Recently, I bought a royal blue romper. I loved the way I felt when I saw myself in it, and I loved the smile I had on my face when I looked in the mirror. I knew that when I wore it I would feel beautiful, and I did. I wore it on a Wednesday, and at the end of its debut night, someone very important to me told me that they wished that I felt that confident all the time; and I realized I wished that, too.
Why is it so hard to be confident? To stand tall in a room full of people? Well, for me, it’s fear. It’s wondering what people are thinking when they look at me. Do I even have the right to think that highly of myself? To feel confident? I can name at least 20 people in a large crowd, at any given time, who I see as more beautiful than me.
But that shouldn’t impact how I feel about myself. I am allowed to feel powerful in my own skin simply because I want to. However, as quickly as I can gain that sensibility, I can lose it.
It was a Thursday, the day after my blue romper’s debut. It was dark outside and there must have been at least 6,000 people at this company event, all drinking and dancing. I was wearing a cute, flowy, pink dress that was perfect for the occasion— I know this because I consulted with my best friend prior to purchasing.
I was feeling pretty and the right amount of sassy, save for the unfashionable name badge hanging from my neck. Unfortunately, we needed it to get into the party, and since I’m a little human, it hung kind of low to my midsection.
After about two drinks — again, little human with a little bladder — I needed to use the restroom. Alone, I retreated from the main crowd to the bathroom inside the poolside restaurant. There weren’t very many people hanging out around there. As I walked out and was about to rejoin my group, I saw a friend of mine walk into the bathroom, so I decided to wait for him.
I had a clutch hanging from my left forearm and my shoes in my right hand, since the sandy event space was in what the hotel referred to as “the beach.” I leaned against a cold, metal banister and crossed my arms in front of me. I was looking down at the ground, and when I lifted my head, made eye contact with a man I’d met earlier that day. I recognized him immediately. He was in his late 20s or early 30s, probably about 5'8, considerably chubby, and had hair so light that he almost looked bald. He wore a black polo shirt and khaki pants that were definitely at least one size too big.
When my eyes met his, I smiled. Not because I was looking for attention. Not because I wanted to start a conversation with him. Not for any other reason than because I am a nice person and that is what you do when you see someone walking in your direction.
I felt uncomfortable before he even reached me, and I can’t tell you why. Maybe it was because I was alone. Maybe it was my intuition. Whatever it was, I kept my arms folded in front of me, intentionally. Once he reached me, I hoped he just wanted to say thank you for what I had helped him with earlier in the day. But he didn’t.
He extended his hand toward me in an awkward attempt to shake my hand. I reluctantly lowered my crossed arms and obliged.
“How’s your night going? Are you here with friends?” he asked, in an effort to make what can only be described as unsolicited small talk.
Because this was a work event, and because I am a friendly person by nature, I casually replied that I was having fun and was there with some friends. It seemed natural to ask him the same question in return, but I was secretly hoping the conversation would stop there.
A smile stretched across his face, “It’s great, I love all this free alcohol.”
I let out a polite giggle to acknowledge his response and quickly realized he wasn’t planning on walking away. The only follow-up question I could think up was to ask when he was flying home.
“Early tomorrow morning. What about you? Where are you headed? Are you flying home alone?” he quickly replied.
I’m not really one to keep score, but I couldn’t help but realize that this was the second time this man asked me about who I was with. My discomfort continued to grow as I began to reply, “New Jer — ”
Before I could even finish my response, my badge — which hung low on my small frame, right between my hips — was in his hands.
I have no reason to feel guilty or afraid — or to be quiet.
Terrified and panicked, I anxiously awaited my friend’s departure from the bathroom. I knew he would have to pass us before returning to the event, I just hoped he would realize I was standing there waiting for him. When he walked past us, I could feel my heart sink into my stomach. I wanted to ask him to stop walking. I wanted to call out his name. I wanted to make some kind of facial expression that said, “HELP!” but I was frozen. It felt like he was my only way out of the situation, and I just let him walk away. Tears started to fill my eyes and defeat engulfed me.
