TGIF: How I Made Peace with my Breasts in a Brothel

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[TRIGGER WARNING] Sexual content.

F_Tina

I. PREQUEL

I’ve never understood the mass appeal of breasts. (Yes, mass appeal. I couldn’t resist.)

My boobs first became problematic in 1992. They weren’t meaty enough to warrant a bra. And yet, there was enough there to make my chest look lumpy under a t-shirt. This is when my back permanently assumed the shape of the letter ‘C.’ A concave stance ensured my shirt wouldn’t cling to, “My humps, my humps, my lovely little lumps.”

When my shirt clung, despite my best efforts, I felt shame: the particular humiliation of simply being in the body of a ten-year-old girl.

Then I became a teenager and my breasts grew. The stakes got higher. My breasts now made me feel unsafe.

On five separate occasions, my boobs were grabbed, groped, or pulled by total strangers. There was no method to the madness. It happened in an elevator, coming off a school bus, walking home after working with my math tutor, in a parking lot …

In the rain.
In the dark.
On a train.
In a car.
In a tree.

I do not like them, Sam, you see.

I was baffled by how two lumps of flesh compelled strangers to ignore the social norms of decency. I hated being gawked at. But I guess it was still better than being mauled.

The tendency of my teenage breasts to invite violation made me feel fear and shame.

Then there was the bulk of my twenties. I was at the bottom of the food chain. A good bra was (and still is) mucho dinero! I was trying to hold down a minimum wage job and pay off student loans. Bras were a pricey—yet essential—line item in my otherwise lean budget.

Then there was motherhood. Until this point, my boobs had been purely ornamental. It was finally game time.

In the beginning, breastfeeding hurt like a mother$^@%*#! But eventually my nipples healed and the most blessed and beautiful calluses formed. I slowly coached my son to drink like a civilized person and not a rabid street dog.

My well-earned boobie bliss quickly evaporated. I found out breastfeeding is a SUPER-charged political and human rights issue.

If you breastfed in public … (Eww. Get a room!)
Shame.

If you breastfed in private … (Hello Prudey McPruderson!)
For shame.

If you ran out of milk … (Congratulations! You’ve failed kindergarten. I mean, motherhood.)
The shamiest of shames.

If you weaned “early”… (*cough* Selfish.)
Shame.

If you weaned “late”… (Eww. Get a room! Crazy hippie…)
Super-soaker shame.

In conclusion, boobs?
Not my favourite.

II. BAPTISM BY FIRE

In early April, I accompanied a motley crew of brilliant women to Thailand. We were invited to learn about human trafficking by a nonprofit organization called Exodus Road. They focus on targeted interventions to find and free trafficked minors.

Still very jet-lagged, we prepared to visit Walking Street, a red light district in Pattaya. Our guide Matt warned us, “This is going to feel like baptism by fire.”

He was right.

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Walking Street was Adult Disneyland on crack. The neon-lit strip was peppered with “happy ending” massage parlors, brothels, go-go bars, live music, cabarets, juice stands, seafood restaurants, and even a 7-Eleven!

People bustled past each other.

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Girls stood in front of “clubs” (brothels) wearing close to nothing. Some dancing. Some bored. Some on their phones.

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I had a lovely encounter with a ladyboy. She was stunning. Tall. Elegant. Killer bone structure.

When my friend Laura asked if I could take a picture, she said “yes” so graciously it immediately put me at ease.

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“You’re beautiful!” I yelled over all the noise.

She melted into a gooey smile.

“I love your headpiece!”

“I made it myself!” she beamed, touching it with pride. She bounced up and down like an excited child. She thanked me again and again with multiple wais. (Slight bows with her palms pressed together.)

“No, no. Thank YOU!” I said, bowing with my camera.

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Elsewhere, men called out with laminated menus of sexual services trying to entice people into picking their brothels—kinda like Little Caesar‘s with their $5 Hot-n-Ready pizzas.

“You want two girls? You want three girls?”

We walked past a shawarma stand …

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And then a place selling fried chicken …

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Meat for sale.

All different kinds.

Human.
Poultry.

Step right up. Take your pick!

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My head and my heart were spinning.

As I teetered on the brink of emotional vertigo, my eyes settled on an old lady selling flowers.

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She had the brightest and kindest eyes, with long-stemmed red roses in one arm and garlands of fragrant jasmine draped over the other.

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Laura bought three garlands of jasmine and put one around my neck.

“Who buys flowers HERE?” I wondered.

I guess we just had.

III. A CROWN OF JASMINE

I don’t know what I was expecting a brothel to look like. But the room I walked into was so much smaller than I’d imagined.

There was an elevated platform illuminated by purple and blue lights. Six poles in the centre were flanked by seats on either side. There was nowhere to hide.

My eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room. I noticed two girls engaged in a LIVE sex act on a table parallel to the stage.

My heart raced.

Calm down and stick to the plan, Tina.

The Plan:

1. Find a seat.
2. Order a Coke Zero. (Upgrade to something harder if necessary.)
3. Be cool. (Don’t cry and get us all kicked out of here.)
4. Invite a girl to sit with us.
5. Keep the conversation light.
6. Humanize (the girl).
7. Humanize (the staff).
8. Humanize (the customers).
9. Breathe.

To the right of us was an overweight man surrounded by three girls, his hands roughly smashing their breasts.

His eyes, vacant.
Their eyes, vacant.

The girls on the stage were dressed in school uniforms. (Think: Britney Spears circa the 90s.) A third of them were topless. The rest of them wore unbuttoned white shirts tied at the chest, exposing their bare midriffs. Microscopic skirts flashed glimpses of their thongs.

I’d never seen so many breasts in my life. Big boobs. Small boobs. Long boobs. Pointing-east-and-west boobs. I-think-she-is-a-minor boobs. Pretty-sure-she-breastfed boobs.

All around the room were men with a drink in one hand and breasts in the other.

Freakin’ boobs, I thought. Always a liability.

A group of girls moved their hips sensually on the stage in front of me. They watched themselves in a mirror as they danced around the poles.

Except for …

This one girl.

While the rest of the girls were channeling their inner Shakira, this sweet girl was channeling P!nk. Her armband read #22. She stood out like a STOP sign on a dirt road.

Her frame? Lanky. No boobs—or butt for that matter. Her manner? A far cry from seductive. She was boisterous and silly. Why compete to be the head cheerleader when you could be the class clown?

She play-humped the stripper pole; and made funny faces at the other girls until they smiled, forced to break the veneer of seduction. I felt like I was watching an SNL skit about a brothel, even though I was still smack dab in the middle of one.

#22 and I finally caught each other’s eye. In one glance, she turned my nervous smile into a chuckle.

We asked the mamasan (the woman in charge) if she could bring #22 to join us for a drink.

Number 22 climbed off the stage and plopped down between my friend Nikki and me like a little kid. She was a kid.

“You have beautiful eyes!” I said, trying to break the ice.

“Awww,” she sighed, “Thank you!”

Then she pointed at my eyes, “Beautiful, also!”

Small talk with a total stranger is always painfully awkward. So try and imagine small talk in a brothel, halfway across the world, with loud music, 360 degrees of nudity, a live sex show, and a language barrier!

Still, we persevered.

We managed to cover some of the basics. Her name? Fai. (Not her real name.) She supports her family back in her village. She has a younger sister.

She comes into work at 7pm to get ready. At 8pm, when everyone is dressed, the mamasans pray with the girls for good “business” so they can meet their nightly targets. Fai heads home around 4am when her shift typically ends.

She’s only been working at this brothel for a few months. Her previous place had shut down suddenly. She misses her old friends.

A natural hush fell over our conversation. I was processing everything I’d just heard.

The mamasan looked suspiciously in our direction.

We sipped our drinks and bopped along to the music, trying to look upbeat.

“I like your tattoo,” I said pointing to her back.

Her eyes lit up. “I want a new one!”

“What are you going to get next time?” I instantly regretted this question. How on earth was this girl supposed to describe her next tattoo to me in broken English?

Fai pointed at her earrings, “This. Next time. This.”

I leaned forward in the dark to get a closer look.

A dangly silver cross glimmered back at me.

Gobsmacked, I asked, “But why?”

She pointed upward and pressed her palms together, “I pray to God. All the time. I believe.”

Be cool. Be cool. Be cool.
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

Now the mamasan was definitely onto us.

Fai gave Nikki and me one last bear hug before heading back to the stage. I felt sick.

Words were worthless. But I had to do something. I had to communicate that she mattered. I had to communicate solidarity, sisterhood and love.

So I took off the jasmine garland around my neck and slipped it over her head.

She smiled and bounced back onto the stage. Without skipping a beat, she shook and shimmied her non-bosoms to make her friends laugh.

Then she stopped dancing to wrap the jasmine garland around her head, like a crown.

And in that moment, she was transformed.

She was celestial and royal; a priestess.

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IV. THOUGHTS IN THE AFTERGLOW

Richard Rohr writes that God “comes to us disguised as ourselves.” The disguise invites recognition. Its power is this: as we see God in ourselves, we gain permission to see ourselves in God.

In the moment of transfiguration, the girl on the stage morphed into the 10-year-old version of myself. I saw a prepubescent south Indian girl growing up in Dubai. I saw the girl who curved her back to avoid her clingy shirt. I saw a teenager, frustrated with being objectified. I saw a young adult who felt defined by her thin resume and empty bank account. I saw a new mother vacillating between feelings of being too much and not enough.

