You probably don’t remember me. I was the girl going for an evening run with her mom; it was mid-September, around 5:00. The air was still hot and bright, so my mom and I stuck to the shady side of the street, talking about our days, our to-do lists, and our favorite things. You stopped your car in the middle of the street and honked three times. I thought maybe I’d dropped something, but when I turned around, I saw you, a man in his mid-forties, gesturing at my backside and saying things I wish I hadn’t heard. I’d just turned sixteen.
I can remember my cheeks burning red as you drove away. I asked my mom to switch sides with me so that I would be more hidden. I remember her laughing, probably an attempt to make me feel better, though she was obviously annoyed, and saying, “Ignore him—he’s immature.” But it bothered me—scared me, even. I haven’t left the house without pepper spray since.
I remember you, too. You and your friends stood by the lockers in front of my math class. I remember taking slow steps, sometimes ducking into the bathroom, to avoid crossing paths with you. I knew that once you saw me, I was free game. I remember the array of fake date proposals and declarations of love thrown my way, which would always be followed by a laugh from your friends and then comments on how ugly I was or how fat I looked or how poorly I dressed. My glasses were too big, my clothes were gifts from my grandmother, and I barely knew how to use a brush, let alone a flat iron. At twelve years old, having just transitioned from the sixth grade into Junior High, I obviously had a lot to learn. The first was that if I wasn’t pretty, I wasn’t human.
I remember being sixteen and going with my mom to her hair appointment. You walked up to me, recognizing me from years before. The first thing you said was, “Congratulations! You’ve lost a lot of weight haven’t you?” I’d never been overweight, though I did have a slight stomach of baby fat in my earlier years, which I grew out of in puberty. I developed earlier than most girls as well, which left me with body dysmorphia, as most of the girls that surrounded me had been stick thin and around 5-feet tall. I’d struggled with seeing myself as ‘fat’ ever since, and your comment shattered me, confirming every horrible thought I’d ever had about my body. I spent years afterward obsessively controlling what I ate and chastising myself for every ‘slip up’ or wasted opportunity for exercise. You took my tendencies and created a full-on disorder.
I met you today. I was outside, enjoying the fall breeze on my bare legs, stomach, and shoulders after having endured a miserably hot summer that did not fare well with my pale skin. You drove by in your black jeep, alone, with the music blaring. You kindly turned it down as you neared my location, leaning out your window to shout, “Whore!” as you passed me by. I watched you drive away from the steps of my porch, and I couldn’t help but wonder where you were going. Maybe it was home to your girlfriend or out to meet your mother for lunch. Maybe you were going to pick your daughter up from school. I thought about what you’d do when you saw her. Would you greet her with a hug? Would you ask her how her day was? What would you say if she told you that someone had shouted the word ‘whore’ at her from a moving car? Would you be mad? Would you laugh?
For most of my life, my body has existed in the realm of public domain. If it existed out in the world—clothed or otherwise—it was not my own. I was responsible for keeping my body presentable, but not conspicuous. I was meant to be beautiful, but not conceited—perfect, but effortlessly so. I’ve spent years of my life ignoring my own feelings and pushing myself into what I was “supposed” to be, and it’s because of men like you. Don’t get me wrong; we’re all victims of a flawed society that collectively obsesses over the female body, but women like me have felt the pressure of that obsession, and we can’t fix it without your help.
I want you to know that I’m reclaiming my body. I won’t allow myself to pinch or scratch or hit or hurt the parts of me that don’t fit your definition of perfection any longer. I will not shame myself for enjoying “bad” food, and I will not deny myself of the nutrients that my body needs. I want you to know that while I’ve built a large part of my identity around you, I refuse to give you that power any longer. I’m going to live with passion and love and happiness, and no one, not even you, can take that away. Yes, my body is beautiful, but it’s f**king powerful too.