Monday, June 3, 2013


Several years ago, right here in Santiago de Chile, my mother had her very first mammogram. For those not familiar with the procedure, a mammogram consists of having your breast slammed forcibly between two panes of glass and photographs being taken of the resulting aesthetic abomination. It was my mother's first time, and she was under the impression that she was going in for something innocuous, something like a CAT scan or an ultrasound. Reality left her extremely surprised, highly unimpressed and extremely sore, and she told the doctor so when she saw him afterwards.
            The doctor listened and smirked.  Clearing his throat he explained exactly how mammograms worked. It wasn't quite a medical explanation. It began with the sins of Eve, and got steadily worse. 
            "And it's worth it." He finished up, looking smug. "You'll have to learn to live with the pain. When you're made a woman, you just have to accept that there are things you just have to put up with."
            Generally speaking, my mother is a deeply polite and retiring sort of medical patient, the type of patient who would rather suffer a massive asthma attack on the floor of the ER than interrupt a nurse's conversation and indicate that the nurse might need to turn some attention her way, but this doctor's breathtaking response to her concerns sent her right over her personal line.  Standing up from her chair, she leaned over his desk and spoke directly into his eyes. 
            "I'm going to make a device for men."  She said.   "Just like this one.  How would you like it if I took you in my hand and squeezed-"
            The interview finished quite abruptly. But she was furious for days.

The point of this incident is that in the intervening ten years or so, things haven't changed much. I may have mentioned, at various moments  in this blog, that I've been going through a few gastrointestinal issues.  One of more picturesque symptoms is bloating on an industrial scale, and one day, not so long ago, I was obliged to make an emergency appointment with my GP -
            "Tabubilgirl!" He cried, as I came through his office door. "Congratulations!  I had no idea!  How far along are you?  Four months? Five?"
            "I'm not pregnant, Doctor." I said. "This is one of the symptoms."
            My GP sent me to a gastroenterologist. 
            A "very nice man."  He told me.  "He'll sort this out - run some tests, find out what sorts of food sensitivities you have-"
            It didn't quite happen like that. The gastroenterologist admired my bloat and palpated my belly.  He watched me writhe in pain, made notes about 'unusual abdominal rigidity', listened through a stethoscope to all sorts of irregular noises- and then he steepled his hands, looked me earnestly in the eye and told me that it was quite common "for women- women in particular- to develop a psychosomatic conviction that they are overweight."
            I gaped. I stood up and turned to show him my profile.  I swiped my hand over my swollen stomach and demanded to know if he thought THAT looked psychosomatic. 

            It was his turn to gape. Weakly, he admitted that it didn't, and I sat down again and we got down to business.
            "You're right."  He said.  "You're absolutely right. It's about quality of life, isn't it?  If you go out for lunch and the other women look thinner than you, that is an issue that needs to be fixed. You should be able to hold your head up high. How you feel about yourself matters."
            I reminded him (with remarkable patience, I like to think) that the bloating was one symptom of a larger issue-
            "Absolutely."  He said again.  "When you can't hold your face up among other women when you're out, that's a real issue.  Don't you worry, we'll get to the bottom of this!"
            I think that he found my outrage amusing.  At least, he dimpled and patted my hand and did everything but  call me a fascinating, bewitching, mysterious little creature as he ushered me out the door. As I stomped my way down the hallway, he leaned out his office door for a parting shot. 
            "We'll sort all this out, Tabubilgirl!  The important thing is to think positive about yourself!"

