#metoo has brought to light what so many of us experience as women and have programmed ourselves to either ignore or just accept.
Whether you’ve been sexually assaulted, harassed or your boundaries violated there’s no question this type of behavior is everywhere. We experience it day in and day out – at work, the bus stop, the mall – these acts that degrade and destroy. They’re incredibly harmful to women, inform our roles as mothers and influence our individual and collective mental health.
As more women come forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior by well known names in politics and entertainment, I’ve sat and thought about my own experience. As I reflected on the garbage I’ve put up with over the years I was actually shocked at how often sexually motivated harassment has happened to me and I chose to ignore it. I’ve pushed most of these incidents to the side and forgotten about them. As women, we’re raised to do this. Speaking up or refusing to put up with this kind of behavior has been grounds for further harassment. You might be told told to “lighten up”, “don’t take yourself so seriously”, or that “you should appreciate it ‘cause it means you’re attractive.”
My Lived Experience
There were always the guys who under the guise of ‘friendship’ would pull me in for an overly long hug and hands would wander, but it was only a joke. When I started university with my eyes set on becoming a journalist, I quickly changed my mind because of the culture of the newsroom. There is a norm that sexual harassment is part and parcel of the gig. If I wanted to make my way to the top, I’d have to get there by whatever means necessary. This was all learned while I was volunteering for the student newspaper, forget the real world.
When I started one of my first jobs, my boss was always the one to break the ice with sexually inappropriate jokes, comments and references to women’s bodies. I was told he was harmless and gradually came to accept this part of my work life. To suggest that I was bothered by it meant that I couldn’t handle my job. Being young, ambitious and insecure, the last thing that I wanted to do was jeopardize my chance to move up the corporate ladder, so I put up with it. This continued when I moved into a new role in the same organization; different male boss, same sexually offensive behavior and a shroud of silence that offered him unlimited protection.
We talk a lot about the mental labor that moms do on a daily basis. Planning the grocery list and worrying about who’s picking up the kids from soccer, while simultaneously remembering to schedule a doctor’s visit for yourself and book an appointment to get your car’s oil changed. Now lets add onto that the mental labor we do when we’re navigating our relationships and how this can be informed by our previous experiences. I’ve caught myself on many occasions stressing over how a male coworker views me; what they’re thinking about me as a woman. Am I being evaluated and judged based on my body and how it looks? What about the guy at the grocery store? My male doctors, the waiter at lunch, or the bus driver? What are they all thinking?
This is an exercise in raising our collective consciousness to sexual harassment, rape culture and the immense burden it places on moms. Carrying around all this extra baggage plays heavily into our mental health. It can influence and fuel depression and anxiety, while obliterating self-confidence and cause us to become hyper vigilant about all our interactions with men. Survivors of sexual trauma and pervasive harassment carry even more with them. We bring our trauma and ongoing mental labor about our bodies and their acceptability, vulnerability and value into motherhood.
Obsession with Women’s Bodies
Think more about the cultural obsession with women’s bodies and the pressure we put on ourselves to look a certain way. Moms are hit with a double whammy to get back into our pre-pregnancy jeans in a few weeks after giving birth, with no chance to sit and think about what our bodies have just been through. Who are we doing it for? You might think you’re doing it for yourself, or maybe to show your kid a commitment to a healthy lifestyle, but where does this idea really come from? What keeps it going? I’ve heard many times the idea that pregnancy and motherhood ruins women’s bodies. Ruins them for what?
As a mom of a young son I’m now even more aware of how my words and actions have to match when handling these issues. It also means that I have a responsibility to teach my son that women’s bodies are completely autonomous. Consent is mandatory and that being male doesn’t entitle him to touch anyone without permission. Or allow him to crack “harmless jokes” about bodies, behaviors and actions. His words have power; the power to harm, belittle and destroy and he has to be made aware of the responsibility that comes along with position as a white male.
The Tipping Point
The bottom line is that we’ve finally reached a tipping point. One where women feel emboldened to come forward and out the men that have caused them so much harm. It has us talking and thinking about how we’ve been treated as women, and as mothers. As more allegations against familiar names and faces continue to surface you might feel particularly vulnerable. It’s okay to turn the TV off, shut down your social media accounts and turn away from the noise. Talk to a trusted friend, or maybe schedule a visit with a therapist if you’re struggling. Know that you’re not alone – because as #metoo has shown so us clearly – we’re all in this together.
Has #metoo caused you to sit and think about your experience with sexual harassment, abuse or assault? If you’re feeling particularly triggered and need to talk through your feelings, reach out to your local distress centre or health care provider to understand your options.
Shannon Hennig is the Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.