Was it the V-Neck?

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Megan Gahan -Rocking the Boat3

At the tender age of six, I was involved in a tense confrontation. My family and I were leaving the sanctuary of our small, Mennonite Brethren church, when an older gentleman remarked on what beautiful hair I had. He used the German phrase—schönes Haar—and stretched out his hand to touch my thick, dark hair. As his fingers grazed my head, I let out a high-pitched scream and yelled very clearly:

“DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR!”

He removed his hand, chuckled at my childish indignation and made his way out. He was amused. But I was fully enraged.

I have been told to “lighten up” all my life. So often that I have come to loathe all of its condescending cousins:
“Just relax.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“Why do you have to take everything so personally?”

It’s very trendy to be free spirited, but I’ve never had the personality or the wardrobe for it. That gentleman from church was simply the first in a long line of family members, teachers and co-workers to make it clear that my feelings are a little over-the-top.

Being told to “chill out” (there’s another one!) over and over couldn’t help but inform my behaviour. I wasn’t able to reconfigure my DNA setting to easy-breezy, but I got better at hiding it. I stopped voicing my opinions. I shrugged off offences because I didn’t want to be called out and demeaned for it. I apologized constantly.

Years of practice dulled that six-year-old who had no issue announcing exactly what she wasn’t okay with. She grew up and became far more concerned with whether she was liked and avoiding criticism at any cost. The 34-year-old version of that girl wouldn’t dream of asserting herself in such a loud, direct way.

About a week ago, I went to a local coffee shop to write. I arrived early Saturday morning, and knew I had been there for some time when the store began to bustle, animated chatter messing with the disjointed thoughts I was attempting to string together.

A group of men took over the small table next to me. There was about five of them, and their number grew by three every five minutes. Eventually, there were fifteen around a table the size of two laptops. They kept adding chairs to accommodate the group, inching themselves towards me.

Some looked to be about ten years older than me, others closer to thirty. As yet another friend arrived, the men obligingly moved their chairs again. One looked over at me as the 14 chairs scraped the tile floor and said:

“If we were any closer, we’d be in your lap!”

It was an odd statement to make to a stranger, but I managed a weak smile and said, “That’s okay, I’ll be leaving soon anyway.” I swivelled my eyes back to the screen.

The same man then loudly announced: “Did you hear what you just said? You said it was okay if we sat in your lap!”

Guffaws erupted around their table.

I kept my eyes laser-focused on the screen, trying to ignore the tight, burning sensation in my chest, and just type something—anything—onto the page. I became hyper aware of my v-neck t-shirt, and automatically wondered if it was too low. If I had unknowingly encouraged their inappropriate jokes. Their laughter. I stood to go to the washroom and felt eyes follow me. Staring at my dishevelled self in the mirror, I searched my running shoes and messy ponytail for a reason. Did I look like the kind of girl who wanted to be spoken to that way?

I tried to keep working. But my fingers continued to hover an inch above the keyboard, motionless for ten minutes. So I packed up and went home. All the while tugging my t-shirt up, telling myself not to overreact. It’s not a big deal. Lighten up. They were just making a joke. It’s just how they are.

For the first time in a long time, I thought about that six-year-old version of me. The girl who yelled in church, who didn’t think twice about calling someone out for an action she was uncomfortable with. The one who wasn’t concerned about rocking the boat. The one who hadn’t yet been told she needed to stop making fusses over nothing.

And I missed her. I missed that piece of me. Because she wouldn’t have been afraid to stand up for herself. She wouldn’t have let her words be twisted about and laughed at. She certainly wouldn’t have been checking her outfit to see if she had somehow deserved it.

And I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing she would have had one heck of a comeback line.

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Megan Gahan
If you call me Meg I'll feel like we've been friends for a while, so do go with that. By day I run after two little dudes, but when the house is - finally - quiet I like to write, often a giant mug of Earl Grey Vanilla beside me. More often with a giant bowl of ice cream. I've worked in the fitness industry for over ten years, so talking body image and push-up technique gets me excited. I ponder those things, along with faith, parenting, and my desire to be a superhero over at megangahan.com.
Megan Gahan
Megan Gahan

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Megan Gahan
  • Megan, I’m so sorry this happened.
    As my kids have grown up, I’ve tried to be conscious of not “editing out” all their boisterous spontaneity, and I’m sure you’re doing the same with your little guys. We can make an impact on the next generation while we’re trying to reclaim our own Moxie.

