I had worn the dress several times before; to a funeral, a couple of weddings, and a charity gala. It was nothing spectacular, but it always made me feel good about myself. It was black, with a flattering fit that covered all of my trouble spots. That night, accessorized it with Spanx and pantyhose, the dress and I went on a bar hop in Vegas for a family member’s 40th birthday. We were at the second bar of the night, and I was starting to feel the effects of the cheap vodka they provided on the party bus.
I was in search of the dance floor, inadvertently separated from my friends, when he found me. I accepted a drink from him and engaged in conversation, hoping it would end and he would go away. He started hitting on me and I made it clear that I was married. He said he liked cougars, and I could smell the cheap beer on his breath. I realized I was the cougar. He aggressively positioned himself so that I was trapped between him and the bar. He made several lewd comments about what he wanted to do to me and then shoved his hand under that black dress and between my thighs. I froze, so shocked by the way he did it so casually. When I finally got my bearings, I pushed him away. He shrugged his shoulders and walked away. I stood there, feeling shocked and powerless.
It wasn’t the first time I had experienced that feeling of powerlessness. That was when I was an awkward 17 year-old, and he was a teacher that made sexually suggestive comments to me in class. Worried about my class performance, I said nothing. A classmate went to the counselor and told that story. He is still teaching to this day.
There were other experiences–a man who deliberately backed up into me every time I walked by so he could admittedly “touch my boobs” and another where a “friend” attempted to force his tongue into my mouth while his friends laughed and cheered. Each time, I was plagued by inaction, feeling like a stranger in my body. As someone who has battled my weight for most of my life, I spend a considerable amount of time feeling like a stranger to my expanding body parts. On that night in Vegas, I had felt good about myself in that black dress and Spanx. In a matter of seconds, a stranger snatched away that feeling of security and pride.
It took me 4+ years to talk about that night, first admitting it to my husband, and then with this blog. I was ashamed that I had let it happen to me; embarrassed that I hadn’t fought hard enough, that I had drank and been in a bar, embarrassed by my confidence. I tried to minimize my feelings of shame and anger; many women have suffered far more, physically and emotionally, at the hands of a stranger. I felt like if I spoke about what happened aloud, that made it real; I gave the words power. But the truth is, predator’s power lies in our silence. Our words DO have power, but only if we speak them.
Although I’m sure that man never gave me a second thought, those few seconds in that crowded club hundreds of miles from home, wreaked havoc on me. He made me doubt myself and my choices that night: my choice to drink, to talk to him, to accept a drink from him, to not be more forceful when I declared my marital status, to make me doubt feeling good in that dress.
The events in the media in the last few months dredged up the memories of that night, which in turn, made me realize how hard I’d been avoiding thinking about it. I realized the subtle ways I had been affected; I refuse to stand at a crowded bar alone, I get anxious in heavily crowded areas, and I haven’t worn that dress since that night. I’ve tried it on, even walked out the front door, but I always turn back around and take it off. I tell myself that it’s because I’ve gained/lost weight, or it’s not appropriate for the occasion, but the truth is, it is a reminder of the times that I’ve been harassed or assaulted.
After reading the stories and responses inspired by the #metoo social media campaign, I felt inspired by the many brave women (and men) sharing their experiences. By sharing my story, I’m reclaiming some of the power that was taken that night, and beginning the healing process, a process I didn’t know I needed until now. I’m showing my support and being supported by strong, amazing people. I’m being believed and telling others that I believe them. I’m acknowledging that it doesn’t matter where I was, what I was doing, or what I was wearing that night. I am not responsible. There are some who aren’t comfortable sharing their story, and that’s okay as well. They should know that if and when they are ready, there are a tribe of women ready to listen and believe, including me. And that lovely black dress, shamefully hidden in my closet will make it out the front door again. This time I won’t turn back….now, I just need somewhere to wear it.