Protected Defenses

Protected by Defenses

Essay Issue Five by Alice Tierney Prindiville-Porto

Protected by Defenses

Our bodies evolve defenses to secure a place in this world. So, it is no wonder that the removal of one of said agents causes me to feel ungrounded.
As a child, my perception of my physical being was tarnished by the constructs of my community. This included a disgust for the surface area that my thighs covered when I sat at my desk in my 1st grade homeroom. When I began to take ballet classes at the age of nine, I was consistently advised by my devotedly Catholic, Italian-American instructor to ensure that I sucked my tummy in. Till this day, I can vividly recall the first time that my mother complimented my physical appearance. She and I were pampering ourselves for our family’s annual Easter gathering, when she turned from her bathroom mirror, looked at me and said to my adolescent self, “You know, you actually are kind of pretty.” Despite this, my mother, a woman who has a tendency to be critical, is one of the least judgmental when it comes to one particular Western female taboo beauty exception.
For five years during elementary and middle school, I was an avid ballet dancer. The school at which I studied consisted of one studio that was separated from a minuscule lobby with a series of large glass panes. After I had taken one of my semiweekly classes I would stare intently through the glass to watch the adult class. I was mesmerized by the dancers as they perfected their technique and warmed up their bodies at the bar. One, pin straight, black-haired, female dancer grasped my attention not due to her dancing, but due to a self-care choice that she had made. When she moved her arm into fifth position above her head, the audience became aware that hair graced her skin beneath her arm. Mesmerized by this rare sighting, I immediately confronted my mother about what I observed. She responded to me in a tolerant, simplistic manner that not all women shave. As a young girl, I did not entirely understand how to respond to this, and interpreted her choice as bizarre and quite silly.
I began the daunting task of removing this defense from my body at the mere age of nine. My childhood best friend Rachel and I were having a sleepover at her house, when we decided that we would like to partake in this “feminine” ritual. We sat ourselves on the rim of her bathtub that still contained rubber ducks and a variety of bath toys, ran our legs under the spout and used the shaving cream and razors that we snagged from her parent’s bathroom. I was naive to this social construct, blindly obeyed, and cherished the sensation of my baby smooth caves running across my sheets.
On October 12th, 2012, when I was removed from the care of my mother, and into that of my father’s, I was escorted from the Cook County Courthouse into the vast Idaho desert to a wildness therapeutic survival program. I was provided with identical monotonous meals every day, a single set of clothing, bimonthly showers, and no concept of time. Understandably, we were not permitted access to sharp objects, including razors. Every evening, under the stars of the tundra, our ankles and wrists were examined for fresh scars. And when we rolled up our military grade unisex pants to expose our skin, strands of leg hair peeked out. For a duration of three months, I was surrounded by women who had been denied the right to a safe physical existence. Our presence of body hair allowed us to seize control of our bodies that had been previously taken by sexual abuse, domestic violence, prostitution, and strip searches. In this community of women, the length of our leg hair was a reflection of the number of days that we had braved the elements. A barometer of strength.
For nearly two years I have preferred not to shave, but have yet to gather the courage to share this with the world. And those closest to me who are aware of this fact struggle to accept. When my father sees my bare legs, he asks me, “How are you going to have a boyfriend with that?” When my sister sees me wearing pajama shorts, she comments, “That looks weird and not clean.” When I was honest with one of my best friends about this choice, he responded, “I don’t really know if people find that attractive.” I haven’t seen my mother in 34 months, and haven’t spoken to her in nine. She has come to critique every aspect of my newfound existence, which likely includes my hair. Though I may be unable to express this choice openly, I am unwilling to compromise my femininity to support others. My body is my stable ally, my only home, my ability to experience. And I am going to let her protect herself.

About the Author

Alice Tierney Prindiville-Porto

Alice Tierney Prindiville-Porto is a seventeen year old from central Illinois. The following narrative essay is apart of a collection of pieces that she has written surrounding redefining femininity. Her work has previously appeared in her school's literary journal.