Stop Being "Likeable" and Start Standing Up for Yourself
When I was 8 years old, a boy my age—also my best friend—went in for a kiss by the swing set in his backyard. Hands on my hips, I told him if he didn’t stop, I would have to stop coming over to his house.
This would have been a big sacrifice: Not only was it a great swing set, he also had a LEGO Millennium Falcon. More importantly, he was my best friend, the person I spent every recess with, as we built tiny towns for fairies in the mini forest next to the soccer field.
I wish I could have channeled that moment at 17. In the last semester of high school, my close-knit friend group spent every weekend night (and even weekday nights too, when we told our parents we were studying) piled on couches in the basement of an older friend. It was sort of a safe home base, just blocks up the hill from that swing set.
And the night before my senior prom wasn’t different from any other...until someone put on I Love You, Beth Cooper. If you haven’t seen it, know that you’re not missing much. One by one, most everyone skipped out early. With the exception of a friend who had fallen asleep on the floor—he was also my ride home—I was left alone on the couch next to someone who I in hindsight realize had been flirting with me for weeks. You can imagine what happened next...
The teen magazines I pored over had built up my first kiss to be something that this definitely was not. I turned away, and I shook my head. When his hand went for my breast, sort of a consolation prize, it felt too late to change anything. I didn’t move until the movie ended. Then I got up without saying goodbye, woke up my friend, and left.
I am not the kind of person who lives "effortlessly." I spent countless hours in high school reading about normal teenage life—in magazines, YA novels, and even on WikiHow—in an effort to build one for myself. But in the time since wearing overalls on the playground, I’d learned a very specific definition of what it meant to be a woman.
In all those pages, I never got the message that I didn’t owe anyone the courtesy of my discomfort. Instead, I’d been taught to keep other people happy, smile when people talked to me to on the street, giggle at sexist jokes, all the while repeatedly assuring people that I wasn’t “like other girls.” What had been second nature by the swing set wasn’t so easy anymore.
In 2016, teen magazines are quite a bit more ~woke~ to entrenched sexism and the sexual abuse it enables; I know this because I’m still reading them at 22. Today, things—and people—are so much more socially conscious than they were just a few years ago, and it seems like publications have had to catch up. But alongside inspiring messages about expressing your sexuality and embracing feminism, there’s still confusing counter-programming that encourages keeping others comfortable.
I have a different first kiss story that I tell now. In college nine months later, I kissed a boy I don’t talk to anymore in the entryway to my dorm after he was was too afraid to make a move. This version lets me be an earlier version of the independent, driven woman I like to think I am today. I don’t have to admit that I spent most of the day of my senior prom crying alone in my room because I was too worried about being likable to tell someone not to touch me.
Slights to my self-determination have not stopped since I left that couch, from whistles when I bike in a dress to hands on my back at the bar, but I am angry in a way I wasn’t in high school. I can’t help thinking it all might have been easier if a few messages had been reinforced earlier in my life: My comfort is more important than people liking me. If someone violates my boundaries, it’s not my fault.
Above all, no one has it figured out. I don’t always aggressively maintain my boundaries (sometimes, unfortunately, it’s safer if I don’t). As an aspiring adult, I’m still working on what came so easily when I was 8—but I’m figuring it out one insulted, flipped-off cat-caller at a time.
By Gracie McKenzie, 22