Author: Cleo Lebron

I’ve been lost for so long that finding myself has become a full time task. I’m not sure if it’s unusual that I can pinpoint the left turn my life took from being a happy carefree child to one of self judgement and the constant need for validation, but as sure as I know what birth feels like is as sure as I am about the point in time where I first blinked and couldn’t recognize myself anymore. I remember being a girl, jubilant and lively, moving with ease among friends and knowing nothing to be ashamed of. I answered the phone one morning as I was getting ready for another typical 5th grade day; it was for my father. I’ve played that call in my mind over and over for years and it never changes; I pass the phone to its intended recipient and within minutes I am watching my father being taken away in handcuffs. No one is crying, it’s not hysterical, in fact its a rather placid scene and I sometimes wonder what the expression on my face might’ve said. I don’t remember welling up with tears and I’m certain I asked not a single question. From the staircase I stared as time itself warped and life as I knew it swirled. I rode the bus in silence that day, feeling myself shrink smaller and smaller still knowing that once I arrived at school the lies would hatch instinctively.

From that day I carried with me the weight of counterfeit smiles and feigned engagements. No longer could I remember what it felt to be at ease with myself let alone with peers. Doubt circled and consumed, anxiety leeched and bred itself freely. Years would be spent pretending and impersonating, deluding even my own self until all those once certain sensibilities became something to untangle and interpret. Restless for validation and purpose, I became eager for the attention of male counterparts.

What was a confusing time for any teen morphed into a full blown production of tell me what to be, I’ll be. There’s a lot of talk about teen girls and how impressionable they can be but I wonder if adults who’ve graduated from those years of newly sprouted breasts and red signatures of a womanhood forget the gravity of such tumultuous changes. Books detailing the changes in my anatomy fascinated me but there was little talk about how I was to navigate this commencement. Older women in my life were sure to give me nickels to hold between my knees as if coins were enough convince me that the stares of men meant anything short of everything to a girl who knows nothing of owning herself. And even if they did tell me that what I choose to do with my body was my indeed choice I must not have heard it often enough or loudly enough to drown out all of the other messages in my metaphorical inbox, maybe they ended up in the spam folder. In reflection, I amuse myself with rewritten encounters, fashioned as a self assured young woman who is convinced that she singularly and powerfully owns herself. Instead, my years were spent persuaded that my blossoming frame was the property of either my parent or my boyfriends, never quite sure if it was one or the other or both. Whether I belonged to my mother or my lover, it was apparent that I didn’t belong to myself. And so it was.

No longer a virgin, the men in my life had their minds made up that since I had already given away the most coveted fruit surely I would welcome them into my orchard, but this presented a challenge. Well aware of the game that men play with girls (and later, women), I struggled to find a balance between being exclusive enough to remain desirable and indulgent enough to be worth the chase. I realize now, as an adult, that the odds were much more stacked against me than I could ever have hoped to overcome. Without the reason or confidence to opt out, I played. In the arena was every female classmate, neighbor, and stranger alike and at the judges table sat every man. In this atmosphere of competition my cancerous distrust and distaste for other women took root and flourished. It wouldn’t be until adulthood that I recognized the simple and obvious truth of this game: every woman loses.

High school flew by as I crashed into lovers who knew nothing of loving me and I, so lacking in loving my own self, knew not how to instruct them. A most distinguished one of them would later become my life partner, but that is a story for another day; let it be noted, however briefly, that he was the beginning of stability in a life that had altogether lost sight of security and self assuredness.

A more compelling version of Christianity found me as a late teen. Although I don’t hold the same views as I did then, I am thankful for the portion of calm that I experienced in that period. Already with a head start on my aversion and loathing for other women, respectability politics thrived. I found a new way of liking myself, even though I would later determine it to be baseless. It wasn’t that I learned to like myself, it was that I thought I was winning the Battle of the Femmes.

Life has a way of correcting you. And winking.

Figuring it out but never quite figured out, it wasn’t until I was 22 and pregnant that I first began to truly stare at and dissect the complexities of femalehood in a patriarchal society. Through listening to other women speak of their feminine confidence my own foundation was laid. My reflection became clearer in them and soon I heard whispers of the girl I knew before that fateful phone call.  Digging my nails in and peeling back the layers, those whispers thickened until a hoarse and unpracticed cry sprang forth; shaving more I uncovered a voice. The more I excavated the more feverishly my shovel struck. Exposing the lies I believed, the lies I told, a light was found; *I* was found. With every ounce I shed, that forgotten girl, that once small whisper, that once raspy voice swells…and now, I roar.

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