We were in the fifth grade. It was a Tuesday before gym class. I was wide-eyed and rosy cheeked, teasing him about who he had a crush on. He leaned close to my ear and mumbled her name, in the kind of adoring way Prince Charmings are taught to. But in my eardrums, it sounded like glass shattering. The three of us had spent hours riding our bikes to the gas station, eating penny candy, and walking the long way home from school. I knew as well as anybody that she was pretty and smart, and I’d be the first to say that she told all the best jokes. But for some reason, his stark acknowledgement of how wonderful she was sounded exactly like, “... and you aren’t wonderful at all.”
Over the next 10 years, I seemed to learn the same lesson a thousand times over: that there is barely space for one beautiful and funny girl-boss, definitely not space for all of us. And then slowly — or maybe all at once — I was 19 and wandering around Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, still thinking that if she was pretty, I couldn’t be. Confused about who I was supposed to become, I found myself stumbling around at parties, spilling red cups filled with whiskey, falling into relationships with men who didn't have the capacity to love me.
In October of my sophomore year, I told a boy I had dated that I had never had sex, that I couldn't, that I didn't want to. He listened until I was drunk — and then pinned me, now in tears, down on his bed.
As the rest of that year dragged by, my bruises faded and I learned a whole new vocabulary to express my own experience of sexual assault and trauma recovery. In between classes, work, and trying to keep breathing, I wondered what it meant to be alive when you didn't want to be, tried to figure out how to talk about that night without letting it become my entire story. I learned how to keep walking when the road in front of me looked so long and dark.
In the middle of this, I met a boy who listened intently to me describe the papers I had written, complimented my sterling silver rings, and walked me to my car with his arm loosely around my waist. Every time we said goodnight, I found myself locked in the cavernous idea that this was all some sick mistake, that he would rather spend his nights with someone who hadn’t been raped, that there was someone else who was pretty and smart and who would be able to kiss him without wanting to wash her mouth out with soap.
I tried, somewhat desperately, to love him around, over, and under my trauma, but never really through it. I thought that being honest with him would break the façade of femininity I had spent so much time constructing. I was in the fifth grade all over again, but instead of believing that someone else’s beauty was the absence of mine, I believed that my experiences were the absence of everyone else's. Or that, in order to be loved by this boy, I would have to be just a little bit more like the girls I had seen in movies: manic pixies without any conception of what it feels like to bleed.
I had internalized the lesson that there wasn’t space for me, so even then, in the most tender relationship I’d ever been in, I believed that the space he made wasn't ever really meant for me. It was the experience of trying to love him that reminded me that to be human is to take up space. Indeed, the moment I decided to tell him about the way my past felt stained with India ink, I exploded. I was big, I took up space, I was human: a mess of atmospheric flaws and star-spangled accomplishments that the world, and he, would just have to learn to deal with.
Of course, the grace of one boy doesn’t undo a life of internalizing toxic beliefs about what it means to be a woman. I will always have more to relearn, to rebuild, to unravel. In the pursuit of re-understanding how to take up my own space, I wrote an op-ed for my school’s newspaper during Sexual Assault Awareness Month about what it meant to be a survivor of sexual assault.
Writing the piece and choosing to share my story was terrifying. More than feeling vulnerable to criticism, I still wasn’t sure that my story deserved to take up space. I was just one person at a school of 6,000 — a sea of stories waiting to be told. But while I didn't think my story was special, I decided to share it anyways.
To my surprise, the piece was met with the strength of at least a dozen women who reached out to tell me their own narratives about their own experiences of continuing to breathe. Reading their words continued my process of unraveling. Gaining insight into their hearts reminded me what it means to be a woman in 2016, and, more importantly, what it means to take up the space I deserve.
What I really learned is that we are all stories waiting to be read, stories that are made up of the sum total of our experiences, compliments, triumphs, failures, and all the other things that have happened to us. Stories that, on both their best and worst days, deserve to take up space — in our communities, at our schools, and in our relationships.
Inspired by this realization, I set out to create an online community that helps to allow women to take up the space they deserve. The resulting website, Seasons of Intention, is meant to remind women that there is room for all of us to be beautiful, funny, and a little bit screwed up. I built the space to share stories of failure, challenge, and triumph, so no one has to get caught in the fray, go unloved, or get left behind. So that we might start to understand that, as women, there is space for all of us to be exactly who we are, even in the midst of our biggest disasters and our worst days.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673), or visit RAINN.
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