I am seventeen years old and I've thrown
a house party for my best friend's birthday.
I invited our friends, they invited their friends,
they invited their friends, and now there must
be over 100 people here, and most of them
are boys who I don't know. I've had more
than a few drinks, and I go over to three
guys who I vaguely recognise from school.
We stand in a circle and introduce ourselves,
I pretend to join in with their 'banter', and then
out of the blue one of the boys reaches his hand
across the circle, under my dress and into my
underwear. For a second I am frozen, and then
I react how I believe that I'm supposed to.
I giggle, then I make an excuse and walk
Looking back now at my seventeen year old self breaks my heart. I spent years thinking about this party, this stranger and what he did. What I let him do. I couldn't sleep at night, trapped in feelings of disgust and worthlessness. But it wasn't just about that moment. Because truthfully, what happened then is a very mild example of something that happened for years. Me, letting people use my body, whether I wanted them to or not.
At seventeen I was about a year through my recovery. The years that I was 14 and 15 had been completely lost to anorexia, to hospitals instead of school, to psychiatric units instead of sleepovers. I knew then that I was missing out on games of truth or dare, on nights passing around a bottle of WKD and pretending its 4% volume got us drunk, on holding hands and learning to kiss. On all the moments that colour a young person's expectations about sex. I missed out on the sickly sweet taste of sugared alcohol and harmless exploration, and by the time I came back, and the people I came back to, vodka and one night stands were on the menu.
I found myself in this new atmosphere, with this new body, a body overflowing with curves that I despised and that teenage boys made it clear that they wanted to take. And I let them. Not because I was attracted to them (I wasn't), and not because I wanted to (I didn't), but because I hoped that some of their desire for my body might rub off on me. I thought that if enough people were attracted to me, I couldn't possibly still see myself as so hideous, so huge. I had a new best friend (my old one lost in the anorexia years), known for her promiscuity, back then she lead, and I followed.She was always talking about her sexual conquests and how great they made her feel. I still hope that she was telling the truth, that they really did make her feel good, not hollow and self hating like mine made me feel.
I didn't see any value in my body, so I let anyone who did use it for themselves. And it left me emptier than ever. And I'm writing this now for anyone whose ever done the same, whose ever felt the same, to say that you aren't alone. And that it wasn't your fault.
Last night as I was thinking about writing this post I went back to that party, and I started feeling all the shame and sickness that I was filled with for so long. I put my arms around myself, and said out loud 'it's okay, it wasn't your fault, you did the best you could, and now you know better. Now you know your worth, and now you won't let anyone take that away from you'. I said it until the panic left me and I finally got to sleep.
I want to be clear on something. The things I did were not the actions of an empowered woman expressing her sexuality. Empowered women who recognise themselves as sexual beings, keep doing your thang. I was barely an adult, my self esteem was torn to shreds by the eating disorder I was still internally battling, and I had no idea what consent even was. Consent to sex is a clear, enthusiastic yes. It isn't a drunken mumble and a body too weak with intoxication to stop it. It isn't saying no multiple times before being relentlessly coerced into saying okay. It isn't being convinced, it isn't being unconscious, and it isn't doing it because it's what you think you should do. It's doing it because you really, actually, want to. You never, ever, owe anyone sex, or any other physical contact. Only you get to decide what to do with your body, and who does what to it.
So where does body positivity come in? At this point feel free to picture body positivity as a superhero in a cape made of glitter swooping in to save my life, as it has done literally that in so many ways. Well, without body positivity I never would have recognised my worth beyond my body. Of course we all deserve to feel utterly flawless when we look in the mirror, but we also deserve to see our value beyond our reflection. And seeing that will impact every aspect of our lives, including sex. Now I'm a (kind of) grown woman, who doesn't seek validation of her beauty through the eyes or the touch of other people. It took a long time, a lot of mistakes, and a long journey to true recovery, from anorexia and all the body image demons who opened the door for her and stuck around after she'd gone. I realise now that however my actions may have looked to other people, I was only trying to fix myself.
How we feel about our bodies completely changes our healthy sexual relationships too. We live in a culture that constantly objectifies women, making us believe that we are bodies first and human beings second. That culture is so pervasive, that it seeps into our own minds too, and we end up self objectifying. Have you ever been out in public and been so completely consumed by how you look to everyone else there that you can't actually focus on what you're doing? Have you ever been so distracted during sex worrying about what your partner is seeing, that you're not even really present in the moment, let alone enjoying it? That's what happens when we learn to scrutinise ourselves through the eyes of everyone else, rather than knowing that we deserve to live, breathe, touch and taste in that moment regardless of what we look like. Picturing ourselves through other people's eyes is never accurate anyway - they might see the most exquisitely beautiful human of all time, but you never would because you see yourself through the lens of every 'perfect' body you've ever compared yourself to. Stop thinking about how you look. Start reconnecting to the moment.
Of course not everyone young person with body image issues turns to sex, and not every young person who has sex is doing it to heal their body image issues. But if you have been were I was, if you're there now, please know that you are worth more than you realise. You already have the power to heal yourself, without giving that power away to people who will use it for themselves. You don't need their validation, you are good enough, beautiful enough, strong enough already. And you can always, ALWAYS, say no.