs are still too big, I rationalized. So I lost more weight.
That summer I’d been visiting Los Angeles before NYU started in the fall. I’d spend my days eating creamed honey off a spoon (I had no money and it gave me an odd boost of energy with no fat) before I’d climb the stairs in Santa Monica, a set of stairs people use for exercise like angry mice. I’d climb those stairs at least twenty times a day on an empty stomach (or a stomach with black coffee, vitamins and creamed honey.)
I’d gone to the movies with this actor who was twenty years older than me. He picked me up in the car with an open beer can between his legs. That should say enough about what I should’ve expected from him. He asked me to sit on his lap in the movie. As embarrassed as I was, I sat on him. All ninety pounds of me sat on an older drunk man’s lap in a movie theatre with a mixture of excitement and disgust. I didn’t want to but I thought that maybe it was what adults did, maybe they sit on each other, I thought. And was I just being prude and overly self-conscious to say no? We went to a bar after where I used a fake i.d. and proceeded to drink five vodka cranberries on an empty stomach.
The next thing I remember was me being slumped over the edge of his bed. He was on top of me. My pants down, his off completely. I panicked.
My first instinct, being the worrier I was/am, was to yell for him to get a condom. The combination of shame and drunkenness smothered that night, but I do remember he leaped off me to get a condom from his bathroom.
When he came back I said that I did not want to sleep with him and that I wanted to go home.
He was angry but he drove me home. I rolled down the window of his old Cadillac and vomited red chunks all over the side of the car as it sped down the street. I wiped my mouth off. I apologized. As he dropped me off, he leaned over and kissed me on the mouth. The mouth. Vomit and all. And I apologized again for what I thought of as fucking the night up.
Why apologize when you’ve simply said no? one might wonder. Why apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong except be an eighteen year old (who puked) and who’d made a couple of really dumb choices? Why apologize for having a body, which is, essentially what all the starvation was about. I don’t know. I know talking about this is important though because I see it all the time.
The relentless apologizing for everything.
Recently, I got an email from someone who reads my blog.
|Dear Jennifer,I’m writing on behalf of my dear teenage daughter. We adopted her as a little girl. We were her 5th home. Needless to say, she has many issues of abandonment, rejection, anger, etc., which she is courageously working through. But the one thing that “sinks” her most often is the sexual issue. Because she was abused in those early years, she feels that she is “ruined.” She is very strong to stand up for herself in all areas but this one. She lets anyone … ANYONE … touch her, kiss her, etc. Guys, girls, whoever … she doesn’t even like them…. but they get a free pass to use her for their pleasure. Ever since she’s been little, we’ve guarded her carefully … very few sleepovers, etc. because it puts her in such a difficult situation. Sometimes over the years, I think she’s been the instigator of sexual situations, but more recently, she seems to be the victim. She just loses herself.Last weekend, she had a sleepover (first in a long time) with a 16 year old girl. They seem to just have a fun, normal girlfriend relationship. And since the girl was a little younger, I felt it was safe. My daughter has been doing well and making good choices overall.It was bedtime, the lights were out … I was almost asleep and suddenly sat up with a jolt. I texted my daughter to come to my room and talked to her about the situation. I just felt in my gut that something was going to happen.I found out later that it already had.My point here isn’t whether or not teens should have sex or whether or not same sex is ok. My point is that my daughter DIDN’T WANT TO … and yet she did.She told me that in those moments, she hears two internal messages:1) You have to do this with me because no one else will ever love you like I do.2) You need to do this to make me happy.She fears upsetting or losing her friends and so she sacrifices herself and her own self-respect to please them. In her words, “I’m already ruined, so what difference does it make?”|
I understand that idea of being ruined. I wouldn’t eat for two days. Then I’d eat a can of tuna, and for that transgression, I’d felt like I ruined all I had worked for. I might as well eat another can of tuna and bread and ice cream and all the things I had been denying myself because I had already failed and what the point? was usually my rationale.
I read that letter and understood the yearning to make someone happy- the things I’ve said yes to because I thought it would make me worth something.
