With all due respect

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My body is composed of a slender torso with wide hips, cellulite and stretch marks, a warm vagina, a wart on my toe, cupid’s-bow lips, perpetually cold hands and a pair of sumptuous, pale breasts. My wide forehead lives behind thick bangs, and I have calves that double in size when I sit. My long, brown hair appears reddish in the sunshine, and when I smile too hard, my hazel eyes disappear in a sea of large cheeks, only kept from drowning entirely by long, dark eyelashes.

My flawed, powerful, unwieldy, elegant body is a work of art, and because it is a female body, it is constantly under attack.

I think a lot about how I wound up precisely where I am today — or more specifically, how I have amassed this precise combination of loved ones, professional opportunities, personal interests and obstacles to my goals. My body has carried me here, and in turn, people have carried my body from place to place, with and without its permission, and down paths that are winding and beautiful as well as strange and frightening. Along the way, my body has compared itself to supermodels and encountered hungry men, it has won wrestling matches and rejected dress codes, it has fallen in love, and it has lacked the energy to raise itself out of bed and out of loneliness.

I remember every crowded dance floor I’ve been on — or more specifically, I remember each and every erect penis forcibly pressed against my backside. I remember every cocaine-induced attempt to penetrate me, to lavish me with drinks and compliments. I remember every time I let a man run his hands down my hips because I was too scared to turn around and face him, let alone push him away.

I’ve found that friendship is not a guaranteed antidote to disrespect. I’ve been thrown against a wall by a male friend, frantically kicking him in the back of the knees so he would drop me. My tears are said to be so frightening that someone I once trusted refused to touch or look at me until I wiped them away and apologized. Timely evaluations of my body are a part of the weekly social routine.

When my body is disrespected, my mind can feel invisible. Feeling uncomfortable in my own skin has also meant that I was uncomfortable in the world around me, and this made it easy to question whether I was at the right school, with the right people or pursuing the right dreams. When so much of the world we live in is designed to convince women they are not allowed to pursue their ambitions, these doubts can claim ownership over our imagination of what is deemed possible.

At the same time, my body has also been rescued by those who respect it. My parents love it unconditionally, and it can be a divinely tender, comforting feeling to give someone your consent to be touched. When I see bodies that resemble my own being celebrated and represented, when I find jeans that hug my waist without suffocating my thighs, and when a friend holds me close to their chest until long after I’ve stopped crying, I can see the potential in myself that layers of disrespect and insecurity had obscured.

I often spend short, but not insignificant, amounts of time looking at my naked body in the mirror. I trace its curves with my hands and smile at its strength. I feed it, bathe it and allow it to rest. These intimate gestures of self-respect are far more difficult to maintain than we may give them credit for. There are days when it feels impossible and days when I fail and others are there to support me.

The energy I took from these moments of respect has sustained me throughout my entire life. I loved my body, and I also trusted it to take me where I wanted to go, whether that be down the street or into the next stage of my personal and professional life. When I felt that my body was loved by others, I made lifelong friends and allowed them to change my perspectives about the world for the better and teach me how to care for and support other people. Having female mentors and role models who successfully navigated the world in their own bodies has convinced me that I am able to do the same.

When my high school dean called me into her office for a dress-code violation related to exposed cleavage, she informed me, as I remember it, that being “well-endowed” was both a “privilege” and a “responsibility.” My body comes with many privileges, and it is, I agree, my responsibility to care for it — but the responsibility for respecting my body is and always will be a shared one.

The female body is wondrously beautiful, full of potential for growth and mistakes and everything in between — and it should have your respect, always.

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected] .