If you took a breath and exhaled, that was about the time it took for Nadine’s toddlerhood to be over. Her mother’s hand stroking her hair, puréed apple and soft toys arranged like a fortress on her bed.
Nadine remembered the wails of other children who came to play, the furtive conversations of her mother and her friends and the occasional appearance of her father, loosening his tie as he shuffled inside.
Her world was circumscribed. She knew its boundaries made it safe. She bounced from her mother’s arms to her father’s, from her riotous kindergarten to the sanctuary of her bedroom.
In primary school they learnt on ipads. Nadine and her friends set up Instagram accounts and practised selfies. On holiday, Nadine asked her mother to take a picture of her on a sunlounge wearing a crop top. She looked older than her years, a slick of gloss glimmered on her lips. Her mother told her not to pout and not to post the image. She posted it anyway. It was liked two hundred times. Nadine was thrilled to see how many boys appreciated her—she felt grown up, sophisticated.
Ben knew she was too young to sleep with him. Nadine was grateful for her boyfriend’s maturity and understanding. So when he asked for a nude picture, she obliged. You couldn’t see everything, just her tiny bud-like breasts, her pink briefs below. Her eyes were wide, her cheeks flushed. It was difficult to focus the shot as her hand shook. As soon as the phone made the sending swoosh she wanted it back. It was too late. Days later, the photo had done the rounds of every boy in year eight. It then showed up on a site for old men who collect such things, like skin trophies. From there, it was just a few clicks and it was shared worldwide, masturbated over and fetishized.
Nadine retreated to her bedroom. She was three again, huddled in a foetal position under the blankets. She refused to come out. The soft toys crowded around her head like a halo of lost innocence. Humiliation crashed through her. In her mind she lay on jagged rocks as immense waves threatened to dislodge her into their depths. She could not speak.
Her mother took her to a therapist and she found her voice. She wrote about her experience and warned other girls. In the safe harbour of her mind she saw a laboratory. It was a place where women and girls could go and stare at jars of formaldehyde, stacked to the ceiling. Inside the jars were the shrivelled and miniscule penises of men and boys, like tiny thumbs. She sniggered to herself. It would remain a fantasy. Women did not want to divide men into meaningless pieces, to reduce them to a digital filing cabinet of body parts. We like them whole, she mused, with brains, opinions and feelings.
She knew she could spend half her life questioning why, for some men, this was not mutual. Was it womens’ capacity to give them life that made them cower? It was more useful to speak for the victims of their folly, to educate the next generation in the language of respect and compassion.
This became her life’s work.