I don’t know the answer, and I’m obviously not a psychologist, so don’t worry about pointing out the obvious there. But I do know that apologizing for existing is a tricky business, one that parlays into all sorts of self-destructive behaviors. Now let’s be clear, I am not saying that the man grabbing my breast was a self-destructive act on my part. Not at all. The shame around it is though. The voicelessness is. The apologizing is. The sitting on that guy’s lap and then proceeding to go home with him was not smart, namely because I was drunk and had no grasp on my mental faculties or the choices I was making. But we’ve all been young and dumb unless we haven’t, and in that case, you’ve surely spent your youth locked in your bedroom.
If I had told that guy I didn’t want to sit on his lap, or I had yelled at that man to let go of my chest, then I would have lost them, and in some small way, I wanted to make them happy, like the teenager in that mom’s letter. I squirmed when I read the letter because if I was as brave as this mom was in writing to me, then maybe I could write a piece on the things we let slide and how quiet the world would be without so many I’m sorries.
This is my paltry attempt at understanding the way we keep ourselves underfoot, the way we don’t say what we want to say for fear of losing what we probably never had in the first place. So, to answer that teen’s question in the letter of What difference does it make?
It makes the kind of difference, say, where you stand up when he touches you and you say, “Excuse me but please do not touch my body like that.” Or, “Fuck you, get your fucking hands off me.” That’s the kind of difference it makes.
And then you grow up and maybe when you get to be my age you only say I’m sorry when you’ve hurt someone or reared your car into theirs.
All of Jen’s workshops listed here.
Love. Thank you. And more love. (and yes, “all women” is a good addressee!) xo
This one I will read again and again to remind myself of “the things I’ve said yes to because I thought it would make me worth something” and how I don’t need to do that anymore. Thank you for sharing. For me, your writing opens up space for much-needed healing.
thank you. that means a lot!!
Keep writing. I know it’s hard sometimes, but keep writing. And thank you for doing it, for the blood, sweat and tears of it~! Sending much love and encouragement. xo
Completely, totally agree. I think a lot of it is cultural. We teach our girls that their worth is determined by their appearance, and we grow into confused young women who buy into that. Not all of us, maybe. But I’d say the majority of women suffer from shame and doubt around our own bodies and our worth. And confusion about the rage we feel underneath that. And guilt about our own participation. And I think when we’re young and still trying to figure it out, it’s no surprise we make bad choices sometimes. You have to be some kind of strong not to have this stuff affect your self-esteem. Sometimes I think we say, “I’m sorry” when someone else does something shameful, because we know those words should be said in that moment, and we realize if we don’t say them, no one will. Like, “I’m sorry we live in an insane society where you think it’s okay to grab a fistful of my boob.” Maybe we’re apologizing to ourselves, too. I thought this was beautiful and important. Well done, you. I think when my daughter gets older, I will make her practice, “Get your fucking hands off me!” And by the way, I think we do an equal disservice to our boys and men. Having a son and a daughter, I’ve realized our work is really cut out for us. I think shining a light on all this is how we change it. Love you.
I love you, Ally.
Oh, Jen, this takes my breath away because it’s so true. I do this all the time. All. The. Time. Still. It’s different, but similar: just last week someone said something really weird and out of line and frankly insulting to me and I let it bother ME for days … couldn’t sleep, apologized to her, etc. And I still have no idea why I did that, because it was SHE who was in the wrong. it’s not the same as you mention, but I’ve been there too, when younger. UGH. Thank you so much for shining a light on this tendency, which is really a desperate longing for love, isn’t it? xox
I can’t find words strong or precise enough to convey my gratitude for this piece. Thank you. Thank you.
Jennifer…I have been married for almost 24 years now. I just realized a few months ago that my husband sodomized me when we were both very drunk even though I have told him explicitly that that is something I never want to do. I had been hospitalized earlier this year with horrible depression and anxiety and wondered why, and then this latent “memory” emerged.
I am also an adopted person, so I can related to the feelings of the adopted girl. I am already ruined because I was left by my mother the day I was born, so what does it matter.
The good news is that I am getting some wonderful help (and a civil divorce from my husband who is as wounded as I am).
For me personally being able to “see” how much God loves me has made all the difference, and I was never a person who thought she would go “there”.
People will always disappoint but God never leaves or disappoints. I had to expose myself to the idea of God for over 30 year until I could see it. I just had to keep my eyes open and one day I could see HIM.
