On my most recent trip to the mikvah, the mikvah attendant thought I was an abused women.
As I was getting ready to immerse, we made small talk while she checked my nails and feet. We had never met before, so we exchanged pleasantries such as, “what do you do?” and “where did you grow up?”. Everything was fine and pleasant. She seemed sweet. Then, I pulled down my robe slightly so she could make sure there were no hairs on my neck or back.
Her tone changed completely. “Oh. My.” she said. “You, um, you have a LOT of black and blue marks all over your neck…” Her tone was one of immense concern. I had no idea what she was talking about. “Do you know where these marks came from?” She asked. I didn’t even know what marks she was talking about.
She gently touched one, and as she touched it, it started to rub off. “OH!” she said with a huge sign of relief. “They’re not bruises!” We deduced that I had been wearing a cheap, fake gold necklace earlier in the day, and that my skin probably reacted with the necklace material in some way. She wiped off the marks with some makeup remover, and I apologized for holding her up and thanked her for helping me. “Oh, it’s no problem at all” she said. “I’m just glad the marks aren’t bruises! Then, we’d have much more serious problems!”.
We finished, I dunked, and then I went home. On the way home, I thought about the irony of the situation. I, a woman who works with victims of rape and domestic abuse all day, was suspected of herself being abused. I also thought about the Mikvah Lady’s role in spotting the abuse. I know that they’re trained to recognize signs of abuse and to potentially confront women they view as victims, but I wondered, how would that conversation go? I can’t imagine it would be pleasant. And to intertwine it with the mitzvah of mikvah? I know that mikvaot often place ads for help agencies in the prep rooms, since those are a safe spot, away from the intimate males that could be endangering the women. They’re great places to make the initial call, to make a safety plan, and to seek help. But, still, what if a woman wasn’t ready to take the first step but the Mikvah Lady confronted her anyway? Then, the mikvah would just turn in to another source of anxiety and fear. Thoughts like , “Will she ask me about my bruises today?” and “What cover story can I use this time?” will replace the serenity that mikvah often brings. Some women might be pushed to not even use the mikvah, for fear of being confronted.
I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that for the thirty seconds that my mikvah lady thought I was abused, I felt very uncomfortable.