On learning to hide

You learn these things early. Your place in the scheme of things.

When I was little, girls wore hats to church on Sundays.  By the time I reached adolescence, a mantilla, whose name derived from the Spanish, a triangle of black or white lace, would do.

Sometimes when someone had forgotten her hat or mantilla, she spread a handkerchief on top of her head and held it there with hair clips, like a peasant’s headgear against the burning sun.

Cover your heard if you are a woman in honour of God.

I never questioned why it was that women needed to cover their heads and not men.

Subtle hints in my mother’s voice when as a ten year old I walked around the house without a t-shirt on the hottest of days, walked around half naked like my brothers.

‘You can’t dress like that,’ my mother said. ‘Put on a t-shirt.’

The boys were free to go on paper rounds, to ride their bikes through the streets after dark while we girls stayed at home to wash dishes, sweep floors, make beds and keep our home tidy.

My father was six foot three inches tall, my mother five foot two. Somehow their height became a measure of their status. His an all powerful presence, she a submissive and delicate woman who worked her way around pleasing him at every turn.

Only later did I realise my mother never asked for things, at least not directly, and certainly not from my father? She kept a low profile flirting only when we had visitors, with men and women alike, chatting endlessly to the family – her family also from Holland – who visited on Sundays.

She passed around the biscuits, shop bought on porcelain plates and poured endless cups of tea, while he, ever gruff and stiff in his chair, tried to attract attention but could never raise the interest that my mother raised as she slipped from person to person with her smile and enthusiasm and energy.

It faded as soon as the visitors had gone when once again my mother stood over a pan of sizzling steak or boiled potatoes in a routine of meal preparations that left her silent.

We knew the difference between boys and girls from earliest days. We knew that boys were smarter than girls, that boys were stronger.

The boys won at games of marbles on the hallway floor, their aim was steady while mine slipped. Their thumbs could propel the marbles across the room in one flip while I needed several faulting tries to get the marble half way to where I wanted. Mine stuck in the worn out sections of carpet where the wool was ground down to bare webbing from too much walking.

Even as the unspoken rules told us to keep ourselves hidden there was a flipside.   The call to be visible and beautiful and all things desirable in the eyes of the man who would one day choose you as his own.

My father stitched our mother’s dresses from material they bought together at the fabric shop. Bright floral patterns that my father fashioned into tight waisted and low cut frocks my mother wore most days in the summer.

Perhaps the fact that my father had fashioned those dresses gave him licence to rip them off her in moments of rage. My mother like a servant in the kitchen preparing the family meal became a woman undressed, her face flushed, her eyes ablaze with fear as she grabbed at the scraps of fabric left hanging around her hips while my father glowered with indignation.


In a 1975 interview available on YouTube, Michael Parkinson talks to a fresh faced Helen Mirren who wears a long black dress and holds a feather in her hand, which she says was meant for her hair but looked ridiculous so she carried it instead.

She waves it around from time to time during the interview as if she is playing into Michael Parkinson’s insistence that she is a sex goddess, an actress who seduces and flirts as part of her trade.

He asks about her physical attributes and she insists he spell these out. And Michael Parkinson who sits cross legged in his swivel chair in blue suit and tie almost laying back in comfort content to preen and pose questions in his fine British voice asks what’s it like to take her clothes off for the screen.

Does it demean her as an actor?’

Helen Mirren slips in and out of irritation. She tells him it would help for everyone on the set to take their clothes off, too; the director, the producer, the camera men, the other actors, that way she, the actress – because it’s almost always the actress – need not feel so alone.

Was that the way my mother felt in the kitchen all those years ago after my father ripped off her clothes? So visible and yet invisible. On display for all to see, but without ownership of her body, alone like Susanna and those elders.


My father collected art books which I pored through as a ten year old and there too I observed the same phenomena, the naked women sometimes with snippets of material draped around their shoulders or between their legs, exposed for all to see but behind their eyes, no one there.   And the men in robes, the fancy clothes of medieval times, dressed up like peacocks admiring the object of their desires.

Is this what it means to be invisible, to be an object?

I learned early to hide my body behind clothes while at the same time displaying myself as an object of desire once puberty hit and I discovered like my mother before me I had these things called breasts that were of me and not of me. They belonged to me, but were also a source of desire for the other.