Oh God, Jen. Thank you for this – it is one of the most important things I’ve ever read and I can relate on a very deep level. I’m so very grateful for you and your voice. xo
Thank you for this, Jennifer. I had similar experiences in my late teens/early 20s and am not sure, really, how I survived it to become the strong feminist I am today.
I am now raising a teenage boy, now in his second semester of college, ALL of our children need to learn to be respectful first of themselves,then of each other. It breaks my heart when my son tells me of the way some girls behave…..he finds himself “momming” them and making sure they get back to their dorms safely. I just want to wrap them in a big warm hug and have cocoa and a long conversation about loving themselves. We, as a society have so much work to do…..one kid at a time,.
Thank you for the hard and impactful work that you do. Mad love!
Diane, Thank you for raising a son that will not be a man that grabs a fistful of boob, or asks a drunk girl to sit on her lap. Part of our healing path is to raise men who understand that this in unacceptable behavior.
Jen – This story hits close to my bulls eye. I have struggles with my weight for years, carrying at least an extra 30 pounds as protection. Protection from being fondled in a market in the middle east at 10, protection from the ‘game’ that my 11 year old friend and I were asked to play with a much older man in an ashram in India. Protection from loud and obnoxious boys at my Texas high school. Then allowing my body to be used so that I ‘might’ feel wanted, loved. Making haphazard decisions based on a feeling of less than. Learning to let go of the shame is hard.
Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for opening doors for healing. Thank you for your strength. Thank you for being you!
Gosh….(lame expression on my part)….but you always seem to hit home with me. It fuels my strength inside to realize another person has traveled this path, to find out the path I’ve felt so alone traveling, has been someone else’s journey as well. It’s enlightening, renewing to know you have already learned from it & veered onto the less painful road…the one where you stand up for yourself, lose people that didn’t deserve you anyway & stop being TOO empathetic-I’m working on it…Thank You for sharing.
Well Jen, thanks for making me cry at work again.. brings up old stuff, stuff in the closet that I need to let go of, clean that closet!! I am good enough to be loved without being hurt by my giving. I am doing a daily ritual with Louise Hay’s Power Thought Cards, this mornings read, “I am worth loving, I do not have to earn love. I am lovable because I exist. Others reflect the love I have for myself.” I have felt worthless most of my life with the same abandonment issues of an adopted child having been sent to boarding school since the age of 4. All I can do, is make these small efforts everyday to love myself first, then be available to be loved <3 Thank you for this very in-depth piece that touched me to the core.
Thank you Jen. I honor your bravery and your work to HEAL the world. In this age where every body mostly posts the bright and shiny and beautiful, it’s very important to keep a perspective and to have a forum for these difficiult and painful subjects that need to be addressed,
So thank you! And keep up healing all of us.
When we finally arrive at a place that allows us to contemplate all the undelivered “I’m sorry” and “Fuck you” moments it’s important to look at yourself and say, “I forgive you.” It’s a miracle that I survived my youth. Incest, abuse, alcoholism, drug use…these were the secrets that I helped my fucked up parents to bury deep in my soul’s darkest corners. I felt unworthy of love and I sought attention, any kind of attention, to make me feel like I deserved to be loved, like I deserved to be alive. I thought love was desire. I thought desire meant being sexy. I thought sexy was a Playboy perfect body, which is something I’d never have at 5′ 3″ and 105 lbs. But I gave it my best try.
I was a serial monogamist, until I married the wrong person. Then I became a serial cheater. I was so ashamed and so unhappy. It’s taken me years to forgive myself for the dangerously stupid and completely degrading things I allowed myself to do and to be done to me in my teens and 20s. I compartmentalized my life, and isolated myself, moving around, making new friends, a new life, a “new me” every time I was burned and wounded.
I now have chronic health problems that likely stem from years of stuffing down my feelings. I’m working on healing myself, inside and out. Self love is a hard lesson.
For my 10 year old daughter’s sake, I’m working on accepting that my former 105 lb. body has been replaced by a steroid-ballooned, 49 year old, Rubenesque form that does not look anything like those Hollywood bitches who “magically” maintain 20 year old bodies. I don’t want my daughter to perceive the shame or the pain I’ve lived with because I was molded and shaped into a vessel of shame from the age of four.
