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I love watching women when they feel sexy dancing. You can tell when they do — their bodies relax even while they exhaust them, their makeup has long fallen off but it doesn’t matter because they no longer need it. Watching a woman shimmy and move and just let herself go is watching her let chronic fear be overtaken by confidence and societal insecurity be crushed by self-love. It’s empowering — for her and for me, even if I can’t dance like that.

I am a horrible dancer. I like to dance, allowing my body to silently sing along to the music, but I’m horrible at it.

So I’ve never really felt sexy dancing. Maybe for a second, at most, before I realize what my body must actually look like. Sometimes I wish I could dance like those women, and other times I don’t. If I’m not the one dancing, then I’m not the one who has to put up with the men around me making comments to one another or the people who recognize me chatting quietly off to the side. 

The woman’s dancing isn’t about them or about me, and I know that. It’s about her — her self-possession, her self-validated worth. As an observer, I’m just trying to live through her to feel those very emotions.

But if I were to make her dancing about me — about what it makes me think of or feel — that would be objectification. See the difference?

Watching women get objectified for just dancing, either in person or online, is hard. It’s like an ice-cold breeze swooshing in that makes us instantly feel the need to cover up. It immediately crushes whatever empowerment either of us had gained. And that’s the point.

Objectifying comments about the dancer’s body or movements change the dancer’s meaning instantaneously. The dancing was never for you, but now it is. You took it. Now, somehow, it’s as if she is doing it to please you and that if she doesn’t want to be pleasing you, she has to stop.

People don’t generally comment or bother me about how I dance; I’ve luckily escaped objectification. But the women around me — the confident women — get objectified all the time. 

It’s almost as if that’s why. It’s almost as if any time a woman does anything confidently, they get objectified. They could dance, or they could walk down the street, or they could play a sport, or they could speak in front of Congress. They could do anything with confidence and receive comments and opinions about their body or actions from those around them that crush whatever courage they felt and replace it with fear and shame.

Although I’ve never felt confident dancing, I’ve always felt comfortable writing. It has always been my way of expressing myself. My way to be confident when I otherwise couldn’t be.

But I was nervous about writing for Sex on Tuesday; I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t. I was nervous about what my family would think of me using my very expensive education to write a sex column, and I was nervous about being so vulnerable with so many people I wouldn’t ever know. And I was nervous about those same people casting judgment on me. 

But I wanted to be like the women dancing. So I did it. 

I’m so glad I did. It has given me a voice to speak loudly about topics I used to whisper to my friends about. It has let me express the downfalls of my sex life without shame. It has made me feel like maybe other women could live through me like I’d lived through them for so long.

Objectification stops women from expressing themselves before they even do so. It censors my Instagram posts, my clothing choices, my makeup, my self-expression. It’s unavoidable, and yet I avoid it at all costs. 

I remember my middle school having a dress code that required sleeves to be at least two fingers wide. I was maybe 13 when my Spanish teacher sent me out of class to change out of my tank top and into a gym T-shirt from my locker. I was just taking notes. I was sitting in the back of the classroom with my prepubescent chest on a 90-degree day, taking notes. I wasn’t doing anything sexual or intentionally drawing attention to my outfit. It was my teacher who sexualized me, not my clothes or my actions. There should be nothing “distracting” about a 13-year-old in a tank top.

But I didn’t wear that top again, and I went shopping for longer shorts just in case they rode up and prompted my teacher to tell me to change. It wasn’t so much about getting in trouble; it was about the humiliation and shame that teacher made me feel about my body. About simply having one and how it simply happened to be female.

Obviously, I don’t have to follow a dress code anymore, but the idea that my body acts as a “distraction” for the people around me has stuck with me in every outfit I wear.

So yeah, part of me does wish I could dance. But part of me wonders, even if I could dance, would I? Would I suddenly be able to push past the stares and sneers, the comments under a video, the judgment from peers, from fellow women, that I could be met with? 

I really don’t know if I could. But I know I shouldn’t have to.

Helen D’Orazio writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]