I also saw something else in the transfiguration. I saw the divine spilling out of Fai. I felt it spill out of me too.

All this while, we had been whispering “Namaste.” We had been doing this without realizing it: through exchanged tokens and compliments. This ancient Sanskrit word, “Namaste,” means, “I bow to you.” The divine in me honours the divine in you. A crown of jasmine had forged an unspoken kinship between us.

In the throes of kinship, I felt rage. I felt a quiet, forceful rage. I felt rage at the indignity of the lies incarcerating our shared womanhood.

As the images of God in us recognized one another, we danced … and smiled … and raged.

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Pema Chödrön writes that the truest and best measure of compassion lies not in our service of those in the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.

In inviting us to participate in stories of freedom, Exodus Road compels us to such kinship. I hope you will consider joining me in supporting their team in India.

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Tina Francis
My name is Tina. Loved ones call me: Teen. Words are my chocolate. Music, my caramel. Photography, my bread. Girlfriends, my butter. Confession: Some girls dream about Manolo Blahniks or their next Hermes bag. Not me. I dream of freshly baked bread, perfectly barbecued meat & steaming bowls of Pho. My dream lover *cue Mariah Carey song* is someone who would read out a menu to me in Barry White’s baritone voice. I celebrate food, ask for help, interrupt conversations, laugh and cry hard, acknowledge the elephant in most rooms, fight for the underdog and believe in the power of storytelling. I was born and raised in Dubai and currently live in the beautiful city of Vancouver, known for some of the best sushi in the world.
Tina Francis
Tina Francis
  • Dalaina May

    gorgeous. thanks for sharing this story.

    • You’re so welcome, Dalaina. Thank you for reading the whole dang thing. (It’s so long.) 🙂

  • Saskia Wishart

    I have to be honest, this post is complicated for me. Probably much too complicated to write in a comment. You have a beautiful way with words dear Tina, and you let us into a hard space. So despite my mixed feelings, I hear your heart taking in the many colours and smells and faces of a place that is bound to make us feel complicated feelings. Thank you for being brave and for sharing in a way that is truly you.

    • O, friend…

      This was so hard to write. And I can imagine so hard to read.

      So thank you for being *so* gracious and seeing my heart.

      I’ve already messaged you about trying to chat so that we can try and unpack the complicated parts. I’m so hungry to learn.

      And I deeply value your insight and wisdom.

      *tight hugs*

  • Lisha Epperson

    I’d hoped to read something about your trip. Thanks for sharing this precious moment, for spilling a little of the divine on the page.

    • “spilling a little of the divine on the page”… I love that. Thank you so much for reading, Lisha.

  • Tears. This is really sad and beautiful and lots of things. I think I most of all was moved at the recognition of the divine in your words. Thank you

    • O, Tanya. I so appreciate you taking the time to read this. It is sad and yet Fai is beautiful. So relieved to hear that the words that feel truthful to you. It’s been a daunting writing assignment. Gulp. I might need to hide under the cover for a week. xoox

  • There’s so much going on in this post — and now in my head and heart.

    If it were not for the Tina’s who go and see, let their hearts be broken, hold back tears, and then come back and put words around it all, I would never know how much I need to pray against the darkness.

    • There is so much going on in my head and heart too, Michele. I seem to keep finding new and deeper layers of things I need to hold space for.

      Thank you for praying. I’m so grateful.

  • This is so beautiful. Your words, your photos, your art. The lens with which you see the world is a GIFT to the rest of us. Please keep seeing it, keep sharing it. WE NEED YOUR PERSPECTIVE.

    I loved how you wrote honestly and vulnerably of your experience, but I loved how you connected the idea of shared womanhood– this truth that we honor each other because there’s a God-breathed dignity in us all. And that we are connected. SO INTRICATELY to one another.

    THANK YOU. For coming to Asia, for entering in. I know it was costly on a billion levels.

    I’m deeply grateful for you, Tina.

    • Gosh.

      I’m not even sure how to respond to this other than to say… Thank you.

      Thank you for reaching out and inviting me on this trip, for giving me a glimpse into your world, and for breaking and expanding my heart.

      I’m forever changed.

      Love you friend….
      xoxo

  • Oh my gracious, this was beautiful and devastating. There aren’t proper words. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank YOU for reading and commenting when there really aren’t proper words, Christiana. I know how you feel. xoxox

  • Oh, Tina–I’m so thankful for this post. So thankful for you.

  • Roos Woller

    So good friend. So good to hear your voice, I have surely missed it. You have such an amazing way to communicate hard things with grace, making it personal and so relatable. Thanks for sharing

  • Siki Dlanga

    I could read anything you write…. But then you also wrote this. Masterfully and as Idelette once said… It cracks you open. It is so many things.
    To a degree, when we do not see ourselves in others we too objectify them and ourselves by playing Saviour. There is only one Savior. Jesus. You took us to such a hard place but a place that should never be hidden from us or in us. Thank you for your masterful writing Tina.

