Shortly after my C-section with my twin girls, I went in for a check-up. There, the OB informed me that my uterus was atrophied. Or was it my vagina? Either way, I felt a little ashamed as if I should have been doing something to make it…not…atrophy. I mean, I was working pretty hard breast-feeding and managing twins plus an older son, all the while recovering from surgery. But apparently the deepest, most cavernous place within me somehow – collapsed.
My parents divorced when I was six. And I spent every other weekend at my dad’s apartment. It was in that apartment that my dad asked me to sleep in his bed. I didn’t think much of it. But I do remember how furious my mom became when I told her that sometimes, “When he hugs me while he’s sleeping, I can feel his penis.”
For my 4th grade school photo, I wore a mint green Izod shirt with a collar and a headband with a bow, proudly displaying my newly pierced ears. I gave a print to my dad to which he promptly replied, “You look developed.” I had no idea what he meant but I was uncomfortable as he failed to explain. But, what about my earrings?
During 5th grade, I was sleeping on the L-shaped couch at my dad’s apartment, my brother and his friend on the other side. Tucked in sheets over the beige suede pillows, swaddled in my long Tina Turner nightgown, I woke up to my brother’s friend kissing me. I never told anyone.
In 6th grade I walked home from school alone – it was the latch key era. One eventful day as I’m singing a Madonna song, I notice a beat up car following me. At the wheel, a bearded man with no pants, drives with one hand. He turns down my cul de sac looking for me side to side, like a rifle to a doe. I hide behind a car until he loses patience and I watch him drive away.
Vacationing with a friend in 7th grade, we are swimming at a hotel pool all day. We dive down to the bottom, laughing and adjusting our boobs and wedgies. With pruny fingers and the setting sun, a polite man comes over to us. He just wanted to inform us that the pool is connected to a bar. And the bar has a huge window where men folk sip their drinks while admiring all the little mermaids.
In 8th grade that same friend of my brothers makes another appearance, though now it’s at my dad’s “80s big money house.” This time he’s in my bed pulling down my underwear. I try to get away but he keeps following me. I slip away to my bedroom closet and wake up alone on the berber carpeted floor with the closet door locked from the inside.
In high school, I’m waiting to get picked up by my stepdad. A boy who has an obsession with me, finds me sitting on the gas station curb. He is talking. I look away. Blah blah, conspiracy theory, Jim Morrison and hey maybe you can pose for a photo shoot. He then says matter of factly, “You know, if your boobs were any bigger they’d be grotesque.”
In college I awaken to a man trying to break into my apartment early one morning after a late Halloween night – his green truck still idling in the parking lot below. He was hoping us college girls forgot to lock the door.
Twenty years ago in San Francisco, I was married on the hottest day of the year. Honey drenched sun poured in through the windows, my heart full in a custom made satin dress. A friend walked up to me (let’s call him John Douschebag) and whispered, “I never knew you were so stacked.”
Several years later, now with three kids in tow, I’m at the airport preparing for a trip across the country. I’m reeling from an early morning of logistics and I had just gotten my period. I come out of the bathroom disheveled, with heavy boobs and cramps, walking towards my family. A man thrusts himself in my path and asks, “Why don’t you smile?”
My body – my boobs – have never felt like mine. Rather, they are simply an art piece: for men to contemplate or admire, to reflect their longing and loneliness, their grief, their tension, their aggression or their misunderstanding.
How can I own something that’s never felt like mine? Even the jarring physical sensation of childbirth – I didn’t own. Rather, it was something for doctors to drug and extract from. I’ve delivered children both ways and I can say: the “natural” of the two ain’t natural – and I’m still numb from where they cut me open.
I’m still numb—
where they cut me open.
Nikki Levine is a photographer, painter – and writer. She has been enthralled with image making since she was a teenager. Having the power to stop time while capturing the raw emotion of a moment is as compelling now as it was then. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, son and twin girls who all keep her inspired, appreciative and joyful.
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