Was it the V-Neck?


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:


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.