A couple of nights ago I told my boyfriend Mike a story of something that happened to me many years ago. His response was, “I have no idea what that kind of fear feels like.” Of course he doesn’t. Because these types of stories almost exclusively belong to women.
Telling the story was prompted by reading a blog earlier in the day that had gone viral and shown up on my Facebook newsfeed. The blog could have been written by ANY woman. Not because the woman who wrote it isn’t a good writer, quite the contrary, but because I don’t think there is a woman in this country who couldn’t put herself on that page. She wrote of what we women are subjected to on a daily basis, because we are women, and how we choose to handle it, which is to minimize and de-escalate.
The title of the blog is The Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About and it’s worth reading. In fact, you should click on the link and read that blog before you continue reading here.
The part where she says, They don’t know struck a chord with me because I had a story I’d never told until the other night. Actually, I have many stories I’ve never told, and a few I have. The dodged bullet story has been told, but why do we minimize and de-escalate? We do it for a variety of reasons, partly because, “It happens all the time. And it’s not always clear if the situation is dangerous or benign,” says the author of the blog. And she’s right.
I’m not sure if I was in danger, though at the time, I honestly felt I was. The man I’m going to write about crossed the line and made me extremely uncomfortable. I should have told someone, but in my youth and naivete, I began to question my judgement after the fact. Maybe I was letting my imagination get the best of me. Maybe it was an accident when he brushed the front of himself against my shoulder when he was fixing my hair. Maybe he was just going to get his mail when he got in the elevator with me. I can’t ruin this guy’s reputation without being sure that something was going to happen.
But something did happen. He was wildly inappropriate and I was too afraid NOT to pretend he wasn’t being wildly inappropriate. I chose to act as if it was not a big deal to keep the situation from escalating. Perhaps that was the right thing to do to protect myself, but not telling someone about it was bullshit. I was a young girl without the confidence to tell the story when it should have been told.
So here it is. Sadly, it’s not a special story. I imagine most of us women have these kinds of stories; some not quite as scary, and some much more terrifying. Maybe it’s time we all start telling our stories. Like the author of the blog said, “Just listen.”
I was 19-years old and still fairly new to the modeling world. When you are new and don’t have a lot of work experience behind you to fill your portfolio with “tear sheets,” your agent will suggest you “test” shoot with photographers. This can be expensive so there is often a list available of wannabe fashion photographers trying to break into the business who are willing to test for only the cost of the developing and prints. I chose one such photographer.
When I made the date with him over the phone, he said we would be shooting at his apartment in San Francisco and that there would be one other model there. That was fine with me.
When I arrived, I met his wife who was on her way out the door. They seemed like a nice young couple, probably in their late 20s to early 30s. There were no red flags whatsoever at that point.
The other model and I took turns shooting against a white wall in his kitchen that was next to a big window that had nice natural light. While she changed outfits, he would shoot me, and vice versa. The apartment was small, but there was enough room in the bathroom for her and I to cram all our stuff in there where we could refresh make-up, change our hair, and change outfits.
The photographer seemed okay, though he had a nervous energy about him. He appeared to know what he was doing and had the right equipment. Back before the digital age, there was always a Polaroid camera used first to check lighting, etc., before the photographer would use actual film. The Polaroids looked good and he was secure enough with his abilities to suggest minor movements for the best shots.
After a few hours of the other model and I taking turns, I was getting tired and hungry and was ready to call it a day. Things seemed to be winding down when he told the other girl that she could leave. He said he had enough shots for her and that he just wanted to do a few more with me. He told me to put on the white top that I had previously shown him; the one that when I first had shown him he said, “white won’t really work.” When I said, “I thought white won’t work,” he told me the lighting had changed and it should be okay for one last series of photos.
This was my first moment of uneasiness. I didn’t really like that I would be alone there with him. While he seemed nice, our rapport wasn’t easy. I’d shot with quite a few photographers at that point and I had never felt uneasy around any of them, even when I was alone with them.
I shook it off, said my goodbyes to the other girl, and went to the bathroom to change my outfit. When I came out he had me sit on a stool. This is when things started to get weird. He became much more touchy. It was common for photographers without an assistant to fix out-of-place hair, or adjust your clothing during a shoot, but he had only done that to a bare minimum. Now he kept touching me; fixing my hair, lifting my chin, moving my head…
There was a very definable shift in his behavior with this shoot compared to the others that day, but I was minimizing everything he was doing. I was having an internal battle with myself. I told myself he was married. I told myself I was blowing things out of proportion. I actually let him unbutton the top button of my blouse and pull it open more. He said, “We have enough wholesome shots, how about some sexy ones?”
I didn’t respond, but I did exactly as I was told, including “lean forward and purse your lips.” Ugh. The original duck lips. I was afraid to not comply. I was afraid things could turn ugly. My instincts were telling me that as long as he didn’t sense my fear or see that I was uncomfortable, then I could control the situation, but I was also thinking very clearly on how I was going to get myself out of there. I’d had enough. I said, “Can we stop for a minute, I need to use the restroom?”
I walked into the bathroom and quickly gathered up all of my things and shoved them in my bag. I made a mental note of where my coat was, which was on a chair by the door, and then, with my keys in my hand, I took a deep breath, walked out, and said, “Actually, I think we have enough today. I need to leave now if I’m going to beat rush hour traffic.” I could see that he was stunned as I walked toward the door with all of my stuff. His eyes were wide. He said, “I’ll go down with you.”
My heart leapt to my throat. Why, I thought. Why does he want to go down with me? He lived on an upper floor in an old building with an elevator that had a gate. The hallway was dark and dank. I had no idea where the stairs were and in my attempt to act as normal as possible, I couldn’t see a way out of not getting on the elevator with him. So I did. I pressed the button for the ground floor as he closed that gate on us and then stood there on high alert. Almost immediately the elevator stopped and the door opened one floor below his. An elderly man opened the gate and stepped on, and with him, the biggest sense of relief washed over me. I said hello to him with probably a little too much enthusiasm, but at that moment, I felt like that old guy was my savior.
I drove home.
I didn’t tell my parents.
I didn’t tell my boyfriend.
I didn’t tell my agent.