My father put his hands down my pants, kissed me on the lips, called women broads. And nothing I saw or heard as I was growing up taught me that what he was doing was aberrant or wrong. One man masturbated in front of me, others grabbed my breasts on the subway, pinched my butt, made lewd comments as I wove through crowds. Although these events were always degrading, I believed without knowing I believed that this body was meant to be used, not considered with kindness.
Then my erstwhile therapist handed me a six-foot piece of red string and told me to make a circle around my body, close the ends together, and sit in its center. She told me that the space inside the circle was mine, just mine. Oy, I thought, rolling my eyes. Here we go into the land of psycho-spiritual babble. But in the next second, I blurted: my body isn’t mine, I’ll get in trouble, other people won’t like it. Then I cried.
It was both shocking and not shocking that there was little sense of body-ownership or the power that comes from standing in my own two shoes. Years of having this body shoved and grabbed and pinched had made me into my own metaphorical shover and grabber and pincher: I treated my body the way it had been treated, without boundaries, and with disrespect and contempt.
After practicing the red string project with my therapist and noticing the relief, amazement and sheer power of closing the ends of a measly piece of string, my attitude about my body began to shift. This translated into being willing to listen to the signals it had been broadcasting for years and that I’d been ignoring: the need for rest, discernment about what I ate, where I wanted to spend my energy, who I wanted to be with. I realized that being nice was overrated and that “No” and “I don’t want to” are complete sentences. Eventually, I began teaching the red string project to my students and every time, the reaction was the same: I never knew I was allowed to: have my own body, say no, remain with myself and in my own boundary no matter what someone else is doing or saying.
In addition to the long-overdue #MeToo movement, another piece of unraveling misogyny is to realize that many of us unknowingly treat our bodies with the same harshness, shame and contempt that they were shown. But once we see this—and I have never met a woman, not in the tens of thousands I've met and worked with who cherishes her body or treats it with a modicum of kindness--we can create different patterns of behavior in our brains, in our relationships, and how we talk to ourselves.
Start the red string project. Pick up a six-foot piece of it today. Better yet, buy an entire skein of string and give out pieces to every woman you know. Sit in a chair or on the floor. Put the string around your body, and make sure there is enough space between you and the perimeter on all sides of the circle. Close the ends. Whether you are alone or with a friend, see what it feels like to consider this your inviolable space—and that there is no need to leave it to take care of another person. Notice the affect of reclaiming your body. Carry the red string in your purse, your pocket--or wrap it around your wrist--to remind yourself that you don’t need to forget yourself in challenging interactions. Stay centered. Stay clear. Reclaim your body, your power.