A couple of weeks later, I had to see another doctor for an entirely different issue.  I was feeling a little gun-shy, and asked Mr Tabubil if he'd mind coming with me, just in case.  I'm glad that I did. This time it was Mr Tabubil who emerged pale and shaking.   
            "I know that things can be really tough for women here in Chile, but it's one thing to know it and a completely different thing to see it happening!  That man looked straight over your head and I swear he literally- literally- didn't hear you when you  talked.  Four times in that conversation I had to stand up and put my fists on the table and say 'What this  woman is trying to say to you is this!'  Four times! It was like you weren't even in the room!  But he listened to me!"
            "Sort of."
            "Okay, when he refused to do a proper physical exam, said that the hospital's physical therapy department downstairs were making things up to support your delusion, labeled you as a psychosomatic hysteric and told you that you were incapable of understanding your own body or health and tried to put you on antidepressants after 10 minutes of ignoring every word you said- well, we walked out on him, didn't we?"

            We sure did. Does that count as a win?
            On a positive note, I now have a wonderful female gastroenterologist, who has taken me for a human being and is making great strides in sorting out my insides.  I have also gained access to a circulating underground list of "doctors that women should avoid in this town."  I've made a few contributions of my own.
            I love living in Chile, but there are lines, and at this line I choose to STOP.  I could write pages - volumes -  about what it's like to be a woman in this country. A lot of them are funny, if you like a certain type of alternative black humor. The rest of them are hilarious - in that special way where laughter is the only alternative to weeping or punching walls until your fists are bloody.
            A lot has changed from when I first lived here in the mid-nineties.  Women now control their own assets after they marry, and they are no longer subject- on pain of law- to the rule of their husbands.  Divorce has been legalized, maternity leave is mandatory in public-sector jobs, hospital nurses have hung up their mini-dresses and their high heels, and policewomen no longer chase down bad guys in circle skirts and knee-high leather boots and handbags.  Men like to talk about how good things are for Chilean women these days; eyes have been opened and the world is changing, improving,right left, center and sideways.  Society's eyes might have opened, but when men begin to talk about how good their women have got it, women's eyes begin to drop, and women are silent. 
            Next Wednesday morning I will go to a courthouse and stand next to a friend while she stands across a table from a Chilean man who decided that her words and her understanding of her own body had absolutely no relevance at all, at a time when they should have counted for most. It's the last step in a very long and extremely drawn-out process.  For a very long time there was no-one at all who would listen to her.  What else could a man, faced with a beautiful woman, have been expected to do? When you're made a woman, you have to accept that you have to put up with certain things, and learn to live with pain. 

When I was in my teens, I lived in Antofagasta, a small city in Northern Chile. Life was good for the construction industry up there; an 8.0 earthquake had recently hit and most buildings in the town needed some sort of reconstruction.  Every afternoon after school I would walk down to a sports club for sports lessons.  Every afternoon I would dress twice: once in my sports clothes, and over my sports clothes, I would put on the baggiest clothes I could find in my house, covering my skinny, undeveloped, entirely unsexual body with t-shirts and tracksuit pants three sizes too large.  And then I would walk a gauntlet of construction men on construction sites - my head down, my eyes on the road, my fists clenched as they whistled and shouted and told me what they'd like to do to me - what they'd like their DOG to do to me - in explicit detail.  
            One day, walking with a friend, I turned to her and said desperately - "Why don't you stop them!  Why do you let them do this!  Why don’t people stop them?"
            I still remember her face - this little girl turned toward me, dull-eyed, said, very, very quietly, so quietly I could hardly hear her.  "What can I do?  I'm just a woman."

            We are taught which words matter and which words don't.  And whose. Today, words still happen in the street.  If you react, the men saying them press on harder with words that are worse, ramping up the pressure, grinding it in. If you don't react, you've let them win - you've let them tell you who are you are and what you are, and there is rarely any dignity in their definitions. 
            When your world is bound by words like these, it's hard to see why you should stop at talking.  Looking is part of the talking - and staring comes after that - and if they let you stare, where might the next step take you when you have been taught to not to see and not to hear?            
            Today's post isn't the littlest bit funny. But laugh, please. Think of those sad little doctors in their high offices, and those cruel men on their building sites and laugh loud and laugh hard.  Wednesday is going to be a very difficult day, and we will need the laughter.

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