I’m running and running and running. And I don’t know why I am running so hard or what I am running away from, but I actually do know exactly what I am running away from and why I am running so hard for in the same breath.
It is dark. I shouldn’t be running. It is past midnight. I shouldn’t be running. But that is part of the reason I run, part of why I take the risk anyway, because I need to defy something, anything. in my own terms.
I only pass men during my run. All of them are alone, except for a pair walking to an apartment.
I refuse to make eye contact, but I take note of their distinguishing features as I’ve been taught.
After all, I am a woman running past midnight near an ocean in a foreign country.
I remember the first time I truly wanted to impress a guy I liked.
I was at university. Most of my life up to that point, I’d had crushes, but I’d been too nervous to properly do anything about it. At a small school where I was an outcast, there weren’t exactly many options, and real life didn’t really have those movie plots of the most popular guy in school falling for the girl who wore anime shirts and elephant pants and listened to Sailor Moon mixed CDs in her spare time.
This was the first time I felt in my element. I worked at a gaming store. Where I had just as much in common with the people around me, where video game conversation was never boring, nor the next anime or book or fanfiction or comic or basically everything I held dear my entire life.
I was the only girl who worked there at the time. But being surrounded by guys wasn’t new to me. Girls tended to be cruel growing up and were more interested in lotions and looking their best, a past time I gave up when I’d discovered pants in the first grade. Pants meant I could climb and run and get dirty with no one getting angry. I hadn’t worn a dress without a proper formal reason for years.
Earlier that year, I’d gone to visit my friend Ashley in the cities. She’d chosen the dress for me. She worked in a mall, and she said we should go shopping so I could see myself in a new light. A free makeover to see how my features would change, to see that making myself up is a positive thing rather than hiding who you are. That it was just another side to who you are.
I looked in the mirror after putting the dress on and saw a stranger.
“Oh my fucking god,” she said in her ‘yeah, that’s damn sexy’ voice. She was excited and pleased as punch. “Oh my fucking god, Mallory, you’re getting this dress.”
“I don’t know,” I said in my ‘I’m ever-so uncomfortable right now’ voice. I twisted to look at my pudgy waistline and thick arms. The dress had thin straps and my breasts were far out of their own men’s-shirts-for-life comfort zone. You could see the space between my breasts, as well as the tops of my breasts, in this dress. I’d never worn clothes and felt naked before. Even my bathing suits felt more covered, mostly because I always wore shorts to hide the fact that I didn’t have that ever-famous thigh gap the girls who wore bikinis raved over.
The gap I now know most of them starved themselves for.
“We’re getting it,” Ashley said, waving her hand in an absolute manner. “It’s perfect. You deserve to feel feminine and have something to remind yourself that it is okay to feel soft.” She meant emotionally as well as physically.
I trusted, and still do, Ashley immensely. She was the first lady friend I had that didn’t make me feel guilty for not smoking pot with everyone or getting drunk at parties. She was the first person who didn’t take me not participating in these activities as being naive, needing to stay pure, and instead treated me like an adult, speaking frankly about sex, masturbation, and life in general, taking my questions and thoughts seriously rather than someone who should be sheltered from the bad things in the world. I’d never felt so much respect for my being. She was my closest gal friend from high school.
“Excuse me,” a random woman, having moved beside us to look in the mirror as well, said. “I couldn’t help but over hear your conversation…but that dress looks amazing on you. Buy it. You won’t regret it.”
“See?” Ashley wiggled her eyebrows, giving her sweet laugh that felt like caramels melting in your mouth. “Now, let’s get that make up.”
This dress was what I stuffed my bag to wear at the end of my shift to impress a boy as I left the store. I’d gotten some tips from gal acquaintances earlier when I’d mentioned I wasn’t sure how to know if he liked me back, remembered what Ashley had said about wearing my dress/hair/face paints, and I had been told the best way to jump from someone who was ‘just one of the guys’ to ‘a viable dating partner’ was to show off my assets. I was to pretend I was meeting up with friends at a party if asked about my attire, but take note of his reaction to what I wore and the change of pace in my lifestyle choices.
