Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A shirt tale

After all your nice comments on the picture of my grandparents (now deleted), I feel a little guilty writing about the awkwardness I experienced with my grandfather. But what the hell, that's what blogs are for, right?

So here's the thing. My grandfather is a fantastic man in many respects, but when it comes to the appearance of the women in his family, he is somewhat of a neanderthal. And this trait revealed itself rather strongly over the weekend.

Since I'm breastfeeding, I've gone up two cup sizes, from a B to a D (or thereabouts). And for the sake of convenience in the car last week, I wore one of those crappy nursing tanks from Motherhood; while they're handy for nursing in public, the straps are made of stretchy cotton, which means that after a few hours the neck line is practically down at your knees. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt unbuttoned over the tank, but the tank -- and my new cleavage -- was clearly visible underneath.

So we all go to my grandparents' house for dinner Thursday night. I'm (as usual) tired and a little more overwhelmed than usual. We walk into the backyard, where my grandparents are sitting. My grandfather jumps up, kisses me and then takes a good look at my chest. I can't remember his exact words, but they were something to the effect of "my how you've grown." And he wouldn't let it rest. Every time I saw him -- and I saw him every day we were there -- he had something to say about my appearance, whether it was the fact that he thinks I have great legs (wtf?) or that having Ess has made me look "like a young chick again." (That one, said multiple times, is verbatim -- how frequently, after all, do you hear your 91-year-old grandfather refer to you as a "chick"?)

In reading this over, it sounds rather innocuous. But it hearkens back to the comments he made when I was younger, and much more vulnerable about my appearance. (Who am I kidding? Has that vulnerability decreased at all with age??) Back in adolescence, if I had a zit, he would mention it. If I was wearing a skirt, he had something to say about it -- something generally approving, but with just a hint of leering to go along with his remark. And if we were at the home of a relative with a pool, and had the guts to wear a bathing suit, he'd comment on that, too. It wasn't just me -- he made comments about my mom, my sister and my aunts (his daughters-in-law) as well. At one point it got sketchy enough that my dad had to talk to him about it. It all made me extremely uncomfortable, especially because when confronted he'd insist that he meant no harm, that he was genuinely expressing his admiration in what he thought were complimentary terms. (Just to be clear, he has never done anything even in the same universe as inappropriate touching.)

So I knew all of this last week when I chose to go to his house in that stupid saggy tank. I thought about changing my shirt, but it felt like capitulating to his slightly icky approach to women's bodies. So I wore the tank top, and heard his comments, and chose not to say anything. I nursed Ess in front of him -- thus far the only time I've felt compelled to use a blanket when nursing -- and dealt with what, again, he thought was approval ("I think it's wonderful that you're feeding your baby," said in a booming voice that carries across three towns). So from my actions, you'd think I was fine with all this.

And yet here I am wasting tons of (virtual) ink on the topic, with no clear conclusion in mind, just an assortment of thoughts about the conflict I feel when it comes to the value and/or utility of discussing any of this with a 91-year-old man with some hearing problems and a tendency toward willful obtuseness. I guess I wish I'd said something, although what I'm not sure. Even more, I wish he didn't feel the need to evaluate his female relatives on the basis of their appearance. I wish I didn't have to think so hard about what I'm wearing when visiting my grandparents. And I hope that young Ess grows up with more confidence about her body -- something I'm aware absolutely starts with me.