Photo Credit: Hannah Provisor
The Unspoken Rites of Passage
I never wanted to grow up. I didn’t know what was waiting for me on the other side of childhood. Thanks to a major case of Peter Pan syndrome, I felt like the universe was dragging me, kicking and screaming, into my teenage years. I often wondered: what is the moment that I could definitively say, “I have become a woman”–and how long could I put that off? I never had a bat mitzvah or a sweet sixteen, so it wasn’t then. I don’t think it was even when I moved across the country for college or got a job. The moment I realized I was a woman arrived much more subtly than that, after a slow build up, an amalgamation of occurrences and experiences that one day, after I had been through enough of them, became the key to this secret society.
Women walk around with a collective secret. We talk about it amongst ourselves, we joke about it mostly. Every once in a while we get really mad about it. The moment I became a woman was the day I realized, fully (though I had previously heard the whispers), how the world sees me. The world doesn’t see at first glance my imagination, my creativity, my intelligence, how empathetic I am, or the nervous breakdowns I have at one in the morning. When I step foot outside of my Bushwick apartment, the world sees me as the viably sexual being that, I cannot really argue, I am. I am able-bodied, thin, and have classically “nice” and white features and proportions.
This epiphany scared me. Really terrified me. Women know about this secret rite of passage into womanhood, but somehow, I slipped through, sheltered from it for a long time. I knew about inequality, the glass ceiling even, but nothing had prepared me to really stare my womanhood in the face and question what it meant to live in the world in a female body.
I am brutally and explicitly catcalled from the moment I leave my apartment to the moment I get to work. Even before 9 am on certain days. I get catcalled walking with the 6-year-old I nanny. Once, a harasser actually jointly catcalled the two of us and chased us down the block. This young child looks to cross the street when we see a man walking towards us now. I sometimes go home crying, hoping she doesn’t fully realize what’s happening and praying the world changes for her. On my way home, I fight through a sea of uninvited stares and lewd comments during my 0.3 mile walk to the subway, when I get on to the subway, and every step between my stop to my apartment. Consistently, I field a nasty look up and down my body, a “hey sexy,” a “what I’d do to you,” a “psst psst” and other gross remarks and interactions of a varying scale. For those who do not experience these things, it’s easy to wonder why it cannot just be ignored. Unfortunately, those who deal with these behaviors on a regular basis know it’s not that simple.
At first, I thought I could handle it. They’re just ignorant–maybe they wouldn’t do this if they knew how it made me feel or how pointless and degrading it was. But this, along with the feeling I was being solicited for sex any time I had a conversation with a straight man, flipped a switch in me, igniting a voice that is frequently furious and fearful.
After about a year in New York, I began to realize the ways in which I was internalizing a soured view of men that I, rightfully, but unfortunately, had been holding like a shield to protect my innocence, my body, my rights. I began to think that all men (aside from my own father), no matter their age or my relationship or non-relationship with them, viewed me as a sexual object. I felt like I had to avoid contact with straight men because being around them felt like constantly being on guard, worrying about and planning for the worst. It felt like I couldn’t even buy a cup of coffee from a man without a wink, or some insinuation that he was seeing me sexually, even if for a fleeting moment.
The ways I experienced men out in the world crept into my relationship with my boyfriend. I told him, I go out all day and I’m seen as a sexual object, people make comments about my body, people stare at my mouth, my breasts. Why then, when I come home, would I want to hear my own boyfriend, someone I actually love and adore, also make comments about my body or want to have sex with me? The line became so blurred. I started to paint all men the same, even though my boyfriend is kind, loving, and sees me for who I am, stimulates me creatively, talks with me for hours about politics, books, movies, and our ideas for the world. Yet, any time he showed attraction of a sexual nature towards me, I retreated into a dark hole– as if nothing else in our relationship mattered, imagining that now he just wanted me for my body. I felt like these men on the street, in the coffee shops, bars, parks, the outside world, were winning. They had cracked me.
