That Time I Was Slut-Shamed by the Turkey Lady

I was strolling through the halls of my high school as a young sophomore when I was grabbed at the scruff of my neck by the turkey lady.

Okay, so that’s an exaggeration. I have no recollection of her ever touching me. Although she regularly grabbed other children by their shirts or arms, she didn’t have to touch me to get my attention. I was terrified of her presence. Most of us were.

She was infamous through the school’s halls as the chief disciplinarian, a small, round, fierce woman, with tight blonde curls in her hair, and strong, tan legs, who strutted through our halls like a proud turkey. We students suspected that she enjoyed her authoritarian platform more than any sane adult would have, and that she sustained her health by consuming children’s tears and souls. I later learned she wasn’t even a salaried employee; she was a volunteer. She prowled our halls not to make a living, but because she wanted to be there.

I don’t remember exactly how she ensnared my attention that fateful afternoon, but she successfully persuaded me to walk with her outside, toward the loading buses.

That day, I wore a burgundy off-the-shoulder top, and paired it with the shortest cocoa brown mock-cargo shorts I could find – the finest combination that the Hollister outlet 30 minutes from my house had to offer. Both garments were worn skin-tight, as was customary among my cohort. I doubt my outfit left much of anything to the imagination of my male peers, but that was never my intention.

All my life, I’ve been told that my small waist and shapely legs are socially attractive, and, thus, I learned to enjoy displaying them. That day, I knew that I had pushed the envelope slightly, so to speak, but I still felt attractive, and validated, overall.

Once we were outside, the turkey lady calmly, but unempathetically, said that I should respect myself more.

I was relieved to not be in trouble, but now, a decade later, I’m still puzzled about the scolding I received. Why did she think that my self-presentation was a sign that I didn’t respect myself? What did she mean by self-respect?

Dictionary.com defines self-respect as, “proper esteem or regard for the dignity of one’s character,” defines dignity as, “rank; worthiness,” and defined esteem as “favorable opinion or judgment.”

I’ve always liked myself, respected myself, and been good to myself. The turkey lady would have had no valid way of assessing that from her gaze alone, yet she wasn’t discouraged.

I assumed that she was referencing the length and snugness of my shorts, but that assumption remains unconfirmed. I felt that I was being singled out because of the size of my legs, and how much larger they are than the rest of my body. If my legs were thinner, like the rest of me, maybe the turkey lady wouldn’t have felt the need to address me, I huffed. I wondered, was her complaint that I was showing “too much” leg? Or that the cellulite on the back of my thighs was fully visible? Or that the shorts contoured my backside with a little too much detail?

Years later, a similar incident happened in gym class, where a sorta-kinda-popular boy doing sit-ups on the floor, who happened to be facing my shorts-donning backside, snarled at me, “EW! I do NOT want to look at THAT.”

To this day, I have yet to figure out what either the turkey lady or gym boy found so offensive about my appearance that they each felt the overwhelming need to personally insult me.

Why is it that only women’s bodies and wardrobes are policed like this? Why do people feel the need to monitor others for their own standards, and why is it unequally enforced, much less enforced at all?

It strikes me as culturally-sanctioned entitlement to women’s bodies, overall. Have you ever noticed that when others talk about a woman needing to respect herself more, it typically either relates to how she’s visually presenting herself (via clothing, makeup, hairstyle, etc.), or to her sexual expression, both of which directly relate to attracting — or repulsing — heterosexual men?

My dad’s rule about my wardrobe choices growing up was that I could look “pretty”, but not “sexy”, though I didn’t learn the difference until adulthood. Again, there was emphasis on heterosexual men’s standards of what changed a look from “pretty” to “sexy”, as my dad’s concern was that I would attract unwanted attention from older men if I sought out a “sexy” style of dressing.

Looking back, I was walking a fine line that day between the pretty/sexy scale, but I didn’t feel like I had much choice between the two. My view at the time was that stores only offered short shorts (the good kind) or grandma shorts (the bad kind), and it was a strict dichotomy. I could either wear normal, short shorts and feel attractive and worthy, or wear bulky shorts and feel unattractive and unworthy. The pretty/sexy scale was irrelevant to my decisions because I had only ever aimed for “pretty”, and my conceptualization of what “sexy” might have entailed was limited, at best.

The only difference now is that I’ve learned how to display my legs (and body) more tastefully and strategically, when I choose to do so. I now have more wherewithal when I self-sexualize, and I recognize that it is a choice that I can choose to do or not do. I have agency that I didn’t realize I had back then, and the years of experience to confidently support it.