When my father visited my sister in bed at night even before she had reached the age of breasts and child bearing hips, even before she wore bras and needed stockings held up with suspender belts instead of socks, then I knew to keep myself invisible, to hide from him, to hide from men, or at least to hide my inside self from them.

I could perform like the women I saw in the movies, the women on the bill boards my mother with her visitors. I could wear clothes that hugged my body once I had lost weight in an avalanche of starvation once I hit my late teens but it was only the objective me, the displayed body open to view.

The rest I hid inside.

I still hide her but now it’s easier.

A woman over fifty ceases to be visible. Helen Garner describes this as a freeing time, no longer sexually available, no longer on the sexual market and therefore no longer needing to set ourselves the goal of external beauty for the camera.

But a different kind of angst arises when you fear your image as an older woman marks you as one not to be taken seriously, as one to be ignored.

It is a joy to hide, Donald Winnicott writes when describing the game of peek a boo as played by babies, of disappearing and then reappearing, but a tragedy never to be found.


9 thoughts on “On learning to hide”

  1. Men, males, also have cause to hide. I think I’ve spent my entire life hiding. I’m still hiding. Hiding’s the norm. The thing about hiding is that when you’re in hiding your vision is limited perhaps to a peephole but if everyone within your line of sight is also well hidden then, well… I vaguely remember my sister starting to wear baggy jumpers when she hit puberty. She was six years younger than me and of little interest. I never even considered the possibility she might be embarrassed about her budding breasts and it was only years later she talked about it. Would I have teased her? Probably. It’s what we Scots do to show affection.

    Boys mostly get to grow into men privately apart from the odd occasional involuntary erection. I have only one memory of my old man—my dad’s quaint euphemism for male genitalia—ever standing to attention at an inopportune time so I suppose I got off light. Boobs may start off as a cause for shame but usually they end up as a source of pride or at least power. Penises have always seemed to me to be something most guys were just a wee bit embarrassed about. I seem to recall in ‘Stranger than Fiction’ Jonathan referred to his privates as “not unlike a still-born gerbil.”

    I experienced my first wet dream when I was eleven. I never said a word to anyone. A part of me knew to keep that hidden just as I kept everything that followed naturally—I cannot overemphasise that word—from then on a secret. Even at that age I knew full well what the Bible’s views of sex were and so I learned very quickly to become two- or three- or even four-faced depending who I was with but mostly I kept what I came to think of as ‘the real me’ to myself. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this and I recall sympathising with Kenneth Williams once his diaries were published and the degree of his self-loathing was made public.

    All my life the importance of not only truth but THE truth was hammered into me and I did like the idea of truth—I still do—but it seemed like such a pipe dream. That I could see at eleven and the older I got and the more truths came out about people the more I started to realise that everyone was hiding something. As I put it in the new book, “Truths are boring and stubborn; mostly trivial they wear one of two masks, plain or ugly (Keats was a romantic fool); they do not prevaricate; they tell it as it is. They may be docile but they’re not pliable. Lies can dress up as anything they please and it is their unpredictability, their daring, their sheer élan that keeps us coming back for more.” Maybe I should add “hidden” to my wee list here because even when people do get exposed we never do learn the whole truth just enough facts to justify our feelings and subsequent actions.

    By the way it was Michael Parkinson and not Clive James. When you typed “fine British voice” bells should’ve rung. The 1975 interview is often cited as one of the low points of Parkinson’s career along with his head-to-head with Meg Ryan. It was of its time—I’m not defending him—but I’m not entirely sympathetic with Helen Mirren who even then was a very fine actress and didn’t have to get her kit off to find work. Granted her peers—I’m thinking of fellow Dames Diana Rigg and Judy Dench—also did but maybe if they’d been better endowed more of a fuss would’ve been made. Rigg was one of the first establishment actors to do a nude scene on stage in New York and even now she’s in her seventies she recalls the words of the American critic who wrote: “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” I would recommend you check out the second part of Parkinson’s 1972 interview with Rigg which you can download from her website: http://www.dianarigg.net/htmldir/video.html Also her response to Malcolm Muggeridge during her 1975 appearance on ‘Parkinson’ on the subject of sex outside marriage is also worth a look.

