A memory popped up last night.
I won’t say triggered –the word of the day. Of the week, Of the month and yes, going back to Trump’s pussy-grabbing tape, of the year. Expressed first by the women’s march and most recently the #MeToo movement. The club that recruited me as an unexpected member as early as 1972 but, Groucho Marx style, I don’t want to belong to it.
As I drove to see Patti Smith downtown Miami, passing billboards of topless men and women who conveyed their own sexual encounters, I remembered a calendar I did in Amsterdam with a photographer called Lee Kraft. I worked with Lee quite often on newspaper fashion ads for stores like C&A and HEMA. Mundane well-paid modeling jobs. This one was different he said. It was topless for a tasteful Pirelli-style calendar. His client was a friend from America, some successful business man. (Lee was also American). I said thanks but no thanks. Lee said it’s two hundred guilders cash. I said no. He said three. I said no. He said four. I said no. He said five. He said it would be beautiful. He said no one would ever see it. He didn’t take no for an answer, he wore me down and I said yes.
I didn’t know the client would actually be there, I thought it was just good old Lee and me. Call me naive.
The American was a tall, thin man in a suit. He was kind of handsome, but also reminded me of a lizard. There was something scaly about his skin and his long fingers may as well have had suction cups. He didn’t exactly creep me out, but I didn’t trust him either.
I was going to be June he said, referring to the month on the calendar. He showed me the rough sketches of the calendar layout and stopped at a rudimentary, almost stick like figure with large nipples that were filled in with smudged gold make up. June was written across the top.
I looked at him.
So, I will have golden nipples? I asked and thought of James Bond and the girl who suffocates because Goldfinger paints her entire body gold. Thank god it’s just my nipples, I thought.
“Do you mind?” he said rather politely.
I shrugged my shoulders. Of course I minded. It was ridiculous. Surely he knew it was demeaning?
I applied the thick gold paste from the small jar Lee handed me. Then we went into the studio and Lee placed me on the backdrop paper.
“Raise your arms,” he said and I did. Ralph stood next to him and looked at me as if he were looking at his laundry going around in the dryer.
No, this is not going to be that kind of abuse story. I am not #MeToo calling out Ralph Nader here. The, by all accounts, a-sexual or possibly gay independent presidential candidate who screwed things up for Gore in 2000. The consumer rights hero of the seventies and eighties.
“What star sign are you?” He asked. He’d walked over to me as Lee was reloading his camera.
“Leo,” I answered proudly.
“Hmm,” he said. “A difficult sign … for a woman [like you].”
“Why?” I asked defiantly.
“Leos have a very high opinion of themselves. Their expectations for their lives are hard to live up to.”
He looked at me as if he could see through me.
“You’ll end up disappointed.”
I had just turned eighteen. I was modeling to pay for college in London. I was going to be a fashion designer. Something shriveled inside me. It was as if he knew (and I didn’t yet) that I would never amount to much. That I was and would always be as insignificant as I was next to him, there and then. He, dressed in an expensive suit, and me, naked in tiny panties and with painted golden nipples. Miss June 1976.
Ralph Nader had presented me with my first glass ceiling, several years before the term was coined. He was the first man to impress on me that there are limitations to what women should reasonably expect for themselves. I had no idea who he was in the cultural context of the United States. I wouldn’t know for another 15 years. But clearly he delivered his message with such manipulative authority that it impacted me.
I was and am ambitious. I did and do have high expectations for myself. I often fail, in my own eyes. And I often say, well what did you expect? I let myself down. I end up disappointed. Then I bounce back, like I did that day in Amsterdam, when his words became the challenge that was to be disproven. By me. For me. Over and over.
Optimistically, I always assumed the metaphor of glass ceiling meant that if you bash it hard enough, the glass will be broken. Last night I flashed for the first time (duh!) on the real meaning. That women can see through the barrier but can’t get to the other side. This glass is shatter proof. The men stand on the floor above us. We are looking up with our high expectations. They are looking down with the arrogant confidence that only bulletproof glass ensures.
Ralph Nader was speaking from the other side of the glass. I didn’t know it then, but he let me feel it. He wasn’t the last or only man to ever mind fuck me. But I was young and unsuspecting and he was smart and effective. Last night I flashed on him. His arrogance. His entitled manipulation, designed to put an eighteen-year-old model in her place. Who knows what I stirred in him, what led to his urge to disempower me. As I drove to the book fair, I thought about the divide between expectation and perception (trigger) and in that moment I hated the memory of his words more than the memory of any grope or unwelcome penis sighting.