In retrospect, the turkey lady approached her lesson ineffectively. It had nothing to do with my amount of self-respect, but everything to do with the source of my self-respect.

I didn’t need to be taught to hide my body; I needed to learn to value myself for more than my physical attractiveness to my male peers.

I also needed to learn that I’m still a worthwhile person, even when I’m not conventionally attractive to men. Self-sexualization is a choice, as is the manner of presentation. It’s taken me years to learn that I am worthwhile in other ways, and that when I want sexual attention, there are multiple ways of attracting it that aren’t based on appearance.

Instead of shaming women and girls into conforming to sexist visual standards, we need to focus on learning to respect ourselves and each other as we are.

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11 comments

  1. We had a discipline master at school. Strange aggressive little man who called us nose pickers. Cut our hair too if he thought it was too long. Ran our cadet corp and had been an SAS officer in Vietnam. These days I am shell shocked too and I have some insight into the bloke. Still doesn’t make me think he was very helpful. It would be like expecting John Lennon to say how motivated he was by Senator Joe McCarthy. Part of being an experienced adult is knowing when to butt out and let the children pray…. whilst my job is to pray that they never find out some things some of us survive

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      1. Your turkey baster sounded similar. I hope you and others no longer have to deal with idiots like that again. Thanks for presenting the topic and opportunity to serve

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          1. I don’t know much of anything anymore. Listening to a cd of a friend giving a lecture on shamanic astrology. Still summer here. I think I made a seemingly disconnected comment the other day. I think I was watching one of the hobbit films and what you brought up bore synchronicity where I was to what came on the screen. Sorry for the short circuit from this point

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              1. That is very nice of you and I sincerely appreciate it. I can’t explain what it is like to no longer belong in society yet have no criminal desires at all. There are people making careers out of inventing things for us to go into places their mates in construction and technology build. I got to hanging out with street people and helped people in tenement housing get clean and sober. Some police in some areas didn’t like it. One has just been found out and got 3 years. My physical health is rude. People who don’t know me that well think I am nearly 2 decades younger than I am. My mind and experience means I have several contacts in government positions who throw money at me to do my own thing now so long as I meditate and check in to discuss matters. Very lonely sometimes in a weird world though I never feel alone or bored. I certainly appreciate talking with interesting people who care about the wellbeing of others in a good society

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  2. Hello Ms Cervix
    The moment we start interacting and belonging to a society, there is force to conform to the rules of the society. Some societies are progressive others regressive. Either way, society caters to the average person and doesn’t account for the individual. In a way it’s right as well because traditional belief and maybe even nature’s belief is that the herd is more important than the individual.
    Honestly each person should be free to express themselves as they are without having to really bother as long as they aren’t hurting anyone or harming anyone. But this is easier said than done.
    Growing up, I realise that I lacked so much understanding and confidence in self and sexuality. I live in India, I’m 34 now and I’m a submissive male. It has been the hardest thing to understand myself and what is right or wrong about my personal choices in that area.
    Your posts are very therapeutic and I would like to read more and especially on the D/s aspect. Keep writing
    Thank you.

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    1. Thank you very much for taking the time to reach out, Andy, and kudos to your journey of self-discovery! I absolutely agree with much of what you’ve expressed, though it saddens me that, in our non-survivalist modern world, we would continue to blindly follow a herd mentality mindset.

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  3. It’s not just women, though women unfortunately bare the brunt of it. It’d be nice if we respected each other and acted appropriately but everyone’s definition of what’s appropriate is different. Ultimately, these are boundary concerns as you really can’t help what a person thinks to themselves. In such situations, you are compelled to either let it go or re-assert your boundaries consistently (fight or flight or whatever your preferred idiom) which is often stultifying meaning that it’s not enough to protest once and be done, it has to be repeated enough so that people can accept them and/or respect them, co-opt some of it, or outright reject it. People often have to translate themselves to each other and while it would be nice if we all spoke the same language, part of the magic and the heartache stems from our various attempts to bridge that chasm which change throughout our years and generations. As in many other aspects of life, we are damned to protestation, compromise or toleration weighing the costs and benefits of each and so when someone tells me that I don’t appear as they wish in a situation where I benefit more from protesting, I do and often.

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    1. Thanks for reaching out! I agree that it’s not just women facing this problem, but that’s a strong place to start. I recognize that people vary between conceptualizations of what’s appropriate behavior in any setting, but I tend to veer toward a “keep your hands and personal criticisms to yourself until explicitly invited to do otherwise” caution in one-on-one social settings. However, I applaud your political spirit!

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