Stepping in to the Secret Society
So I talked to other women and realized how much they were internalizing these things, too, in different ways. I discovered that a devastating, heartbreaking majority of us leave our houses, braced, pulses racing whenever we pass a man on the street, whether he says something to us or not. We have learned that only fear can protect us from the vast possibilities we have either previously experienced or rightfully imagined. We are hypersensitive, ready to bristle in defense when anyone shows any kind of attraction to us, because there’s always that chance that we will be seen as nothing but a sexual object. A hole. A good lay. A nice body. And some day, the worst could happen. All of the things in between are just portents of the worst outcome. When I realized that my friends were also hurting, and how I was hurting my own important romantic relationship, I knew I needed to do something.
I boiled it down to two things I wanted to do. Of course, I want to end catcalling forever and assuage the toxic and skewed relationship men and women have in this world. But I don’t have a way, yet, to connect with these men safely and actually get through to them. Even if I can’t stop the assaulters, I can tend to the women in my life and beyond who need a place to express their pain, air their grievances, and talk candidly about what it means to be a woman living in this world: I can help them feel heard. So I shifted my anger towards the catcallers into a more rehabilitative plan to actively aid women in coping and healing.
Finding Healing Through Art
I will not pretend to know the best way to heal from these traumas. Healing can look so different from person to person. I do know that for me, drawing my experiences and engaging with other women about them can be a step. I started out by drawing my own experiences– I’ve done this since elementary school when I was frustrated or annoyed. In 5th grade, I had a teacher I couldn’t stand so I turned her into a comic. I drew about my body image, about the boy who cheated on me, about conflicts I had with friends. Drawing has always been a way for me to express what angers or irritates me. Drawing is how I take my power back and synthesize and deconstruct uncontrollable experiences. On another note, and in a very concrete way, drawing alleviates my anxiety. When I am anxious, as I frequently am after an encounter with a man on the street, I can put pen to paper (or usually, Apple pencil to iPad), and feel an immediate, focused calm take over. This kind of very tangible relief is something I hope to share with the women I care about, women I don’t know, women of every orientation, race, and creed.
I want women to have a place to tell their stories bravely and safely, and know that they are being heard and validated. I want them to feel that I have handled their story with the compassion, grace and attention it deserves, to be able to take a deep breath when they see it posted on my grid. I hope the drawings I make can help validate these women. I want them to know that someone else is holding space for them, taking gentle care and time with their experience, and sharing their burden. I strive to give them some place that they might not already have, where they don’t have to just brush off the disgusting daily horrors they face: a place they know people are watching, listening, caring. Shock, society, and obligations often force us to move on so quickly after we are groped, yelled at, masturbated in front of, and when that happens over and over and we move on faster and faster, we deny that trauma its full time to exist. We deny ourselves proper time to heal. We are just forced to accept it, normalize it, and pretend it doesn’t hurt. But many of us don’t want to accept it or normalize it, and we are hurting from it in our emotional, mental, and social lives.
I want these drawings to be a step towards healing. I want to step towards a world in which a girl can walk out her door at age 6 and be fearless, and do the same at age 13, and 21, and 50. A world where any time she has a conversation with a man, he doesn’t force himself on her once he’s through coaxing her intellect, or even insinuate that he wants to. A world where women don’t have to teach their daughters what to be afraid of in a patriarchal society, and where mothers can free themselves of the chains cast upon them by their fear and past experiences. A world where we don’t have to be ready to defend ourselves at any given moment. I think this starts with women feeling safe enough to throw away the veil of shame that has prevented them from speaking out for so long.
Everyone needs to be made aware so the culture can change. Women hold that power. We are the ones who can make the culture aware, and we can do that by summoning the courage to tell our stories. I believe it is my duty to create a space in which women can feel safe and supported in detailing the events that have shaped their lives. Many of us have stayed silent for too long, and it is time to create a society of healing. Perhaps my pre-teen self prognosticated this world somehow, and that’s why it was so difficult for her to want to let go. It is for that girl, and every other girl afraid of growing up, that I strive for a world in which womanhood means freedom.
The Writer Behind the Writing:
Hannah Michelle Provisor is a 23-year-old artist who was raised in Los Angeles, California, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to illustration, she loves to act, sing, dance, and write. You can often find her listening to jazz or eating an entire baguette, or if she’s lucky, doing both simultaneously. Her current focus is illustration, and you can find her work on her Instagram, by clicking on the button below.