Although I’ve written before about bullying in this column, none of my experiences or research prepared me for my friend Patty Underwood’s reflections about walking the streets of New York with her teenage daughter Jordan, an incredibly talented theater student from the Boston area. I had the pleasure to meet Jordan on a trip to Boston a few months before she departed for New York City to begin her freshman year at NYU. But this story is about more than bullying. It is about a mother’s love and a child’s resiliency.
Patty’s story, painstakingly recalled and beautifully reported, will surely touch many a raw nerve. Her story requires no editorial comment from me, which would only dilute an intimate experience that speaks for itself. Patty granted me permission to share her story with you, my readers. Patty told me, “Walking with Jordan allowed me to be in her shoes. I heard her talk about this experience before, but it was the first time I really experienced it.” She added, “Jordan is all for letting people hear her story.”
Patty Underwood: “As we walked to the MOMA, I glared at the middle-aged woman who was looking at my 19-year old daughter like she was the circus fat woman. The woman appeared to be with her own thin teenagers; as she glanced at them, her face seemed to be mixed with wonder and disgust. I could feel the judgment exuding from her eyeballs, and the anger in me surged back with fire in my eyes. On the next block a group of construction workers smirked and cat-called. Then the teenagers wearing tiny belly-revealing tank tops gawked at her tummy that also peaked out.
“Every New York City block we walked brought eyes that bore holes in my daughter’s body and I was feeling a mix of distress, rage, worry and pure exhaustion. How the hell does someone survive the unrelenting visual persecution and surging negative energy? By the end of the day, I wanted to crawl under a rock and it wasn’t even me that was at the receiving end of this attack. My daughter kept saying, ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Do you not want to be here?’ ‘You seem distant.’ I told her I was just tired from the long day in the city.
“Truthfully, I was trying to swallow the impact of her walking out the door every day. How does she do it? Who is there to protect her? What is this doing to her brain? I felt paralyzed by witnessing humanity try to crush my daughter’s spirit. At one point I suggested that maybe she not show so much cleavage, and she railed back, ‘Oh, just because I have big boobs it’s okay to comment about them? As a social worker, mom, you should know better. What, are you now going to say that women who get raped asked for it!?’
“We continued to walk, her with her head high and mine stuck down, avoidant of the imminent look. My daughter, it seems, has come to terms with the battle she faces when she walks out the door. ‘Mom, if you weren’t here, I would respond, tell them to f*** off.’ I am reminded of the practice she has had at facing the bullying since middle school. And the barrier it created; and the friends who love her unconditionally. And the dance teachers who see the beauty in how her body moves. And the 10,000 likes she got on Tumbler after posting a video of her dancing.
“Plus-size models are walking the runways and appearing in fashion magazines and Ashley Tipton won Project Runway. [Tipton is a 24-year-old clothing designer.] Tipton is an amazing woman who is advocating for the underprivileged and the eradication of all types of discrimination. Yes, she’s a fighter, fiercely protective of those whose human rights are under attack, passionate, creative, funny, singer, actor, dancer, black belt carrying, plus-sized and beautiful. Jordan is all this and more.”
Thank you Patty and Jordan.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.