When I left the bathroom after changing, I couldn’t have been more nervous or out of who I was as a person. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, much less with the cold air that the tops and some sides of my breasts now felt. The dress seemed to have taken away my personality.
“Oh, you’re dressed up,” he said, glancing up from counting out the cash drawer. “Going somewhere?”
I shifted, trying not to look as if I were curious at how he was taking in my newfound wardrobe. He just looked me in the eyes and smiled before going back to his counting.
“Yeah, a friend said to dress up before going to their place. A party or something.”
“Have fun.” He barely looked at me as he waved me off.
Later, in a dorm room with my friend Russ-L, the place where my “party” was, I cried in his arms over finally trying to do something that millions of other teenagers accomplished years prior to me. I hadn’t been myself, I’d followed instructions to a ‘T’, and I was noticed as much as stale peanuts were near a garbage in the park.
“He didn’t even look at my boobs!” I wailed, moving my hands around my chest that still felt unnatural. My whole body felt hot from being so upset, but they were surprisingly cool, used to the extra layer of a tank top beneath another shirt. Several other women had told me that this was how guys worked when they liked someone–they looked at their boobs when even slightly on display, and it was a sure sign that they were interested. This was their suggestion of figuring out if a guy liked them.
“Maybe he was giving you the respect you deserve,” Russ-L replied, trying to get me to give him eye contact rather than covering my face in my hands in an ashamed behavior. “Maybe he wasn’t looking because it’s rude to stare like that, you know?”
I did know. I hated when guys did that. It was why I usually covered up so much, usually keeping myself to a disfigured blob in my sweaters and painters jeans.
“But it just means I’m not looked at as a woman,” I sniffled. “I’m never a woman.”
Russ-L held my hand.
“Mallory, you’re beautiful.”
But I didn’t believe him. He was my gay best friend. He would tell me anything because he saw me in a different light.
I’m running, and I get to the spot where the water from the river meets up with the ocean, and I have to stop because now I can’t breathe, not with my throat closing from the tears streaming down my face and the panting I have from running so hard. My lungs struggle, my hands shake, but standing still is not an option just yet.
I’m thinking of Russ-L, about how he was the first man I met who told me I was beautiful outside of my father in a way I now know he meant because he knew who I was rather than because I could have had a pretty face. I know he meant it because there was no possible ulterior motive beyond being an honest friend. He grew to know me and saw my beauty from that.
This information is overwhelming for me, this realization that the one main guy I trusted beyond my father at that age saw my beauty, but I couldn’t appreciate it until now. I slow down to breathe and let the rain cool my skin.
How long had it actually taken me to feel beautiful of my own accord?
Growing up, I always felt my one true beauty was my hair. My mother tied my hair back in tight braids out of fear for lice. It got me in the thought process that this was something to protect. I disliked how plain the color was, having always wanted something curly and of the reddish variety, but this was the part of me that was always complimented on wherever I went by those around me. It was silky smooth, long, and healthy. Never dyed. Plain boring as fuck.
Meanwhile, I desperately envied those with what I wanted. Julia Roberts had the hair one could only dream about in my younger opinion.
But I didn’t want to ruin the one thing I was consistently complimented on. I hid myself in baggy pants and Pokemon shirts because I “knew” I didn’t look like the other girls, but I kept my hair as perfect as someone who rolled around in the dirt could. Just to have something.
The day I discovered henna for hair was the day I realized that childhood dreams could come true. I was ecstatic. I could dye my hair while conditioning it rather than killing my hair each time I needed to renew the color.
Goodbye dishwater-blonde ugly, I thought as the slabs of wet henna hit my scalp. Hours later, after washing the gunk out, I looked in the mirror and saw a new woman, the one I’d always wanted to be. I’d gotten my cat-eye glasses the year prior. This other change solidified feeling a part of myself being more complete. More comfortable in my own skin.
When I saw my best gal friend at university after I’d gotten it done, she looked at me oddly.
“What?” I’d asked. I was so happy.
“I didn’t think you’d ever do that to your hair,” she replied.
