A month into school at UWC Robert Bosch College back in 2014, a friend of mine ransacked my closet to see all the pretty clothes that I had but did not wear.
Pretty clothes that were donated to me because the clothes I had before I left to Germany were many years old.
Exclamations of “Selina!” “Look at this!” “All these dresses and you don’t wear them.” The problem was the dresses to me were revealing. Mini-strap and mid-thigh dresses. The young woman who donated me her clothes, these were her prom dresses. I remember my whimsical thought when I received the clothes, “Wow, prom dresses. Something I only see in the movies and Lil’ Party.”
In my country, the men’s eyes were/are leery. The line between family member and not are sadly myths. You become a sexual object to them. I see now that it did not help much but it made me feel safe being dressed in long baggy shirts, basketball shorts, or billowy skirts. Coming to Germany was challenging in ways I did not expect because now my daily was jeans and long sleeve tops that did not reach my thigh, covering my bottom and pelvis area.
“I do not want to attract attentions.”
“The boys attentions.”
Hades, but that was hard to admit. My pride took a blow. To anyone who never stops wonder, ask, or simply just respect one’s wishes, what they hear is different.It was everything we Marshallese are taught against. Always be humble. Never brag. When I admitted I did not want the boys attention, it came across as being cocky. Because it meant I knew I was attractive and capable of getting attention. I was THAT confident in my looks.
It is not something I like saying or acknowledging. That I am attractive. But I am not blind. I can see myself in the mirror. I have seen how others look at me and I have been complimented many times on my looks. Growing up I was asked out a lot, all except for one I turned down.
What I wanted to convey was that I was scared, fearful.
“Selina, I think you are too arrogant. You are not going to attract so much attention just because you wear a short dress. They are not going to come at you.”
But they have and they will. I thought.
I just looked at her, muted. I did not want to explain. I did not want her pity and understanding. Explaining meant opening up. Having to relive every touch, every weight on me, every word, every feeling. My nights were already spent in vivid nightmares and muffled tears. I did not want to give them the power to follow me through my days as well. I needed respite as well.
Later I tried on the dresses. I looked disgustingly good. My friends did my hair and we took photos. It was actually quite fun. Then someone knocked and came into the room. I ran behind the closet door. He asked why I was hiding and I came out.
He said, “You have nothing to be ashamed of. You have very pretty legs.”
There was nothing lecherous or evil about how he said it. I could tell he was being genuine. He truly was.
I smiled but the fire was doused in me. The need for a long, billowy skirt came strong. The need to tell him to not smile and not look at my legs was swift. The need to cover my bare arms and chest was urgent. But because as a child growing up abused, the words “don’t cry.” “don’t tell anyone.” “it will bring shame on the family.” was the answer to my ever growing scars and bruises, I remained mute and still.
Every compliment on my physical appearance always leaves me wanting to scratch my innards because it reminded me that it was my fault. If I was not physically attractive enough, I would not have to receive so much unwanted attention. It is my fault that they kept coming at me. If only, if only I was ugly.
“Oh Selina you are so pretty.”
“Oh no no. I am not.”
“Oh yes you are. Don’t deny it.”
And there continues the tug of war game of denying and convincing.
Years later, I learned how to make it die as soon as it started.
The conversations now go like this,
“Oh Selina, you are so pretty.”
*smiles* “Thank you.”
And just like that, no more.
I found a safe space. Immediately saying thank you as soon as I am complimented on my face or my body. The focus and the talk, at least I hope, on my face or my body would cease.
Because there is this gratifying assumption or acknowledgement that if a person says, “Thank you.” to a compliment rather than denying it, it means they are self-assured. They know and do not need extra buttering.