    • O, friend… This is high praise from someone as thoughtful and talented as yourself. I love your book of poetry. (The best present from Nicole.) <3

      Thank you for reading from across the globe.

      Hope I get to hug you in person soon!

      xoxo

  • Siki Dlanga

    I’m reading this at a Convent with Internet that’s almost impossible to access much less open anything or send anything with success. Earlier we heard a few Hail Mary’s. And now I read this. My heart.. No words.

    • O, Siki!!!! The thought of you scrolling through this post in a convent!!! Ahhhh. Hide it from the nuns. 🙂

  • Thank you, dear Teen, for saying Yes – to going, to seeing, to feeling, to writing and sharing. I read all the comments here and they all make me want to say, “What she said!”

    I know this whole process has been stretching and difficult for you. I am confident that God sees your offering of this fragile jasmine necklace and is transforming it into a crown of lasting beauty.

    I am so proud to call you friend. And so grateful for people like The Exodus Road.

    Xoxo

    • “I know this whole process has been stretching and difficult for you. ”

      I mean. You *truly* know the behind the scenes of this whole process. I’ve been so grateful for the safe space to feel my feelings and then pick myself back up with your kind and insightful prayers.

      Love you, Olive.

      Can’t imagine life before our friendship….

      xoxo

  • I think you know I think you’re brilliant. I love how you tell hard stories. Keep telling them, please!

  • Bev Murrill

    Gosh Teen.. how can I speak of what this has done to me. I weep with identification and compassion and the need to relate with the girls and women across the world, all of us just trying to find a way to be who we are designed to be… and so many hindrances and so much subterfuge to abort our attempts to be who God called us to be.

    How … perfect… is this article. Thanks that you’re writing again. You have a unique voice. We need to hear it.

    • Gosh Bev! Women like *you* inspire and teach me to live braver. I’m so grateful that my puny words affirmed identification and compassion. That’s the dream! I can die happily now. <3

      • Bev Murrill

        Don’t die right yet…

  • sandyhay

    My heart is pounding as you go into the brothel, telling myself to breathe. Oh Tina, this was well worth waiting two years. I hope it doesn’t take another two to hear your voice again.

    • Now that both of breathing has returned to normal, I want to say thank you. For reading. For encouraging. For leaning into the dark.

  • Such a beautiful, hard retelling of a beautiful, hard experience. The treasure I tuck away in my heart is this: “our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.” No us-and-them to divide–only we. When the body of Christ sees ourselves as a “we” with the souls standing inside and outside of the brothels, inaction is no longer an option. Thank you for sharing!

    • “Inaction is no longer an option…”

      Powerful thought, Kelly.

      Thank you for reading such a hard piece and making it to the end to talk about it. Much love. xo

  • Tina,

    I have not commented on this yet because I can’t quite get my words to come together. It’s been a couple of days now and I still can’t so thank you. Thank you for going and seeing, for listening and witnessing this reality. Thank you for finding the words that I’m still chewing on days later.

    • Ugh. I don’t blame you friend. I’ve been nursing a brutal headache for over a week. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s somehow related to the writing of this post.

      I’ve felt such anxiety in the retelling (and therefore reliving) of this night. I’ve been fearful that I’d somehow get more wrong than right in the the “telling” of a story I’ve only recently become intimately acquainted with. I feel like my words are such a weak and limited attempt at telling a much large story that has been unfolding over history.

      And yet… silence is not an option.

      This is the tension we all stand in as writers.

      Thanks for leaving a comment even when words fail you.

      I’m grateful for your solidarity.

      xo

  • Randy Kinnick

    I have walked those streets and visited those brothels as an undercover investigator. Your words hit me very powerfully as I, too, connected with the persons behind the forced (or not so) smiles and empty faces. As I looked at those souls…I saw daughters and sisters, sons and brothers. I searched for eye contact that looked below the surface. I ached and I still do…with sorrow and pain for the lives they live. That is what compels me to continue to be involved, even in small ways, to make a difference for some.

    • O, Randy! Until I went on this trip, I was so clueless about what working as an undercover investigator would entail. My heart goes out to you. It’s holy and hard work. So grateful for the ways (small or big) in which you have been helping. Bless you.

  • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

    So heartbreakingly beautiful! Thank you!

  • pastordt

    Holy crap, Tina. This is astounding. That is all I can say. That, and I am so, so sorry that this kind of thing happens. Oh, oh, oh. My heart.

  • Daniela

    Tina, I loved this post. It was raw, vulnerable, heartbreaking. And it bled you. I am so thankful people like you exist in this world. xoxo