    • Megan Gahan

      Thank you so much Michele . . .I love what you said about reclaiming our moxie . . I’ve got some work to do 😉

  • Sandy Hay

    I’m having all kinds of emotions here. This 71year old self wants to haul off and hit them.

    • Megan Gahan

      I would pay very good money to see that, Sandy! And I don’t believe you’re bluffing in the least! Thanks for having my back, even online. You’re the best!

  • Megan, you’ve made me aware of the phrases I use with my loud, opinionated, space-aware daughter. As a family, we stop immediately when one of our girls asks us to stop tickling/wrestling/whatever. But… Those words. She is an intense kid with intense feelings. I’m thinking of ways I can reframe that positively. I’m so glad you shared your story – thank you.

    • Megan Gahan

      You’re opening me up to a new perspective as well, Annie. Looking at my language through the lens of our kids, particularly the more sensitive ones (I have one of those). Thank you for your thoughtful words in this space. I so appreciate it.

  • This writing speaks volumes in so many ways. I have always tried to tell myself I was laid back…”Ya, I am a pretty chill person” I often say about myself…ha…but the truth is, I am not, not at all. I feeeeel everything and no matter how hard I try, I can’t just “Shake it off” … I too have found myself automatically apologizing for my “serious” reactions…for my intensity… I find that I hold back, because I fear that I will be too intense for people. I envy quick wit and light heartedness. I soak in the world like a sponge…the good and the bad and think about it all, ….ALL THE TIME… I have also learned to gulp down more than half my words for fear of being too much. Although, I am known for being very WORD-FULL, as it is. I feel you in this writing. — And as for the men harrassing you, wow, for one, the story isn’t surprising in how they behaved, I have seen it so many times, especially when a group of just men that size gathers… but the thing is, it isn’t ok. Your story stirs up anger within me. Good anger. We need to know that what happened at that coffee shop is not OK. Thank you for sharing your story. — I ponder your story and I am trying to put myself in your shoes and wondering how would I react… probably similar to you, because there just isn’t enough encouragement for women to speak up in those situations… YOUR WORDS: “Years of practice dulled that six-year-old who had no issue announcing exactly what she wasn’t okay with.” … I think this is something that so many of us women were taught as girls…to practice chilling out the intensity of our emotions and our no’s. If you could go back to those guys and replay that moment, what might you say? I am baffled to what I would say, even if I could think about it in advance… there is so much re-learning to do as we rise out of the expectation to just “take it”.

    • Megan Gahan

      I relate to so much of what you write about yourself here, Jenny. Thank for sharing so candidly. I’ve been asked a few times what I would have said if I could go back to that situation, and I’m still not sure. I hope I would have the courage to respectfully communicate that their words are inappropriate and hurtful. My fear would be earning another round of boisterous laughter and rolled eyes. But I would love to have the guts to speak up even with that possibility.

  • When you’ve been told so many times you’re overreacting, it’s hard to know how to react in the right way. And it can become easier to just not react. But that’s not right either… Ugh. Thank you for talking about this. I think those men, and people in general, have no idea how much their words can stay with us and wrestle within us. Keep wrestling! I’m sure you’ll get that good comeback line if there’s a next time!

    • Megan Gahan

      I think you’re so right about that Beth. I am a big words person, so words have always carried a great deal of weight with me—the positive ones and the hurtful ones. I hold those words close for years, bringing them up evidence of my shortcomings when I’m feeling particularly low. I so appreciate you offering your thoughts in this space <3

  • I’m so sorry to hear about this, Megan. That guy was a jerk.
    And I know all about being afraid to speak up, to set boundaries, to use my voice. OH so very much.
    You say at the end of your piece that you miss that girl. Can I say something very gently? I don’t think she’s left. I think she’s still there inside of you, fierce and ready to speak up. I think she’s tugging gently at your hand and saying you don’t have to be ashamed of doing what you’ve learned to do to cope. But that also, you can learn to do NEW things, and to go back to the voice that you feel like you lost.
    I used to think I would just stay quiet and hidden. OH so very much. But I surprised myself. And i see you showing up and using your voice all the time here, and with others, and IT ALL MAKES A DIFFERENCE, and IT COUNTS. It all teaches you that new practice of speaking up. And you are growing like a tiny fierce flower back into the shape you were meant to be.
    (and also, in a space like that, it might have been safer for you to not engage. It might have been the wisest option, even if it didn’t feel right. That it didn’t feel right is SOCIETY’s fault, not your own.) xoxoxxo

  • Geez what a jerk. Ugh. Love that little six-year-old girl. Love the you that’s figuring it all out as a woman. xox