Have you ever felt so paralyzed by fear that five minutes felt like an hour? Have you ever thought about how many times a person has made you feel this way? Have you ever stood in front of someone who made you feel so small, simply through his or her actions?
If you haven’t, I hope you never do. If you have, I am with you.
With my badge still in his hands, I felt him press hard against my pelvis. His smile widened as he looked down at the badge. Without hesitation, he slid his hand firmly up my body, slowly and with intention. I could feel the backside of his warm hand against my bare skin as he reached my chest.
All I could think was that I was at a professional event, and this was someone who, in my mind, held the power to walk away from me and tell someone that I had acted unprofessionally. So there I stood, for what felt like a lifetime, temporarily paralyzed.
In that moment, I forgot about the way I felt in my royal blue romper. My confidence shattered, leaving me defenseless and scared.
Somehow, I mustered the strength to take my badge from his hand. Still frightened, I told him I had to get back to my group and quickly walked away. I made my way through the crowds of people, hoping to find my friends. Sure enough, they were exactly where I had left them, and why wouldn’t they be? Only a few minutes had gone by.
As soon as I made eye contact with my friend who walked past me on his way out of the bathroom, I started to yell at him. I can’t even recall what I was saying, but I was angry. It wasn’t his fault, and I knew that. And as the words poured out of me, I realized that I wasn’t mad at him. I was mad at myself. I was mad at the man who’d just put his hands on me. I felt sad, scared, and alone — in a crowd of 6,000 people.
I felt violated, disgusting, and dirty. My yells eventually turned to tears and, in that moment, I finally realized what had just happened.
I have a hard time not blaming myself for that night. I keep thinking that maybe my dress was cut too low. That I shouldn’t have gone off to the bathroom by myself. That I shouldn’t have forced that smile when the man approached me, and that I should’ve walked away when he reached me. That I shouldn’t have directed all of my fear and anxiety onto my friend, when he did nothing to deserve it.
But what I need to remember is that none of that fucking matters. Not one single thing that I did — or didn’t do — matters.
A man, whose face I promise you I will never forget, took the liberty of touching me without my permission.
In the days that followed, as I cried, I recounted other times I had been in similar situations. I thought of all my friends who had been through the same thing, in many instances worse. I thought about the common threads between them all: self blame, fear, silence.
Well, I am through with self blame, fear, and silence. I did nothing wrong. I have no reason to feel guilty or afraid — or to be quiet.
This isn’t easy to talk about. In fact, it’s uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have these conversations. This happens — every day — to women and men, adults and children. Sometimes the perpetrator is a stranger, and other times it’s a person we love and trust. It can happen when you’re at a party, or when you’re out food shopping. It can happen when you’re innocently sitting on the couch with a person you just wanted to get to know. People cross boundaries all the time, and it isn’t acceptable.
As I write this, I remind myself that my body is mine. Even if I have invited someone to share it with me before, I don’t have to again. Just because my outfit may seem provocative, it’s not an invitation for someone to take what they want. If I am too afraid to say “no,” that does not mean “yes.”
Why is this so confusing?
I wish I could understand how, with tears in my eyes, that man continued to run his hand against my body. But I know that I will never be able to.
What I do know is that I don’t need to feel ashamed. I deserved better in that moment, and I always have the right to demand better. Nobody can ever touch me without my consent. No matter the details surrounding the situation, it’s never okay. It’s never acceptable.
When I got home, I was able to report, in detail, what had happened to me. I have been given an opportunity to do something, to make a change — even if it’s small, even if it helps prevent one other person from having an experience like mine. Hopefully, I have opened the door for others to feel safe enough to share their stories. For those who aren’t ready, I will use my voice to keep fighting for what is right.
I have been trying to find a way to close this chapter, a way to put a painful memory in the past. But this story doesn’t just end with a period. This isn’t something that I share and then walk away from. This won’t be the last time I talk about it, think about, or feel it.
It’s part of me now and it makes me stronger everyday.
When I looked in the mirror — at that royal blue romper — I thought what I felt was confidence in myself, but it wasn’t.
In finding my voice, I discovered a confidence that has more staying power — one that goes with any outfit.