On the cusp of graduating college, I worked in an abortion clinic. During the week I spent my time downstairs in a cubicle writing and researching grants for youth outreach programs. It was like any other office job: the walls white, the cubies grey and our lunch break couldn’t come fast enough. I was bored ninety-five percent of the time. Finding out the clinic was like any other job was a gut punch. I wanted it to be a magical place with posterboard sign sessions, lobbying politicians and delivering faxes to each other on pink unicorns. Instead, I had a chair with wheels and a desk with a Dell.
On Fridays, however, I worked upstairs in abortion care. Due to the Hyde Amendment barring government funding for abortions, my Friday hours were separated on my paystub. For this job, I ditched the mandatory black slacks for plum scrubs and an almost criminal start to my day at 7 o’clock. Each morning, after dropping my toddler off at daycare, I passed the rosary reciters and crucifix holders and megaphone Hail Mary shouters for the parking spots reserved in the back for staff. When my car door opened, a wrinkled volunteer, almost always in his or her seventies, greeted me wearing a yellow vest with a walkie talkie in hand. Together we walked to the front door smiling and exchanging small talk. We always ignored the commotion at the street entrance. To us, the protesters were an inconvenience: one part white noise and another committed threats to women’s autonomy.
Cosmo was Like the Handbook for Patriarchy
As a teen and then a twenty-something, I read magazines furiously. Considering Cosmo the handbook for patriarchy, it was the only mag I never touched, but the rest were fair game. Lazy in the language of woman; I didn’t pluck or have a lotion routine, my face wash came from the drugstore and I shaved my legs with a pink Daisy. Back then I didn’t use polish on my nails and I never, absolutely never, wore flip flops or open toe anything. I hated my feet–still do–but eventually I got over it. I favored high end Biolage products and makeup like Lancome and MAC; my mother shaming me into the former. She was adamant a turkey waddle was on my horizon if I didn’t sing the praises of the Lancome counter and their sorcery.
I wasn’t frumpy — for me a word more heinous than slutty–just awkward. My friends and all the women I saw on TV and within the pages of magazines looked effortlessly female with perfect brows and glowing skin, long and thick hair without fly-aways and kissable lips. They were tall and manicured, flirty and perfect while I was short and chubby with a pixie cut and a full on 70s bush.
Don’t Talk About Sex, Never Have It, Now Go Read This Book
I never felt like shaving or waxing; I was terrified to have someone or something thisclose to my pleasure box. Despite my politics, I grew up with a father insisting I not watch MTV and changing the channel each time a couple kissed. Like most non-practicing Irish Catholics, my household was sexually challenged and frustrated. Sex probably influenced every decision we made because we were so repressed, but I’d be hard pressed to get anyone to admit it. Even now, after birthing two children, there are two things my sister and I don’t mention with my father: love and sex. Ever.
We were a fucked up bunch in all the anecdotal ways a family can be fucked up about reproduction: never talk about sex, never have sex and never talk about sex. Don’t have it. Now, here’s a book with anatomically correct pictures.
My Mother is Probably Behind “People of Walmart”
The decision not to wax or shave or really do anything to my bush was an afterthought. I was too much of a prude to talk to my friends about hair tutorials and my mother was an absolute no-go. She, during one epic battle when I was eighteen, told me I couldn’t spend my life in tee-shirts and jeans.
“ELIZABETH, care about the way you look and how you present yourself; you’re such a disgrace!”
I should also add we were driving to my job at Walmart.
Going to my mother with my crotch issues–when she considered a tee and jeans criminal humiliation–meant my hairy crotch would have sent her into a full on manic episode requiring a blazing Calgon bath followed by a nervous breakdown.
I’ve completely blocked out what it was like the day I got my period.
While working at the abortion clinic I saw hundreds of bodies in various states of undress, and it was a freeing experience for me in all the ways you never think abortion can be liberating. There’s no Photoshop in an abortion clinic that clicks away underarm flab or a stomach flap, double chins or pores. I noticed teal toenails with floral designs, chubby thighs and stretch marks, black granny panties and rainbow boy briefs. Up until Friday mornings, I was convinced no one but me walked around au naturale.
Damn those liars.
Own that Bush or Lack Thereof
Women came to the clinic with all kinds of hair situations (along with different ages, races and socioeconomic statuses): few had nothing, slightly more had a landing strip, most had a trim and, shockingly, a lot more than I ever thought possible were full-on bush sisters.
I didn’t take note of the women to creepily judge their appearance during an intimate and vulnerable moment, I silently applauded their realness as a gift. Each woman gave me an opportunity to erase an airbrushed version of what I thought women should look like: a manufactured and unrealistic idea of perfection with no basis in everyday life. My observations weren’t scientific or otherworldly, but earth shattering for a woman, probably like you, with no idea what real, naked women look like.
We’re all beautiful with or with hair, with or without polish or gloss, long legs or stubby ones, cute underthings or afterthoughts that do their duty. We’re lovely in our skin even if it’s tight or hangs loose or rolls, exceptional even with scars and acne, grey hair and frizz. Without the male gaze, the clicks and the angles, accompanying ads and pretensions, we’re all a set of parts that make up a whole trying to do the best we can with the best we’ve got to live a life full of love, happiness and the ability for each one of us to define what it means to be a woman.