"Can I tell you something? I am NOT going to hook up with you."
These were the words I uttered to a very handsome, charming man a couple of months ago at a bar somewhere in the middle of Virginia. I had clocked out from my job as wedding photographer at my good friends' nuptials a few hours earlier, and had joined my pals at the after-party at said bar, where I imbibed in what was probably one-too-many whiskey gingers, and Handsome Man and I had spent almost the entire time talking to each other.
We talked about our lives, and he told jokes at which I laughed very hard, and at one point he paused to tuck my hair behind my ear and tell me I looked beautiful, or some variation of that, and I felt my knees go a little weak. We talked and laughed some more, and then it was time to go home, and I accepted his offer for a ride, but just as we were about to walk out of the bar, I spun around and said it.
"Can I tell you something? I am NOT going to hook up with you."
The look on his face was a mixture of hurt and confusion, and I realized, in my happy-drunk state, how forceful I had sounded, especially for a statement that seemingly came out of nowhere. I spent the car ride back to the hotel going through my mind, trying to figure out why I had said what I said, and why I had said it the way I said it. He hadn't given any indication of expectations of any sort; the bride and groom were riding with us in the car, so the chances of funny business were nil; I had had a more fantastic time with him than I had with any other guy in a long time. And then there was the fact that even if I wasn't looking for a hookup, I actually did want to kiss him. So...what the hell, Rachel?
We got back to the hotel, shared a brief kiss good night, and parted ways. As I walked back to my room, I felt embarrassed for my forcefulness, sad that we weren't going to kiss more, and then, I realized...proud. Not proud about specific way I had handled the situation, but proud about attempting to say something at all, no matter how crudely it came out. Because here's the thing: before that night, I had never uttered those words before. I have turned boys down, of course, but usually it comes in the form of smiling nicely, giggling, making excuses, making a friend do it, flat out disappearing into the night, and a mixture of other tactics. And almost all of them have involved apologizing, often profusely. Never before had I found myself simply stating my intentions or standing my ground in that way. Never before had I been so able to take up space.
That moment in the bar didn't just come out of nowhere. It had nothing to do with the specific situation, or boy, or my inebriated state (although that was probably the reason for the way it was expressed). Instead, it was a culmination of several months' worth of thinking about the idea of space, and how much of my own I deserve to have. As I have become more attuned to the way in which I navigate the world, I have noticed the alarming tendencies I have to defer to others, to make myself smaller so I don't get in the way, to stay quiet and avoid confrontation. The first step was noticing these things about myself, which, once I started to be aware of them, became a fairly easy thing to do. The next step is doing something about it, which is far more difficult than it may seem.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not an overly quiet person. I'm not shy. I am prone to wordiness and drama and large bouts of enthusiasm. But I often express myself in safe ways, and rarely do I do or say something if I know it will genuinely ruffle feathers. If I'm going to say something with conviction, it's often to someone who I know will love me anyway or is a stance I know everyone in my network will agree with. I have a fear of being disagreed with, of angering or affecting someone else in any way other than positively. So I try my damnedest not to stir the pot, and I've had great success. I have avoided so many confrontations and uncomfortable situations, and my diplomacy skills are top notch. I can get along with almost anyone, especially those I disagree with, because I allow them to have their space; to be as they are, to think as they do, without trying to squash or change them.
These are not bad things, I realize. But in the process of making room for others to express themselves and shine, I have muted my ability to do the same. And the funny thing is, I can't for the life of me remember when I decided I didn't deserve to take up as much room as other people, or that the light of my existence should be dimmed in order to not get in the way. I can't recall ever being directly told that those were things I should do, and yet I find myself turning away and staying quiet all the time.
This kind of self-silencing is, I expect, related to my gender, and is not, I know, limited to just me. There has recently been an awakening of sorts, of women taking back their apologies and reminding one another that we have a right to be, to say no and disagree and have our own thoughts, and that doing those things won't cause the world to end. It wasn't until other beautiful souls started speaking up about their experiences that I realized how much I have spent my life contracting.
I'm not just talking about Facebook discussions on politics, or apologizing for bumping into someone on the sidewalk.
I'm talking about how I preface opinions with, "I could be wrong, but".
I'm talking about keeping things to myself for fear of being incorrect and thus shamed, as though the people speaking loudly are guaranteed to be 100% right themselves.
I'm talking about the way in which I smile nicely at and have conversations with men whose advances I do not want.
I'm talking about pulling the Blonde Ditz card by giggling and flipping my hair and putting myself down when someone challenges my point of view.
I'm talking about not stating my intention or opinion because it might hurt someone's feelings.
I'm talking about deferring to people who haven't earned my deference.
I'm talking about not speaking up for the things I believe matter.
I'm talking about not wanting to step on toes or cause a kerfuffle or offend or rock the boat in any way, shape, or form.
I'm talking about conforming and shutting up instead of being honest and passionate and alive.
I'm talking about taking up as little space as possible, until I'm hardly taking up any space at all.
The women I admire the most are open about their life experiences. They say "shit" and "fuck" with abandon, because those words describe their emotions and the way they roll off the tongue (or the fingers) feels good. They give to others, and are caring and loving, but they create boundaries so their love doesn't get abused, and so that they can take care of themselves as well. They talk about their sexuality, and the mucky, shitty mess of life. They allow everyone to be who they are, but only surround themselves with people whose are-ness doesn't drag them into despair.
I have watched from the sidelines as these women give themselves permission to exist in a world that tries to suppress so many of those things, and I get restless and anxious with envy, because I have things to say too, and I have feelings about things too (hoo baby, do I have feelings about things), and I say "fuck" all the goddamn time, but mostly to myself, and mostly in a way that I know will not cross the line. Because to cross the line would be to risk not pleasing everyone, and that is something I fear more than anything else. I fear disappointment and shame and embarrassment on my behalf, for being too honest or free with my words, for not maintaining a sense of privacy or protecting others who might find shock value in what I have to say.
So what's a girl to do? I've started with being more intentional about the way I interact with the world. I've stopped apologizing when an apology isn't warranted. I kindly disagree with people. I say how I'm feeling. I attempt to speak more loudly and clearly. I own my shit, and I allow myself to feel good for who I am and how I feel, even if that might not vibe with someone else's way of being and feeling.
Do I do these things all the time? No. It's a struggle to fight against a lifetime of bad habits, and more often than not I want to take the easy road and tuck myself back into my comfortable world of muted expression. But the thing is, that world isn't actually that comfortable anyway. And the more I attempt to challenge myself to take up space, the easier it has become. I'm doing it because I deserve to inhabit my own place in this world. We all do.
I could be wrong about that, but...I think I'm right.