While other little girls were innocently playing with dolls, I was the doll. I was just a toy for one very sick motherfucker. Thankfully, mercifully, I learned that he died a lonely death several years ago. I feel nothing but relief.
I want my daughter to be proud of her whole self. I want her to learn to set boundaries and to listen to her heart. I want her to be protective of her yet-to-bloom sensuality, and to share it only with someone who loves and respects her, body and soul. I want her to know that she is loved, unconditionally, no matter how she looks or what she does. She deserves that love. And so do I.
Every time I complain about being “fat” in front of my daughter I feel a sharp pang deep inside, because I know I am teaching her to judge her appearance based on my own insecurities. I vow to stop doing this to both of us.
I forgive myself. For being human. I was victimized, but I refuse to continue bearing the victim cross. I forgive myself. I will stand tall and be strong. Because I love myself.
When we finally arrive at a place that allows us to contemplate all the undelivered “I’m sorry” and “Fuck you” moments it’s important to look at yourself and say, “I forgive you.” It’s a miracle that I survived my youth. Incest, abuse, alcoholism, drug use…these were the secrets that I helped my fucked up parents to bury deep in my soul’s darkest corners. I felt unworthy of love and I sought attention, any kind of attention, to make me feel like I deserved to be loved, like I deserved to be alive. I thought love was desire. I thought desire meant being sexy. I thought sexy was a Playboy perfect body, which is something I’d never have at 5′ 3″ and 105 lbs. But I gave it my best try. I was a serial monogamist, until I married the wrong person. Then I became a serial cheater. I was so ashamed and so unhappy. It’s taken me years to forgive myself for the dangerously stupid and degrading things I allowed myself to do and be done to me in my teens and 20s. I now have health problems that likely stem from years of stuffing down my feelings. For my daughter’s sake, I’m working on accepting that my former 105 lb. body has been replaced by a steroid-ballooned, 49 year old, Rubenesque form that does not look anything like those Hollywood bitches who “magically” maintain 20 year old bodies. I don’t want my daughter to perceive the shame or the pain I’ve lived with because I was molded and shaped into a vessel of shame from the age of four. While other little girls were innocently playing with dolls, I was the doll. I was just a toy for one very sick motherfucker. I want my daughter to be proud of her whole self. I want her to learn to set boundaries and to listen to her heart. I want her to be protective of her blooming sensuality, and to share it only with someone who loves and respects her, body and soul. Every time I complain about being “fat” in front of my daughter I feel a sharp pang, deep inside, because I know I am teaching her to judge her appearance based on my own insecurities.
I vow to stop doing this to both of us. I forgive myself. I will love myself, my whole self, unconditionally.
Thank you for this. Really. Thank you so very much.
awesome read…as a guy coming from a sickly dysfunctional family, I can adhere tho this lesson wholeheartedly
So brave and beautiful and such an important message. I have been guilty if not being brave many times in my life. Hope this helps others. Love you
Thank you. I am facing my quiet now. For years I have allowed people to say things that bother me and disempower me (my husband does this, and it isn’t anything major, it is just that when he gets stressed out, he goes negative nancy on me, pointing out my flaws, using controlling behaviors, it is his regressive safety net, a set of behaviors that is long standing and outdated, it precedes me, and is not useful or appropriate to our lives anymore) I no longer want to do this. My fear in changing the situation is that I have held in my thoughts for so long, now I am at a point where I am angry enough to alienate. I do not need to alienate. I can say, ‘ouch, that statement hurts me’. And I can allow myself to be heard. I trust he will hear me too. He is a good man. He is willing to change, he knows this behavior is not becoming, it is just part of his wiring and my quiet supports it. So, it is time for me to say, ouch. To remain open to his needs while clearly stating mine. I can do this. And our relationship will benefit. There is vulnerability in this. I embrace this vulnerability. It is OK, we have great love for each other. He can find new ways to express his stress, and it will help him to see how often he lashes out.
This is a really good excerpt from something (I cannot find where by googling the credit at the bottom, so I am leaving the credit as it was when I found it with the author, etc)… Anyways, this hits the nail on the head!
