By ALI CUDBY
In last month’s She Buzz column I wrote about body image as an important part of empowering women.
I saw a photo of myself on a family vacation when I was 13 years old. At a point when I was trying to figure out how I felt about my curvy body.
It must have been prophetic, choosing to write about that moment in my life.
A few days after that photo was taken, I experienced something that colored my perspective as a maturing young woman – and it’s not a story I ever expected to share.
My family visited Paris, and I fell in love with the city. The fashion! The food! The architecture! I took it all in with unabashed wonder. I couldn’t wait to see the Eifel Tower. We went up the Tower, and the views were breathtaking. I wandered away from my parents to check out a different perspective on the city skyline.
Slowly, I sensed someone standing behind me. A man wearing a trench coat and a Tyrolean hat.
I can still picture that hat.
At first, I thought he was simply being inconsiderate of my personal space. It soon became obvious it wasn’t so innocent. He pinned me and touched my body in places my 13-year old self couldn’t understand. He pulled me and tried to force me onto the elevator with him.
It all happened quickly and, fortunately, I was able to wrench myself away and get back to my family. I tried to explain what happened to my parents – I couldn’t bring myself to say all the words, but it was clear something was wrong. I remember clinging to my Dad’s hand.
When we got to the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, the man was waiting.
Staring at me.
He followed us through the streets of Paris. It seemed like forever – but eventually he melted away into the crowds. For the rest of the day and night, I looked over my shoulder. I was terrified.
And yet, in the aftermath, the episode was quickly dismissed. I wasn’t hurt. The moment was over. To preserve the vacation, I moved on and pretended it wasn’t a big deal.
It was a big deal.
I had felt helpless. I couldn’t figure out how to talk about what happened in a way that stated the facts without “being melodramatic.”
Decades later, when I think back to that day, my heart still races.
Yes, it could it have been worse. And it doesn’t compare to what other women have experienced. But that’s not the point.
Just because it could have been worse didn’t mean it hadn’t been real.
I was shocked.
I was embarrassed.
I was ashamed.
I was afraid.
I wasn’t sure anyone would believe me.
Even if they did, I didn’t want to relive it.
And it could have been worse.
Mostly, I just wanted it to go away.
All those thoughts stem from a culture that lets women know – implicitly and explicitly – that speaking up is more likely to go badly for the victim than the aggressor.
For women to be empowered, society must stop diminishing and invalidating assault. It happens far, far too often. To women of every age, race, size and appearance.
Girls and women deserve to be safe. And when they aren’t safe, they deserve to be heard.
Anything less creates an environment where women are inherently inferior – and that’s the opposite of empowered.