  2. That’s a dreadful mistake, Jim, and one I didn’t see, though so obvious. I have Clive James on the brain – he’s busy dying or at least for the moment escaping death and he’s Australian – even though thinking about it I see Clive James as a very different type of man from the one portrayed here in Michael Parkinson. Thanks to you, I’ve corrected it now.
    And thanks too for your thoughts on how hard it is for men, too. Gerald Murnane writes about this often. We all hide as you say and truth is stranger than fiction and shame is a big part of it, and the degree to which we suffer when confronted with our bodily inadequacies. I’ll check our the Dianna Rigg video now, too. Thanks again for the correction. I’ll try not to feel too much of a fool.

  3. Helen Mirren did get her kit off, Jim. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. A very black, book themed film.
    I hide my body more now than as a young women, although I was never satisfied with myself, even at my best. But I certainly remember being berated by my parents if my choice of clothes fell below their standards.
    I feel very challenged when you describe your father’s violence, Elisabeth. It must have been extremely stressful and sounds quite unpredictable, unlike my mother who always drank to a timetable and I could plan our interactions accordingly.

  4. I saw that film years ago, Karen, The cook, the thief et al, and found it deeply disturbing not because of the nakedness but the brutality.
    The business of clothing and dress continues to be vexed. I read recently or maybe heard on the radio, a story of a young woman somewhere who basically wears the same pant suit type arrangement, of which she has two or three pairs every day. She reckons we’re overburdened by too much choice. She may well be right.
    As for my father’s violence, what can I say, except that it was indeed frighteningly unpredictable. If only there had been more of a pattern where like you with your mum we might have evaded it. Thanks, Karen.

  5. @Karen C: I think you’ve misread me, Karen. What I was saying was that the time Mirren was interviewed by Parkinson she was an established actress and DID NOT NEED to take off her clothes to get work—prior to this interview she’d appeared in no less than nine Shakespeare plays (including being cast as Cleopatra, Ophelia and Lady Macbeth) plus the lead roles in ‘The Seagull’ and ‘Miss Julie’—she chose to and has continued to accept roles that include various degrees of nudity. Her first nude role on-screen was in 1969 in ‘Age of Consent’ and then again in ‘Savage Messiah’ followed by ‘Oh Lucky Man!’ I’ve found ten films so far, the last being when she was sixty-five in ‘Love Ranch’. Whether an actress chooses to show her body on camera is her own business—all you have to do is look at the cast of ‘Girls’ to see that, those who will or won’t—but whereas Rigg (every bit as much a bone fide sex symbol at the time) shrugged off her nude scene and joked about it diffusing the situation Mirren didn’t; Parkinson was only asking the questions every man was interested in and, yes, it was embarrassing stuff but looking back at the TV shows from the seventies it wasn’t out of the ordinary. As Mirren said recently in an interview with the ‘Radio Times’, “I’m sure many people have seen the interview with Michael Parkinson, but that’s a classic example of the prevalent attitude at that time. […] There was a prurient sort of thing going on.”

    What’s interesting is that she did agree to be interviewed by Parkinson after that. From an article by James Leyfield referring to a 2006 interview:

    After mentioning a quote the actress had given to a newspaper about not having to depend on her breasts to land the role of DCI Jane Tennison in drama series ‘Prime Suspect’, she struck back: “I’m glad you mentioned that Michael, because you can’t resist can you! The first time we ever met he had to talk about my breasts, now it’s full circle.”

    And the host did himself no favours in trying with his defence, saying: “Now to be fair to me, they were hanging out,” referring to the strappy black dress Mirren was wearing at the time.

    A startled and open-mouthed Mirren, whose outfit on the day didn’t appear to expose her assets, replied: “No they weren’t … excuse me!”

    Parkinson tried to play down the controversial conversation in a jokey way by saying the pair were both “a lot sillier” back then, before Mirren, with a slight grin on her face, said: “I hated you. I thought you were a sexist person for mentioning my breasts, and also you wouldn’t actually say the word ‘breasts’.”

    You can see the interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hReqvteth_w Jump to 4:44 if you’re pressed for time. A far more assured interviewee.

  6. Helen Mirren has ‘mellowed’ with age, Jim, as has Michael Parkinson. I get the feeling he didn’t like the idea of being considered a misogynist. At least in this later interview he has the courage to say ‘breasts’. But he still comes off badly in his insistence they were ‘hanging out’. Thanks again Jim.

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