“But it doesn’t ruin it,” I said excitedly. “It actually helps to keep it healthy! I’m finally a redhead!”
“I just didn’t think you’d, I don’t know, stoop to what so many others do to their hair?”
My shoulders sagged. I wondered if I’d gotten rid of my one true beauty doing what I’d always dreamed of doing.
The other day, I was invited out to a pub with a few guys from the hostel I am staying at. I was excited not only because I was feeling as if I’d chosen a comfortable hostel to stay at, but also because I’d always felt more comfortable conversing with guys than with girls, at least when you knew it was a night out versus the guys trying to get laid. In a group of guys, I was also less likely to have someone from the bar hit on me, too. And it was rarer to find a lady traveling as into nerdy stuff as I was, so I felt I was double in my element.
I could relax.
I wouldn’t have to feign interest in the different types of makeup or shoes or clothes we all bought, the typical topics that come up among women who don’t know each other quite well. It all eventually devolved into talking about boys, and after my incident my Freshman year of college, I’d learned a more about not only what a guy may look for, but a lot of what I look for. It didn’t tend to mesh well with the drama, devolving me to a lot of nodding, smiling, and wishing I were playing a video game instead, which then turned into guilt as I didn’t want to come off as being “above” talking about those topics, but guilt raged on when I’d realize I have no idea what was said in the past ten minutes as I was strategizing a battle I’d been stuck on in Dragon Age instead.
As the night wore on, the guys were far drunker than I was, and our conversation swayed from travel to them asking about my sexual preference as I owned a rather fantastic rainbow jumper I was more than fond of.
I’d expected some sort of response. I replied that, no, I was straight, although an ally. I just really loved rainbows ever since I was a child.
One of the guys leaned in and said in a slightly slurred Irish accent, “Good. Have you ever wondered if you were gay, though?”
“Of course,” I replied. “I think everyone takes a moment to wonder if they’re attracted to the same sex or not. It’s only natural. I haven’t found me attracted to a lady like I am a man yet, though.”
“If you ever do,” he said, leaning in closer to my ear. I’d leaned in more as it was more difficult to hear him. “Just come find me. I’ll take you, go down on you, suck your clit so hard, make you come so hard, you’ll never have a thought about converting.”
My body went cold, hand clutching my drink a bit tighter. This was the last thing I was expecting to come out of his 50-year-old mouth who told me he had a girlfriend he was meeting on his trip to Dubai and Thailand in the coming weeks. Despite the outrage spewing forth in my mind and wanting to bust out of my mouth, I kept my expression even, smooth, calm.
“This is my last drink,” I said, trying not to allow the words, Why the fuck would you say that to a person?! wallop out instead.
The man worked at the hostel I was staying at, a place that I liked and felt safe at. I struggled to keep the anger at bay that would typically have a spilled drink over the head because I worried if it would mean my peace would be disrupted instead. Ruin my holiday with going to a more expensive hostel, running into the people I’d met at the hostel on one of my outings and dealing with their pity mixed with ambivalence as the situation didn’t affect them, and I’d also gotten a brief offer of trade to get free sleeping space for helping them around the holidays. What was the line of showing what was said being wrong while also keeping my goals a possibility? How well did I know the rest of the hostel to support my claims if I did or said anything? Was Irish culture to brush these incidents off as a drunken stupor rather than a problem worth looking at?
“Getting tired,” I continued, trying to drain my cider rather than throwing it in his face. I’d ultimately decided my being tipsy should mean I take the route of avoiding techniques rather than me drunkenly trying to defend my honor. And him drunkenly defending himself in response. I couldn’t fully trust me being gentle in words or otherwise.
As I left, he leaned over once more to say, “Meet me in room six.”
“No, thank you,” I said cordially, refusing to apologize as so many do for their perfectly valid emotions. I walked quickly out of the pub to soothe my anger and shaking that comes with the feelings of violation in the crisp air.
This wasn’t the first time this has happened. Nor the last. It seemed I’d be getting this treatment from anyone, anywhere.
