Yesterday I stood in the middle of the National Forest, speaking with an incredible woman I’d met only minutes earlier. Here we were not more than 30 minutes into knowing each other and we were relaying our experiences with birth control, sex education, body image and high school friendships to one another.
Well, for those of you who know me, you’ll know that this conversation isn’t altogether abnormal. But I’ll often stick with small talk for the better part of an hour before dipping my toes into subjects such as these. However, in this instance they rose to the top of conversation organically.
We were not only standing in the middle of the national forest, we were standing in the middle of the national forest surrounded by nearly 40 incoming freshmen on the ropes course, girls staring at their thighs with audible groans of disgust, groups flocking together, while others stood on the outside, teeny tiny denim shorts and high pitched giggles all around. It took us both back 10 years.
Transported in time, I spoke about my love of middle school, my fond memories of the quirks and even challenges of going through puberty surrounded by 300 other kids who were changing in so many different and unfamiliar ways. I continued on to quietly admit that my time in high school was not remembered as fondly.
The woman I spoke with turned to me with a furrowed brow and asked, “Why?”
With a bit of trepidation, I admitted that I had challenging time with the group of friends, who at the time I viewed as “mean girls.” Admittedly, a label I do not care for, nor one I would use to describe them looking back. But at the time, I was wrapped up in the drama and trauma.
Realistically, these young women were toiling mainly with misunderstanding, with societal ideas of sexuality, with expectations of what it meant to be a woman, and a roadmap of appropriate girlfriend behavior shaped by dramatic movies and shows. After all, my high school days were the height of the phrase, “Hey Bitch.” We were not necessarily taught to treat one another with respect. Instead, we were pinned against each other, constantly comparing bodies, boyfriends, clothes etc, we understood that boys fought with fists, and girls fought with words. And fight my friends did.
Long story short, after going through a break up my sophomore year of high school I received attention from my male peers I wasn’t use to. During the course of my last relationship I had stopped wearing blue eye shadow and sat at many Bare Minerals makeup counters, I’d invested in the most padded push up bra’s one could find at Victoria Secret, (and wholly wow, from a woman who has not worn a bra in years now, I must say, my breasts appeared double the size that they actually are), and I’d made a lot of male friends, being in a relationship and all. All of sudden, these guys were asking me to come over to their houses alone, their friends were taking me out on dates, and to be honest I liked the attention. It validated everything I knew about worth, beauty and importance (needless to say, I learned some pretty flawed lessons back in the day).
I ended up casually seeing a few guys, which mostly amounted to holding hands and watching Jersey Shore, maybe a make out session before heading home. But just as these boys started pressuring me for more, my once close-knit group of girlfriends caught wind of the attention I was being given and as I said before, fought back. Hard.
I was pelted with words like: “Slut” and “Whore” with phrases like, “they only like her for her ass” and met with a complete stone wall from friendships I once held dear, and to be completely honest, truly needed.
As the insults and labels rolled in, I felt progressively more alone, and the only people willing to give me attention were the boys around me. The same boys who had sat nicely across from me at the Cheesecake Factory or helped me with algebra were now pushing. Pushing me to take off my clothes, to ease their blue balls, to fuck them when it was the last thing I felt comfortable doing.
But after hearing these girls whispered words, after reading the insults on their phones, after hearing the gossip circulate around the school, I did the only thing I could figure out how to do. I pulled an “Easy-A.”
If they coined me a slut, a slut I would be. And so I found myself beneath an older man, who begged and pleaded, who claimed I owed him, who was only worried about his own pleasure. I found myself naked in the middle of a park with a college co-worker, wondering if this was just a one night stand, or could it maybe be more? And when I felt violated, when I felt unsafe and unsure, I had no one to turn to, because my previous support team had turned me away long ago.
Eventually, I learned a little (not a lot, that didn’t come until college) more about consent, I made peace with the fact that these girls opinions of me did not define my reality, and I turned to my mom and childhood friend for support.
When I received an apology from one of these girls a year later (a grown woman now, who I deeply love and respect, and appreciate reflecting and connecting with), I began to realize that these girl’s actions were out of their control. They were taught about feminism in the same way I was they (as a dirty word), they were made to believe that strong women were villains, that sexual women were whores, and that all women must compete with one another.
Standing in the woods, in deep conversation and resonance with a incredibly rad woman I had known for only a short time, I remembered the greater truth. A truth that can overpower the fucked up lessons we learned in our youth. A truth that, women need each other, we are our greatest support systems, one another’s biggest allies. We are all the more powerful united, and when we do the work to love and embrace ourselves, we are better able to fully love and embrace one another.
Moments later, as our current day conversation quieted, and the same girl who have been disgusted by her thighs moments earlier climbed up the gigantic wooden ladder and beamed with pride for those very thighs accomplishments, as her female peers below cheered her on, I felt a rush of hope. Hope that the younger generations are transitioning into self-love and community support, into “Hey Queen,” and out of “Hey Bitch.”
I see the change, slowly but surely, and I try valiantly to do the work every day to bring awareness to all generations of women, that we are all uniquely valuable and we have the power to build one another up.
May you build yourself and the other ladies in your life up. May you come together and dismantle the lessons you learned long ago, may you teach one another new lessons, and may you bask in the blissful light each one of you radiates.