It was 2:10 p.m. on a sunny Wednesday. And although the sun was shining (blindingly so — thanks, Australia!) I felt like storm clouds followed me everywhere. I was 18 years old, had just broken up with my second serious boyfriend, just failed a uni exam and was in the midst of an anorexia relapse.
Things weren’t going well for me.
I’d been chatting with my friend (let’s call him Steve) a lot. I’d known Steve for about five years and considered him a really good friend. He was a year older than me and had gone to my high school. We liked the same music, had the same sense of humor and he was always protective of me. We’d always had a back-and-forth flirty banter, but I felt like it was harmless. After my breakup, he was incredibly supportive and I was grateful to have a shoulder to cry on. One day, after pouring my heart out to him about how alone I felt, he invited me out for lunch. I readily accepted, happy to have a day when my spirits might be lifted.
We met up in the small town where we both went to school and he took me to Subway. He paid for my chicken caesar sub and bought me a fruit juice. We sat down to eat and the first thing out of his mouth was, “So how big was he — your ex? Now that you’re not with him, you can tell me how big he was. Go on, you know you wanna. Did you break up because he wasn’t enough for you?”
I laughed uncomfortably. “I don’t think I should tell you that. It’s pretty personal. But no, that wasn’t why we broke up.”
“Ohhh, I see. I bet I’m bigger, though!”
I shrugged and awkwardly sipped my juice. He made weird jokes sometimes, so I let it go and changed the subject.
After lunch, we went for a walk together. We sat on a bench by the water and he confessed to me that he was in love with one of his best friends, a girl I knew. He’d told her this, but she rejected him and he was crushed. And although I was sad for Steve, I felt a sigh of relief that his strange questioning about my ex’s privates had been meaningless. I hugged him as he cried about his lost love and he thanked me for being a listening ear.
As it was time to go, we walked back to our cars together. We hugged goodbye, I thanked him for lunch and turned to walk away. But he grabbed my arm and pulled me around tightly into him and pressed me against his car. He kissed me passionately and rubbed his erection against me. I had no idea what was going on. I kissed back. He grabbed my hand and pushed it down inside his pants. I retracted it and pulled away from him.
“Umm, I’m gonna go home now,” I said. “You’re a good friend and I don’t want to wreck that!”
He smirked at me and rolled his eyes, “Oh, c’mon. Why else would I have invited you here? You know what you’re good for!”
He squeezed my breasts as he said this.
I left, disgusted. Not with him, but myself. Is that all that I was good for?
I got into my car and cried all the way home, and I never spoke to him again. I would never let anyone speak to me like that again.
Back in those days, I was utterly convinced that my place on this Earth could be justified only by how much of a sex symbol I could make myself.
My battle with anorexia had seen me lose my breast tissue, which made me overcompensate for what I thought was my loss of womanhood with promiscuity. I wanted to be seen as a sex kitten; a vixen. The most knowledgeable and experienced with sex. The bad girl all the guys want. I believed that catcalling was a legitimate compliment and that all my sexual choices should be carefully considered to shape how men would perceive me. If other people saw my value, maybe I’d be able to see it too — or something like that.
Because I viewed myself as having only one thing to offer, I only attracted men who wanted to take that one thing from me. It wasn’t until I did some serious soul searching that I realised that sexual partners couldn’t fix my rock-bottom self-esteem.
This soul searching was sparked by an unlikely catalyst — a troll on Facebook, who commented on my profile picture and told me how much sexier I’d be to him if I cut my hair and lost a little weight.
Previously, this comment would’ve tipped me over into a breakdown. But with a few recovery attempts (and major success!) under my belt, I was stronger and more empowered than ever before. And for one of the first times ever, I didn’t even doubt my own value for a second.
“I don’t give a fuck if you’re attracted to me. I exist only for myself,” I replied back and logged off the computer, feeling like a modern-day Rosie the Riveter in leggings and a hoodie.
The more of these experiences I had — and the more I learned about my own self-esteem — the more I discovered that I wanted to make some major changes to the way that I interacted with the world. Here are 5 major things that I changed:
1. I found self-love, quite literally.
I never had anything even close to an orgasm with my first sexual partner because I never considered it a priority. It was an “honor” enough for me to be the blessed female vessel for his pleasure. But thankfully, my freshly recovered and empowered self knew better. I mentioned my lack of self-pleasure to my mother. Being the glorious, badass goddess of a woman that she is, she bought me my first vibrator. A strange and embarrassing gift at first — but honestly, one of the best things she’s ever given me. I was given the gift of permission to explore my own body, come to greater acceptance over my newly recovered body and learn what felt good. Once I knew that I was deserving of sexual pleasure and had the power to define my own self-esteem, suddenly I refused to accept anything less.
Related: How to Be Body Positive During Sex
2. I presented myself as more than just a sex object.
And I don’t mean in the way that I dressed (because whether I’m wearing a turtleneck sweater or nipple pasties and a g-string, I’m no less of a human being deserving of respect). I started actively seeking out the company of people who saw me as more than just a physical being. I spoke about my passions, I became interested in what other people had to say and opened up to learning new world views instead of viewing every conversation as an opportunity to have someone validate me.
3. I started setting my own boundaries.
When guys catcalled me on the street, I no longer shyly smiled and continued walking. I would turn around and with a smile and say, “I’m not interested, and I deserve respect. You’re better than this!” When creepy dudes at nightclubs would grind on me, I wouldn’t engage with it. When persistent “friends” would pursue me, I would make my lack of interest clear. Preserving the precious male ego so that they might remain a backup plan for me was no longer on my agenda. If they didn’t respect me as anything more than tits and ass and a warm body to possess, then their feelings were not my concern.
4. I surrounded myself with likeminded women.
When I accidentally sat in on a lecture on feminist theory at my university, my life was changed. Feminism reinforced everything that I’d been teaching myself about sexual objectification, harassment and self-worth — and to be in a room with at least fifty other women, all nodding their heads along and supporting each other was a thing of beauty. I knew from that moment on that I wanted nothing to do with perpetuating the myth of ongoing female competition.
5. I shopped for clothing based on what I wanted to wear.
Not whether it would be sexy. Not whether it showed enough cleavage. Not whether it was too reserved. Not whether or not it hid my “problem areas.” For me — and me alone.
Years on from discovering my own power, I still continuously seek out ways to better empower myself (because when we know better, we do better) and it’s an ongoing journey. And these days, I fight not only for myself but for every woman around me. Because catcalling is not a compliment, nor is a dick pic trying to slide into your DM’s.
We are not here to be harassed, used, abused, degraded and treated as unworthy. We are inherently worthy, and whether or not we see that yet in ourselves, we deserve to be treated as worthy by those around us.
The media industry and advertising might still be rife with blatant sexual objectification, but I have hope that things will change. Things are slowly but surely starting to change, and I won’t give up.
I urge you not to give up either.
Don’t give up on yourself and don’t give up on your sisters. Because in some way or another, we’ve all been that girl at 2:10 p.m. on a Wednesday, being forced into an uncomfortable situation by someone who only valued us for what they could take from us.
And we deserve better.