detail: Death Through Tight Lacing, Police News, Law Courts and Weekly Records, 6/25/1870, British Library

No One Will Like You

Tight Lacing

“No one will like you.”

That’s what my grandmother told me. I could tell by the set of her prim mouth she was serious.

“You have to stop growing,” she elaborated as I gazed down at the perfect curls of her snowy head.

I was just thirteen and had shot up like a weed, four inches in one summer. My brain hadn’t caught up with my body. No longer certain where my limbs were in space, I moved with coltish awkwardness. My clothing didn’t fit. I was taller than all the boys. It was embarrassing. Now this?

I was stunned, mute. It didn’t make sense. How can I stop something I can’t control? Why is my grandmother telling me growing is wrong, unlikeable?

I exhibited plenty of other traits on the list of female unlikability, which, unlike height, I could curb or at least hide under a bushel: intelligence, assertiveness, clarity, competitiveness, strength, independence, confidence. You know, traits that make a person large, take up space, male traits.

I was instructed in no uncertain terms how to avoid letting them show, words and disapproving looks cinching down the straps of culture’s straight-laced straightjacket. But, like the socks below my too-short pants, counter to everyone’s sense of propriety, my unlikeable qualities kept revealing themselves.

You can control growth by binding, but you can’t stop it. From the outside, a bound foot looks dainty, ladylike. The woman’s steps are tiny, her gait willowy. She is an object of desire, ornamental, dependent. Inside the bindings is pain and numbness. The “golden lotus” is a necrotic deformity.

The binding is painful. The unbinding equally so.

The restraints of gender conventions, be they male or female, are abusive to those whose souls don’t fit society’s tight-laced corset. They stifle healthy growth and turn the psyche in on itself to fester in the dark.

My spirit struggled against imposed constraints, and, little by little, they loosened, each inch of slack making the next inch of play easier to achieve, till at last I was standing tall, owning myself.

Now I fight to keep others from being bound.

For Rachel Charlton-Dailey who, in the spirit of International Women’s Day, asked me what I fight for and why I fight as a woman.

Why We Fight