Once upon a time, long, long ago, there lived a little girl who was violently abused by her mother. (Don’t worry, it gets better, it has a happy ending.)
Her mother broke her down, shattered her completely, thoroughly, into a million shards, each as brittle and fragile as the ego which this monster of a mother jealously nursed. She tolerated no resistance to her dominance, and she continued to rule this little girl’s life with a bloodied fist. Because there was blood on her hands - the blood of a girl who cried herself to sleep in her pillow, who etched blooming patterns into her skin to release the torment festering inside her, who, one day, sat on the toilet seat in the dead of the night and repeatedly, systematically slashed at her wrists till she fainted on the bathroom floor, hoping never to regain consciousness.
It shouldn’t have been allowed, people should have stopped this demon, this abuser. But no one did, and it went on and on.
This girl was told every single day how ugly she was - “uncouth” was her mother’s favourite word, and she never hesitated to use it. She was told that she was ugly, her eyes too small, her neck not long enough, her hair too messy, her stretch marks horrifying, her body too large to be acceptable. She was told that she smelled, that she had no right to a sexuality, no right to live and the day she was born was constantly rued. She wished she never HAD been born, this girl, this 10 year old, this 13 year old, this 16 year old as she kept on swallowing bottles of insecticide and opening her wrists to make the dream of never being born come true.
Sometimes her mother wouldn’t let her sleep, sometimes she would be woken up with a blow to her face - on good days, it was just a string of angry words - slut, whore, filth, you’ll shame us all - on the bad days she would go to school with bleeding scratches on her neck. She lived in fear, fear was the only thing she had ever known. Her entire life was a constant panic attack - running from one heart-stopping moment to another, never a minute’s respite.
When her mother didn’t hurt her, she hurt herself, because creatures like her deserved to be hurt, didn’t they? She was only trying to let out the pain inside her, though, the crippling pain that would seize her heart at times, rousing her to a blind panic where she would lose control of her bladder and her voice and wet herself, wailing. But there was no help, no end to the nightmare, and her mother’s bloodshot, kohl-lined eyes presided over it all, hunting out her secret hiding places, laying her inner self bare to be flayed.
There was no privacy in that house, nothing except her mother’s burning gaze blasting through the layers of steel she surrounded her mind with, ransacking her closets, her bags, turning out every last secret she had squirreled away and displaying it for everyone to see, and then, then the abuse would begin. She lost her friends, because her mother took them away from her, and locked in that house she wasn’t allowed to step out of unsupervised, she lost her sanity too.
She threw up her meals, she raked open her skin, and alone, at night, she dreamed. She dreamed of a man who would come up to her one day, take her by the hand and away from the horror to a calm, cool place where she could lie in his arms, unthreatened. At first he was nothing more than a shadowy figure, but over time, she gave him a face. She gave him a name. He was her saviour, her rescuer, and he would make the nightmare stop. Tall and strong, he would hold her in his arms till the day her tears stopped and she could begin a new life. With him.
I was this girl. For 17 years I was this girl, and I speak of myself in the third person because I will not be this girl any longer. For the last 10 years, I have been haunted by the nightmares of my past, pulled down into the swampland of memories of abuse and pain with grasping hands that look so like my dead mother’s scarred, withered ones, but I will not drown in my grief anymore.
It has been 10 years since she hanged herself and ended my misery, yet I have dragged it on for a decade and more, unable to comprehend that I am really and truly free. I clung on to my white knights to rescue me from a trauma that didn’t exist anymore except for in my head, and every time, whose white knights plunged me into an ever deepening pit.
When you are abused, your self worth depends entirely on the approval of your abuser. In the absence of any sort of approval from my mother, I turned to men. And they failed me, every single time. From the first guy I had a crush on at the age of 15 to the guy I believed would fly to India to see me a few months ago (and who, instead, subjected me to abusive IM sessions when I refused to do porn for him with my friends and maid), I relied on the approval of men to gauge my self worth.
I fervently believed that if I had anything of value in me, a man would recognize it, and cherish me and love me for it, and never let go. But they all let me go - the one who stayed the longest after 10 months - the rest after a couple of weeks at the most.
It came to a point where I was reduced to nothing - my self esteem entirely vanished, rubbed into the mud, with only a deepening layer of self loathing left to surround and blind me. I was cruel to myself - I spent days and nights and years and decades telling myself that I was worth nothing, nothing at all, because men couldn’t see it in me. I was broken and empty and breaking myself down even further. Men were my measure of self worth - without their approval, nothing mattered, nothing made sense.
