If you’re a woman, you experience a lot of “first”s unique to womanhood. First bra, first time wearing makeup (and the inevitable blue eyeshadow phase), first time babysitting. The list goes on and on. However, there’s a first every woman experiences, yet isn’t met with the cheery stories of weird mascara trends or training bra blunders: first time experiencing sexual objectification.
For me, my creepy cousin (yes, someone related to me) looked me up and down leeringly and said “Damn girl, where’d you come from?” I was twelve. He was, I repeat, my way older cousin. Needless to say, kind of the worst. I didn’t understand the extent of the grossness until I was older, and for the majority of my adolescence and teen years, I remained pretty ignorant of my body or the fact that gross people who objectify women existed. To give an example: I was basically like Animal on the Muppet Babies. Just going about my life, playing metaphorical drums, and being loud.
If I didn’t understand sexual harassment before–by my sophomore year in college, I GOT IT. I was taking a required public speaking class with an adjunct professor who is kind of like what would happen if Louie CK (only in appearance, not in wit or talent) and the Genie from Aladdin (mainly because the professor had one tiny hoop earring, a sign of desperation probably older than time itself) were merged into one brash, awful professor. Ferguson was also, fun fact, a worship leader at a nearby church because of course he was.
I was 19 year old, curious about rushing a sorority but not sure which one to choose. Luckily for me, as a Communications major, it was the Greek burnout major of choice, so I had my luck cut out for me as I was perusing the different options from afar. Naturally, the COMM prerequisite Public Speaking course was a virtual sampler of people to impress. Surely, once some of them heard my informational speech on Hoarding, all the sororities would be all up in this.
For our first speech, we had to use a prop during our speech as a means of introducing ourselves. My speech went pretty well, until the professor came up to the front of the class and started talking about my clothes, not my introductory speech. He told me my body was distracting to listeners and nobody would ever listen to me talk because they would be too busy looking at my body. On and on, talking about my body to the entire class of 30 people (and tons of Greek people, insert teenage mortification), while I just stood at the front completely aghast. Did I say anything? No. I was too embarrassed (the professor helpfully pointed out my face was “all red.” So kind.)
I felt utterly betrayed by my body. How could something that was so normal and innocent to me–my mere existence–could be the cause of behavior elicited by that professor? In the weeks that followed, I still didn’t know what to do or even say. I felt exposed and embarrassed. Some of my classmates came up to me privately, defaming the professor’s outburst and telling me that it just wasn’t right.
Slowly, I began to understand that the problem wasn’t with me or my body (or even what I was wearing, which for the record, was 100% modest) but with the professor publicly objectifying me and humiliating me. When others wore less “modest” things to class (like, literally no pants…), he didn’t call them out. It was an unfair standard.
So, in a moment that was maybe the radical genesis of my feminist mentality, I approached him after class and told him to apologize to me. I literally said “I am a modestly dressed, independent woman and you cannot talk to me or about me like that.” Somewhere, probably in Los Angeles, Beyonce was smiling down at me.
And he apologized. That didn’t really matter though–because as I walked from class that day, I felt free. I learned that objectification will happen to us as women–and sadly, sometimes even worse outcomes spring from that mentality: rape, violence, murder, unhealthy views towards sex, relationships, and self. But we don’t have to let that shame us or feel like self-betrayal. We have the power of self-efficacy and dignity & we can continue to take back power through education, advocacy, and refusing to shame other women by saying things like, “Well, maybe she was asking for it.” A lady can be straight up naked but yet does not deserve to be treated like a garbage person or sexually harassed because NOBODY should be treated like that. Appearance does not qualify as consent. Let’s continue to speak up for ourselves and other women. If we don’t say something, who will?
(And for the final speech that semester, a group “how to” speech, the three other women in my group and I decided to lampoon this professor’s abhorrent teaching style. Our topic was “How Not To Give a Speech” and I started with a purposefully awful introduction. Naturally, I wore the same dress as before. One of my groupmates “interrupted” me and handed me a sweater saying “You better cover up, nobody will listen to you.” The entire class died of laughter, understanding the inside joke. A wonderful way to end that semester.)