“I felt bad that night,” Kenneth said, hours before I’d started running. “When Omar thought he could have something of you upstairs and you came back down and asked me, you were so upset, if you gave off some vibe that you wanted to be taken advantage of. And the answer is ‘no’, Mallory. None of this is your fault. It’s those fucknuts of men who are wrong, not you, there is nothing wrong with you. It’s men. And I just get the feeling like you keep thinking it’s your fault. It isn’t you. It’s them. And I don’t understand why you’d ever think it’s you. You’re lovely.”
“Maybe,” I said quietly, keeping my eyes downcast so he couldn’t see them shine over, “it’s because most people don’t believe us when this stuff happens.”
“How d’you mean?”
“‘Boys will be boys’,” I quoted softly, cheeks warm, finding the counter fascinating.
I paced near where the water churned from river into ocean. In those situations, I always check myself, wonder if I’d done or said anything. It seems logical, at first, since you’d take a look at your actions if a friend suddenly stopped talking to you, if your coworkers are giving you the side-eye, or if you think something you’d said could be taken several different ways.
Kenneth’s words were resounding in my head, and I knew he was right. I knew it because I’d said them over and over to many other women, close or otherwise, spouting a truth that I wasn’t applying to myself because I hardly ever believed I was giving off these signs, was purposefully avoiding, highly aware of myself, giving off signs in 98% of my interactions with men for fear of giving off these wrong signals, and yet the same results.
Basically, I have been overcompensating for years in an attempt to never be in the position of sexual harassment.
I wish I was never considered beautiful in any way, I thought. Then, it would all go away.
I immediately realized how incorrect this statement was. For years, I had thought I’d only had one true physical beauty. I would sigh in that slight, hoping way, thinking that if I were a bit more this or a bit more that, the respect level would be different. I wouldn’t have to deal with the issues that women of my stature would have to deal with. Except that when I “blossomed” (i.e. became comfortable with myself and had confidence), nothing truly changed. Considered ugly, we don’t matter enough to be given respect. Beautiful, it is considered respect to be disrespected.
No matter a woman’s shell, we’re trapped.
During 2014, I began to get angry and fed up with how I was treated. I was to be nice, but not overly so or else I was trying too hard. I needed some bit of feminine beauty or else I was considered a ‘dyke’, manhater, or ‘feminazi’. But if I wore too many dresses and spent too much on my outward appearance, I wasn’t taken seriously enough in my career or hobbies.
I felt my life was becoming a proving match. Yes, I knew how to not only wear a dress, but also the maze beneath Kakariko Village within the well. Yes, I was running a 5k every day, but if I wore anything less than capris and a shirt, I’d be dealing with honked horns or shouting from cars. I could punch out some moves in Super Smash Bros., but I’d have to play extra hard if I wore heels to the match as the ridicule could be endless–I was always picked on formy feminine choices first, complimented on my Tomboy attire second, all after I proved I could play and talk like a nerd.
I’d always considered myself a ‘strong’ woman. I can’t bench press one hundred pounds, but I can lift an end of large, oak dressers and cement tiles and roofing materials. I also speak my mind, and pick and choose the appropriate times to properly scold a man telling me what to do, how to be, or anything else that would indicate someone has power over my being.
I’ve grown a lot since thinking I needed to dress my breasts up in order to tell a man I was interested. I was comfortable in anything that didn’t mean I had to talk about liking anyone as more than a friend, anyway.
I was tired, however. A game was being played. And I was beginning to see what it meant to play it as a woman.
I am laying in the arms of an attractive guy I’d only just met a few hours prior to that moment in time. We’d met thanks to a mutual friend, and I was feeling good about myself as I was the healthiest I’d been in a long while, mentally and physically. He’d let his intentions be known from the moment we’d met, a nice change of pace, although I would have gathered the notion from his stunned impression of me as we shook hands anyway. The fact that I played video games and read like a fiend had only sealed the deal.
We’ve been talking into the night since getting back from the Irish festival in Minneapolis. I’m feeling warm and attractive as we keep talking about fan theories on television shows and swap different internet websites.
