[TRIGGER WARNING] Sexual content.
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!)
If you breastfed in private … (Hello Prudey McPruderson!)
If you ran out of milk … (Congratulations! You’ve failed
kindergarten. I mean, motherhood.)
The shamiest of shames.
If you weaned “early”… (*cough* Selfish.)
If you weaned “late”… (Eww. Get a room! Crazy hippie…)
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.
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.
Girls stood in front of “clubs” (brothels) wearing close to nothing. Some dancing. Some bored. Some on their phones.
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.
“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.
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 …
And then a place selling fried chicken …
Meat for sale.
All different kinds.
Step right up. Take your pick!
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.
She had the brightest and kindest eyes, with long-stemmed red roses in one arm and garlands of fragrant jasmine draped over the other.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.