People have long lists of things they don’t approve of being done in public and many of them centre around indecent exposure. You shouldn’t pee in public. Though people do. Don’t whip out your dick in public. Though they do. Sure going topless for females is legal in Canada but still don’t do it. And we generally don’t. (Which makes me sad but let’s save that for another day). No shoes, no shirt, no service. You must stay covered up at all times.

On top of that are the distasteful conversations. Don’t swear, there are children around. Stop talking about your penis in this coffee shop. Your bartender is not a therapist, your problems are boring and tragic. Mom, stop singing in the checkout line, it’s embarrassing. That one might just be for me. But the list of taboo topics in public goes on and on. Which raises the question, why oh WHY do aestheticians think it’s okay to give me dating advice while they pluck stubborn hairs from my labia?

It’s as if you clear the threshold of whatever hair removal room you choose and suddenly social norms no longer exist. You’re allowed to be naked. In fact they prefer it, because that blue paper thong they give you to calm your bashful nerves really just slows them down. Now you’re naked on the table with all your bits exposed save for the small section you’re able to keep covered with the supplied hand table. They throw on their protection goggles if it’s laser or gloves if it’s waxing and get to work. The lavender room atomizer and sounds from the ocean do little to relax you, so you close your eyes and try not to focus on the heat of the laser and murder-rationalizing pain of the wax strip.

“You’re very beautiful, do you have a boyfriend?” Your eyes shoot open and you wonder if she is referring to your face or your pussy. “Thank you, and no.” She launches into a speech about how unfortunate this is and then starts describing all the avenues to getting a boyfriend that are really quite easy if you just try. “My boyfriend first messaged me on Facebook saying I was the most beautiful woman he ever saw, it was so sweet. We started talking and then eventually met up and now we’ve been together for three months. Do you ever reply to guys when they message you on Facebook?” Hell no. “Um… no?” Apparently I’ve been living my life all wrong.

“For your full body laser service today, we’re doing arms, legs, armpits, and Brazilian, correct?” Except read that as if the woman speaking has a thick Russian accent. “Yes, and areolas.” She looks back shocked and appalled. “No, no, no, no, no. Breastfeeding.” Shit, as if getting my nipples lasered wasn’t discouraging enough. I already get it from my parents, my friends, and society, but now YOU want me to have a baby too? “It’s okay, I don’t want to have kids, also I’m pretty sure it doesn’t harm my milk ducts should I change my mind.” She winces. “Seriously, it’s fine.” Begrudgingly she wipes aloe on my nipples and mumbles something in Russian that I can only assume is a prayer begging for forgiveness for her part in my shameful choice.

It makes me wonder if the topic hadn’t come up organically or I had asked her, “do you want to breastfeed some day?” how SHE would react? Or to the other woman, “you’re very beautiful,” I’d say as I pull my butt cheeks apart so she can remove the hair from around my anus. What reaction would that get? I imagine it would sound much more like an inappropriate flirting technique than pleasant conversation. Basically, if you’re naked on a table, at a time when you’re the most vulnerable, it’s open season on life advice. But don’t you dare ask the aesthetician anything about her life because she is wearing clothes and it’s hella inappropriate to be that intrusive when the person isn’t naked too!

According to google dictionary, of which I am not sponsored, to gaslight is to, “manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” Up until a week ago, I was not familiar with this term though it was an experience with which I was all too familiar.

My ex was a master of manipulation. It would start off by me making some completely reasonable statement like, “I’m just going to go relax in a bath.” Next it would become unfair of me to have alone time when there was nowhere he could go to get away from me. I’d offer options, “go for a walk, go to the gym, have a bath of your own” to which I would be told that I’m not understanding his point. Am I crazy? His point was that he had nowhere to go to be alone, wasn’t it? He then clarified that he didn’t want to go for a walk, the gym isn’t relaxing for him, and he didn’t like taking baths. Okay…? I wasn’t sure how to solve his problem because I couldn’t find what the problem was anymore. That’s when he would let it come out, “the problem is that you shouldn’t have to need alone time.” But everyone needs time alone. He would counter by saying that he didn’t need time away from me. But WAIT! That’s not what I was saying, I wasn’t saying “I need time away from you specifically, I was saying I need time to myself.” Then all of a sudden, I was told I was being selfish. And I’d struggle to find anything that proved otherwise. I would stand there in a moment of confusion as the reality of who I had believed myself to be my whole life was being dismantled. Then after a long moment of silence, “you can come with me?” Posed as a question because I was grasping at straws to figure out what he wanted. I’m not selfish and I wanted him to know he was loved. He’d run over and kiss me. Ten minutes later I’d find myself in a cramped bath that was anything but relaxing, telling the man squished up against me “I love you” while the woman in my head screamed and banged against the walls of my skull for someone to save her.

When he wasn’t in the mood for a bath, he’d come in and sit on the toilet while I took one. And if it wasn’t the bath, then it was drinks with coworkers, which then morphed into drinks with friends, which eventually became doing anything at all without him. In hindsight it is so easy to see that what he was doing was wrong. But in the moment, all you can do against the psychological attacks on your character is come to the conclusion that this is what compromise looks like. That is until the day you look in the mirror and all the changes he skillfully forced upon you don’t look like compromise, but actually look like abuse.

I was lucky enough to get out of that relationship, made possible in part by two friends who could hear the screams from inside my skull. If not for them, I would not have found the courage to stand up for myself. If not for them, all understanding of who I am and what makes me unique would be long gone. And here’s the hardest truth: if not for them, I don’t know if I’d still be alive.

Rifling through my “memories & keepsakes” box the other day, I came across a collection of photobooth strips. While many were of me and my ride-or-die best friend, there were an equal measure of me with ex-boyfriends. I looked at one specific set of 4 black and white 2.5 x 1.5 inch squares showing me and one of my exes seemingly in love and all I could think was, “ugh, I look so cute.” Is that weird? Most people would be reminded of that failed relationship and think any number of damaging things like, “you cheating fuckin’ asshole” or “how could I have been so clueless” or even worse, “I miss you.” But, nope. Not me. I feel nothing. Except vanity of course. Seriously though, so cute!

And it’s for that very reason that I never throw photos like these away. In a perfect world, I would be in that photobooth alone and when it got to the fourth photo where we are oh-so-adorably smooching, he’d be replaced by some fierce individual like Idris Elba or Cara Delevingne. Babe. And then the photos would cease to be of me and my ex, but me and my future. DREAM BIG PEOPLE.

In a world with 7.6 billion people, the odds are that I am not alone in this form of photographic memory hoarding. And it goes deeper than just photobooths. Three laptops, each spanning about 4 years of my life from the age of 19, that wreak of exes. Kisses, dinners, holidays, trips. Disposable cameras developed to include a CD copy so those kisses could be immortal. Did I really think we’d be together forever? My pride doesn’t want to let me say yes because it means admitting that I was stupid enough to make the same mistake over and over. But, it’s the truth. And whether it’s considered “healthy” or not, it’s something I will probably never stop doing. My only hope is that the next person is actually the real deal.

DISCLAIMER: If we have ever been in a photobooth together, YES I still have the photos, NO you cannot have them back, NO I will not throw them out, and YES it’s possible that I’ll post them with you replaced by someone more deserving of my time.