The following story might seem like a random, inconsequential anecdote, but I was told as a child that I have a Ben Franklin forehead and needed to keep bangs to cover it. This comment lodged into my psyche and self-image. I did so for 44 years. I was so ashamed of how I would look if someone saw my forehead.
I was called n*gger butt by my racist stepfather.
I was called fat for the majority of my childhood and accepted it in shame without fighting back.
The first man I loved harassed me to let him see me without makeup when I was 17 and we were dating. I ALWAYS wore makeup. I finally let him see me without it. His words? “You’re right. Makeup does something for your looks, doesn’t it?”
I married him. He subsequently cheated on me with two of my best friends, one of whom was a bridesmaid in our wedding. Their “encounter” occurred while I was taking our child to his Saturday morning soccer game because my husband hated to get up early.
He told me that people who look like me shouldn’t be allowed on the beach. I went into my room and cried.
He also attempted to sleep with my sister and sexually harassed her. She stood up to him and told my mother. They didn’t tell me until a few years later because they didn’t want to hurt me. I was pregnant with our second child at the time.
I put him through medical school while working as a teacher and discovered he slept with no fewer than four radiology technologists at his first job.
He decided he wanted to participate in the wife-swapping lifestyle. I refused. He decided to stop speaking to me and told me I was ruining his dreams. I relented, wanting to preserve an unbroken home for my kids, and drank heavily to cope with a situation that treats women like chattel.
When I cried, begging him not to involve us in this lifestyle, he threw his wedding ring at me. He told me I was not enough and would never be enough.
My experience isn’t special. Many women have been hurt in far worse ways. I just share it to explain what the 2016 election meant to a woman like me.
I watched Hillary Clinton cope with the infidelity of her husband with so much grace and bravery when she was the First Lady. This smart, powerful woman had to cope with a situation I had faced, but she did so in front of the entire world, whereas I could hide my shame behind those bangs I kept over my forehead.
I finally left my husband in 2010, but I still kept those bangs covering my forehead in shame.
When Hillary ran in 2016, I felt empowered. I realize that in hindsight. For me, her campaign subconsciously represented overcoming the pain and shame I had experienced. Her every speech and debate performance ignited in me the idea that we could take back our power, remove the knees that men had kept on our necks.
The night of the election I put on the Hillary socks that my daughter-in-law had given me and was beyond excited.
Of course, we all know the unspeakable happened.
The man who had admitted on tape to sexually assaulting women won. My 18-year-old daughter who was in college in Massachusetts called me crying at 2 a.m. I felt like my heart was imploding.
Two weeks later, I cut my hair to show my forehead for the first time in my life. I still have a large forehead, and it now contains the wrinkles of a 45-year-old woman. This action may seem silly, but it is the symbolic action of a woman who is tired of men telling her how she should look and what she should do. Not just tired…exhausted. The election of 2016 is, pardon the cliche, the straw that broke this woman’s back.
I will never, ever cover my forehead in shame again. The gesture is entirely symbolic and relevant only to me, but it serves to remind me that I don’t have to be what someone else tells me I should be.
As I watch Donald Trump continue to hurt marginalized groups with his words and policies, I remain committed.
To quote the poet Mary Oliver,
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
Jennifer Gregory is a former public school teacher and librarian and the mother of two adult children. She lives in Covington, Texas.