In my heart, I was still the 14 year old, waiting to be rescued, redeemed, given some meaning to in the embrace of a man. No wonder I was destroyed. No wonder I was left with nothing but an utter sickness in the pit of my stomach. When they groped me while telling me that I was fat and repulsive, I threw up my meals to make myself thinner. When they told me I was too mentally ill to be in a relationship with them, I tried to be saner and only drove myself into further anxiety and madness. When they told me that my breasts were a turnoff, I resolved never to take my top off for any man, only to find myself in bed with another one 5 days later as he unhooked and pulled off my bra and nudged my head towards his penis.
Things finally came to a head a couple of weeks ago when I realised that I had spent two years obsessing over a man who felt nothing for me beyond mere friendship, grinding myself down in my resolve to love him, unrequited and from far away, forever. Two weeks ago I had a moment of piercing clarity where I realised that for the past 13 years, I have dedicated my life to pleasing men, and this could not go on.
What’s ironic is that it took a man to help me see that; what was different, though, from my usual pattern of behaviour, was that I never looked to him for self worth, approval or redemption. A couple of months ago, I made friends with a man who wanted to date me, and it has been a singularly eye-opening experience. I had made the mistake of buying into the myth of the white knight - I saw men as creatures who could somehow do things for me that I couldn’t do for myself. At one point, I even got heavily entrenched in the idea of being a submissive, letting my dom control me and magically fix my mind by imposing his will on it, and leading me to undiluted, unthinking happiness.
I got taken in too, by men who promised miracle fixes, men who promised to put me back together. In reality, there was nothing to put back together - the abuse I survived, I survived on my own. The mental illness I battle with every day of my life, I battle it on my own. I am the only person who has ever held my hand and led me on, and I did it without realising, and while putting myself down constantly.
It’s ironic and it makes me laugh at myself, because I still have so far to go in detaching my sense of self worth from men. I put them on a pedestal and they trampled me down, and the only man I didn’t ended up helping me achieve the thing I wanted all these others to achieve for me. In the end, I was helped by a man only when I learned to see him as a friend, and not as a saviour; in a way this is the biggest lesson in being a feminist that I have given myself so far.
Even though I rebelled from a very young age against the deeply patriarchal culture I live in, it had somehow managed to seep through to the deepest recesses of my consciousness in ways I wasn’t even aware of. Even as I was outspoken and fought for independence, I longed to be saved by a man, secretly and not-so-secretly. It is testament to how far patriarchy penetrated into my psyche that it took me 27 years to finally be friends with a man, to innately see him as an equal, and that it was his words that gave me the push to see myself for who I really am.
THIS is how badly living in a culture that treats women as commodities to be traded destroys you. I have identified as a feminist for at least the past 3 years, but it is only now that I am finally rooting out the need to depreciate myself to men. When I think of it, it fills me with bitterness and doubt - why was it a man’s words that gave me this vital push? Why couldn’t it have been a woman? How much worth do I still attach to them, and how far do I still need to go? Very far, possibly, and I need to be acutely self-aware every step of the way.
But this is my resolve – I will longer treat men as the barometer of what I’m worth - only I can judge that with my accomplishments and my victories, none of which had any man’s hand in them. All my life I belittled my accomplishments, disregarding the work I did entirely in favour of male attention. I suffered from severe bouts of impostor syndrome, dissociating myself so thoroughly from what I did that it never even felt like me.
When I got emails from blog readers thanking me for changing their lives, I thought they must be speaking about someone else. When my activist heroes appreciated my work, I was convinced that it wasn’t me, it was never me, it was this other Ragini in another dimension who does these things - it was never me.
But that day, two weeks ago, it suddenly became clear that it was me all along. It was me, this defeated, broken person who has done all the things I have, and maybe I am not as defeated and broken as I thought I was. Maybe I have a kind of power that not many people have. A couple of days ago, my best friend told me on the phone how my essay on dieting as privilege was everything she ever wanted to say but couldn’t and thanked me for it, and I felt a surge of joy. I had changed something for someone who matters so much to me in this world, and I thought that maybe I had changed something for others who I didn’t know as well.
I realised that when I type into this keyboard, I have a kind of rare power - the power to change something through words alone. And that is a power I gave myself, because no one taught me how to write - I did that on my very own.
At first, my mother had power over me, and then I handed over that power to men, but while I was doing that, I unwittingly gave myself a power far greater than what they had over me. And this is what I will use to judge my self worth from now on – my skills, my achievements, everything I have done on my own. No other person can ever validate me again, and especially not any man, because now I have turned over that right solely to myself, and no one else will ever put their name to it.