“when she was 7, a boy pushed her on the playground
she fell headfirst into the dirt and came up with a mouthful of gravel and lines of blood chasing each other down her legs
when she told her teacher what happened, she laughed and said ‘boys will be boys honey don’t let it bother you
he probably just thinks you’re cute’
but the thing is,
when you tell a little girl who has rocks in her teeth and scabs on her knees that hurt and attention are the same
you teach her that boys show their affection through aggression
and she grows into a young woman who constantly mistakes the two
because no one ever taught her the difference
‘boys will be boys’
‘that’s how he shows his love’
and bruises start to feel like the imprint of lips
she goes to school with a busted mouth in high school and says she was hit with a basketball instead of his fist
the one adult she tells scolds her
‘you know he loses his temper easily
why the hell did you have to provoke him?’
so she shrinks
folds into herself, flinches every time a man raises his voice
by the time she’s 16 she’s learned her job well
be quiet, be soft, be easy
don’t give him a reason
but for all her efforts, he still finds one
‘boys will be boys’ rings in her head
‘boys will be boys
he doesn’t mean it
he can’t help it’
she’s 7 years old on the playground again
with a mouth full of rocks and blood that tastes like copper love
because boys will be boys baby don’t you know
that’s just how he shows he cares
she’s 18 now and they’re drunk
in the split second it takes for her words to enter his ears they’re ruined
like a glass heirloom being dropped between the hands of generations
she meant them to open his arms but they curl his fists and suddenly his hands are on her and her head hits the wall and all of the goddamn words in the world couldn’t save them in this moment
she touches the bruise the next day
boys will be boys
aggression, affection, violence, love
how does she separate them when she learned so early that they’re inextricably bound, tangled in a constant tug-of-war
she draws tally marks on her walls ratios of kisses to bruises
one entire side of her bedroom turns purple, one entire side of her body
boys will be boys will be boys will be boys
when she’s 20, a boy touches her hips and she jumps
he asks her who the hell taught her to be scared like that and she wants to laugh
doesn’t he know that boys will be boys?
it took her 13 years to unlearn that lesson from the playground
so I guess what I’m trying to say is
i will talk until my voice is hoarse so that my little sister understands that aggression and affection are two entirely separate things
baby they exist in difference universes
my niece can’t even speak yet but I think I’ll start with her now
don’t ever accept the excuse that boys will be boys
don’t ever let him put his hands on you like that
if you see hate blazing in his eyes don’t you ever confuse it with love
baby love won’t hurt when it comes
you won’t have to hide it under long sleeves during the summer
the only reason he should ever reach out his hand
is to hold yours”
Fortesa Latifi – Boys Will Be Boys
wow. thanx. been there done that …& its not ok
I read and I read until the very end. I was calm while reading and many questions speeding through my mind. Some, the same you asked. Until the very end, nothing happened, then my tears just started to flow. For you, the teenage girl, the one in me, in you and in all other teenage girls and boys who were touched when they didn’t want to be touched. You are so brave. It happened to me and at some point in my life I said NO. That’s not what I asked for. It’s not what I wanted. Go away and leave me be. It was not the end of me feeling inadequite and at times, useless. But I thought I owed it to myself and my daughter to protect ourselves and our own sweet sainity. Thank you for sharing this. Loving light to you and all the broken ones who were touched when they shouldn’t have been. <3
Thank you, thank you, thank YOU!
Thank you for this. I say sorry all the time for things I didn’t even do. I did it today while I had my son with me and was it hit me that I had done it again. He is still young enough that he doesn’t completly understand and I don’t want him to see me do that anymore. Thank you for the reminder.
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I agree, Jen. This is an important part of working toward authentic apology…
You wrote, “‘My breasts were no longer part of me. It was if he’d walked away with them.”
How did you take them back or get over the fact that they felt like they weren’t yours anymore?
[…] This post originally appeared at The Manifest-Station. […]
The young girl lives in me too. Truth through your words is easier to swallow.
[…] stuff before and recently, she featured an eye-opening story about sexual assault followed by a powerful essay regarding the culture we live in and women over-apologizing. We think all women should be aware of […]
Thank you! This article is such a great help for me!!
This is what I work on.
[…] the bus, down into the river? Maybe you didn’t think you had a right to be angry, or that you deserved to have a voice? Maybe you thought you were the one that had to say I’m sorry? So many maybes when we look down […]