I've wanted to be a stand-up comedian since I was six and learned that people would pay you to tell fart jokes and be the center of attention. But instead of growing up to be loud, beautiful, and obnoxious -- with the pony farm I always drew in my diary -- I grew up to be shy and deadpan.
So it took me a while to try. However, after 23 years of introversion and social awkwardness, I was surprised to learn that stage fright would not be my biggest obstacle when it came to stand-up. That honor would fall directly to my breasts.
I've always known that comedy can be a tough place for women, but I didn't fully grasp it until the second time I did stand-up. About six months ago, I was hanging out at an open mic with some friends, waiting to perform. I had done stand-up for the first time a few nights before, and it had gone well, so I was feeling pretty excited. I was watching the other sets when a gorgeous girl went on stage to a wave of applause.
I don't remember her name or much about her, but when the applause died down, she motioned toward the audience and said, "And I'd like to take a moment to give a big round of applause to the beautiful pair of breasts in the back." I looked left, I looked right. Then I looked back up at her expectant face, and her hand pointing straight at me.
Then the room exploded with laughter.
I've always had big boobs. I don't really care too much about them, but the world seems to pin a myriad different meanings to them, despite all my efforts to be acknowledge for anything else. I read, I write, I cook for the people I love. I binge-watch TV and make handmade birthday cards for my friends.
But if you see me walking down the street, you will probably notice my boobs. And if you're like many people I encounter in my day-to-day life, you'll stare at them or try to make snide remarks about them, like they're an accessory I decided to put on in the morning and not an actual part of my body that I was born to develop.
When I was in the 8th grade, I got a chance to MC my middle school's talent show. I was so excited to have a role in the production and make silly jokes in between acts. My mom blow-dried my hair, and I put on my favorite shirt. It was red, with an asymmetrical hem, long and flowy sleeves, and a large velvet monarch butterfly on the front. I felt beautiful and confident in that shirt, like the kind of person I had always wanted to be.
After the talent show ended, I excitedly asked my friend's mom what she thought of it. She said that she thought I did a good job, but that my boobs were bouncing around the entire time and it had been distracting.
I was crushed.
Later that night, I went home, took off my favorite shirt. I folded it up and put it in the back of my dresser. I never wore it again.
Ever since then, I've felt at odds with my body, like my boobs were some separate entity broadcasting things about me that weren't true. I've tried to cover them up, often changing several times before going out if I thought they were too visible. But people have always found ways to bring them up anyway.
The girl on stage is still staring at me, smiling, as everyone around me laughs. I brush it off as she finishes her set. Then a male comic gets on. He looks over to me, and calls out to the "boobs" in the audience, like I'm no longer a person but just a pair of breasts that elected to walk down to the local comedy club.
He talks about how he was totally peeking at them earlier. Everyone laughs. He talks about how he wants to stick his face in them. Everyone laughs again. And I die a little inside. Three more comics get on and use my boobs as opening fodder, including one of the MCs that was running the show.
The MC had checked me in earlier, so he knew full well that I needed to get up and perform soon. He didn't care. With each person who went on, I felt more humiliated and degraded.
Sexual harassment is horrible enough, but to have to watch your harassers stand on stage in the spotlight while everyone laughs along at your expense is the stuff of nightmares. Before long I was shaking, but not in the good, excited way I did after my first time doing stand-up.
My name was called. I went on stage. And I tried to joke about what had been happening to me. Then my mind went blank. I was so embarrassed and flustered that I had forgotten all of my jokes. I teared up and ran off the stage. Despite all my best efforts, I had let all the harassment get to me, and I ruined my own set.
Later that night, I do what any self-assured, responsible adult does and spend all night reaching out to my comedy friends via social media. I talk to men and women of all ages who love me for who I am and support what I do.
They tell me all sorts of things. They tell me that what happened to me wasn't right. They tell me that I should look for more supportive environments. And they tell me that I should keep comebacks at the ready in case anything like that happens again.
They all depressingly promise me that it will happen again, because I'm a woman who wants to do comedy. But then one of my friends says something to me that isn't support, but that's simply a fact. She says, "Yeah, that's why I don't do stand-up anymore."
That struck me more than anything else that I heard that night. It made me so sad. She was and is one of the most interesting, intelligent, and funny people I've met in New York. She was a gift to the world of comedy, and the only thing keeping her from stand-up was the sexism.
It was such a waste of talent. And that's when I started to realize that a lot of the funniest women I know stay away from stand-up because of the sexism and harassment.
And I totally get it. Even days after that fateful night, I found myself depressed and crying, curled up into a little ball in my bed. Because it wasn't fair. As a person living in 2014, I shouldn't be made fun of simply for showing up to an open mic.
But it doesn't matter. That weekend, I learned that stand-up comedy doesn't exist in 2014 so much as in 1974.
I still battle sexism every night. After six months of doing stand-up, I've been the only girl in the club listening to men talk about how much they hate women all night long. I've been introduced on stage as a "sweet girl" when all the guys were introduced as "the very funny *fill in the blank*." I've had fellow comics hit on me, and I've realized they do it to almost every female comedian they encounter.
Every possible gauntlet of sexual harassment and degradation has been thrown my way, and whenever I bring it up, the overwhelming consensus is that I should have known better than to bring my vagina to the comedy club. And yet I show up, time and again, because I love stand-up. And I love that amazing feeling that comes from making an audience laugh -- it makes every moment of crappiness worth it.
I always joke that the horrible night everyone made fun of my boobs was my "Batman" moment. But instead of being surrounded by bats and the death of my parents, I'm surrounded by the reality of the industry that I so badly wanted to be a part of.
It's not really a joke though. That night almost stopped me dead in my tracks, which is awful when I think about how happy stand-up had made me on my first night. Instead of succumbing to the sadness and pain, I realized I have to keep going, because I don't want anyone to have to go through what I did ever again.
If I can fight enough to exist in this industry and carve out some space for women, in the future women won't experience this sexism. If there are more comics like me, other female comics will be more comfortable taking the mic. And we can keep reminding men that they aren't the only ones at the comedy clubs, and the women that they don't need to throw each other under the bus to get a laugh.
We can all just be funny, and the world will be better for it.