Earlier, a woman with us had mentioned this man’s love of redheads, and how he jumps at the opportunity to be with any of them. He gushes a bit about his love for Felicia Day. I take a lull in the conversation to ask, “Do you really only like me for my red hair?”
He pauses, then replies, “That’s what I first noticed about you. But you seem really smart, we have a lot in common, and you’re really funny. Plus, you’re really pretty.”
I nod at this information, cheeks red, heart thumping lightly at my initiative to ask and at his response. I was more than just pretty; I was interesting. For once.
I snuggle in closer.
I’d always wanted to be pretty when I was younger. It’s part of the game. Everyone plays to some extent, sometimes without even realizing it, because being attractive is important in all roles of life, from business to romantic partners.
The game is: you want to be as beautiful as possible without knowing it, always reaching for more, but not letting anyone know you are because knowing you are beautiful means you’re vain and a dick.
I didn’t want to be associated with this, so I simply ignored beauty for as long as I could. I associated with being pretty as being a part of the cruel ‘in’ crowd that loved to torture me with insults, laughter, and stealing my school supplies if I left them lying out and about.
‘Never trust a pretty person’ became a good motto to live by for a while. The more someone cared about their appearance to be cool for cool’s sake, the less likely I was to believe a word out of their mouth. Instead, I wanted to trust those who had their own brains. I wanted to get to know them first, judge them on their actions. Attraction of any form would blossom from that way.
I struggle with accepting myself as beautiful and accepting that someone else may find me beautiful as well, especially when a person doesn’t know who I am. I struggle being called pretty or beautiful or gorgeous when a person has barely known me long enough to tell me anything of my other qualities. It can not only feel superficial, but the label feels as if it is pinning me to only my physical qualities.
I struggle with the struggle of wanting to be beautiful, but not wanting that to be the defining factor of who I am as a person.
Dating is hard with this mindfuck of a thought process.
I’ve started running again because I see people coming toward me and I don’t want them to see me upset cry as very few are privy to that and I’ve gotten out most of the ugly thoughts now that my body is moving and I am reminding myself of all the things my body can do, what it has accomplished, what I can do, what I can accomplish.
There are a few moments where my throat chokes up again, when I think of how tired I am having to tell drunk men I’m not interested in their attitudes or suggestions and dealing with the consequences of insults to threats of my demise, or when a stranger tells me to smile after a long day of dealing with shit because it is more attractive, or when I get a man telling me what rape really means because they know how women actually work when they’re drunk.
Microagressions get overwhelming in time.
I calm down just before I get to the hostel. I’ve run unusually far, but it will allow me to sleep. On days like this, I have to run to get myself to be too exhausted to do anything but sleep or else my mind is furiously sifting through shit after shit, and running gives me the sensation of being strong even when I’m not feeling particularly strong emotionally.
It also boosts the serotonin.
And I’m a bit defiant in having run until two in the morning. Fuck patriarchy, I think.
Today, while walking around town to different spots I hadn’t wandered to yet, I caught a glimpse of myself in a window and I felt my own breath catch in surprise because I was beautiful.
My hair wasn’t washed and it was kind of messy from a quick brush before the wind took hold of it for most of the day. I’m wearing old capris with wool socks that don’t match my shoes, which are also old and well used. My hat, stolen from Kenneth, who found it in a garbage can before washing it and cutting out the debris, is a bit raggedy, too.
But it was because of how damn happy I looked. No cares were on that face I saw. You could tell in the eyes that my heart was a-flutter in glee. I would have probably started dancing if it were a musical, gods forbid.
It probably was due to a moment in the park. I looked up to find a dog running for just a pinch less of what he was worth, a man just behind him on his tail. No leash was between them. When the dog caught the corner, I could tell it wasn’t their first time — he only glanced back to make sure his owner was still there, then leaned as he rounded the corner to inch a bit faster. I moved to the side of the sidewalk as they neared. The man, wild grin on face, and I caught gaze causing laughter on both our parts as he passed by. It was so wonderful. When I turned back front, I glanced up to see a huge rainbow spread across the sky.
Of course I was happy.