It all started in the seventh grade. I was a 12-year-old kid living in a supremely affluent suburb in Connecticut. It was the kind of town where flat irons are practically strapped to girls' manicured fingers at birth and skater boys with long hair were called "fags."
I went to one of the best public schools in the country. Everyone I knew went to college. Everyone I knew played sports. Everyone I knew had blindingly bleached teeth and everyone I knew was beautiful (or else). We lived in tiny little boxes of perfection and within those four square walls, there was no room for flaws or imperfection or conversation (especially conversation that risked sparking controversy).
When you grow up in a town like this, there tends to be an incessant pushback toward the darker, uglier side of reality: “No, our precious children don't do drugs, bullying just isn't a problem in OUR school and sexual harassment would never exist in OUR pristine hallways.”
What a joke. No amount of hand sanitizer could cleanse the fact that in my grade-A school, sexual harassment ran faster than the undefeated boys' track team. And because it was never addressed -- I didn't know what the hell "sexual harassment" was, let alone that it wasn't OK.
Seemingly overnight, I had boobs and seemingly overnight, the boys had a huge interest in boobs. Having your boobs grabbed at by adolescent boy hands was suddenly considered a compliment. Having your ass slapped in the school hallway by an eighth grade boy -- now that was a huge compliment.
Every time a boy touched me, slapped my ass, talked about my chest or ranked my body against my fellow tween girls, I could feel the slimy sensation of anxiety snake its way around my waist. I felt sick. I felt unsafe. My whole life I had dreamed of being a teenager and suddenly I just wanted to be a tiny, hip-less kid again. I shuddered at the thought of being a woman. I associated being a woman with sexuality and sexuality was now associated with fear and shame.
Sometimes I was scared to even go to school, because going to school meant unfamiliar fingers grazing my body and the worst part was this: Even though being touched made me want to crawl out of my skin and run for the hills skinless, I knew I had to force my facial muscles into a smile and release a girlish giggle. There is no pain quite like the pain of having to smile and giggle as unwanted hands touch your body.
Because that's just what girls did. Girls smiled and girls laughed and if they didn't, they were bitches and liars and whores and drama queens.
Let's get real: If the strict science teacher, the one with the long white beard who once yelled at me in front of the entire class for turning in my homework a day late, turned a blind eye as the pimply blond boy groped my best friend in front of him, surely non-consensual touch was NO BIG DEAL. If teachers shrugged their shoulders and walked away as a 12-year-old girl was pressed up against a locker by a boy two years her senior, how could it even be wrong or bad?
I'll never forget a pretty blonde girl who was new in the eighth grade. She had gotten drunk at a bar mitzvah and apparently slid her dress off and showed the boys her naked body. I don't blame her. That was the way you got attention and it was rough waters out there for the new girls in Fairfield County.
The next day, the popular group put a dirty razor inside of her locker and wrote: “Here is a razor so you can shave your pussy again. Except it's dirty, because you're not worthy of a clean one.” Rumors flew about this incident and everyone talked about what a slut she was and that she deserved a dirty razor, that whore. She didn't show up to school the next day. Or the day after that. Or the day after that. Until the days turned into never again.
I later heard that she had cut up her arms with that razor blade. I even heard a rumor that she attempted suicide. She ended up going to a different school, I think it was a boarding school for troubled kids, I don't remember the details. But I do remember this: the school never addressed what those kids did to her. I mean they were pretty white popular kids from pretty white families. She was the new kid, the whore -- they were just reacting to her being a big, giant slut.
I remember feeling sick inside for her. I feel sick inside for her as I type the words out now. I feel even more sick when I think back to the fact that I didn't even know that what happened to her was sexual harassment.
Right after high school I moved to Los Angeles where I began my decade-long career as an actress. Movie sets, contrary to popular belief, are indeed workplaces and "sexual harassment" was completely normal in Hollywood. But again, being touched without consent by a director or having intimate parts of your body broken down and discussed like you were a vacant doll, was completely normal to me.
One day in therapy, I casually mentioned to my therapist that this director I had worked with as a teenager had kept trying to make out with me and would force me to come to “after-rehearsal” drinks with his 40-year-old friends. And that it was “mandatory" if I wanted to be cast again.
“Zara, that's sexual harassment,” my therapist said, looking me dead in the eye.
And suddenly, the clouds broke open. I came to realize that throughout my life there have been so many times, too many times, where I have been made to feel uncomfortable by a person of authority, a boy at school, a yoga teacher, an acting teacher, a man on the street, a female friend.
I had seen sexual harassment happen to my female peers (and to myself) for so long, it all just seemed normal. I had accepted it.
As I began to break down my life in the past few years, I realized so many times I've been sexually harassed without even realizing it. And I wish I had known, so I could have spoken up and stopped it. Here are just a few examples.
1. When boys snapped my bra in the sixth grade.
I was mortified when I had to start wearing a bra, because I was one of the first girls in school to wear one. I stressed the night before I first wore one to school and I prayed to the God I didn't believe in, that maybe no one would even notice.
And of course they did. And that's when the incessant bra-snapping lifestyle began. Seems like a small innocent thing, right? And I guess snapping a bra is. The boys didn't know any better, it's practically a rite of passage to start snapping bras the second the girls get the boobs.
But what I didn't realize is that letting a boy snap your bra is dangerous is because it plants a seed. It plants the seed for boys that it's OK to touch a girl and it plants the seeds for girls that it's OK to be touched without your permission.
It's the first time I was sexualized without my permission and I forced to laugh it off. Oh, this is just what girls do.
2. When it was considered a "compliment" to be groped in the school hallways.
You were considered “hot” if you were groped by the boys at school. I clearly remember boys doing this thing where they would come up behind you and literally hump you from behind as you were putting your books in your locker.
Every time you walked to the bathroom you risked getting groped. But hey, that meant you were doing something "right."
The prettiest, most popular girl got groped the most, so obviously, only pretty girls got humped, right? And we all wanted to be "pretty" girls.
3. When an old man told 16-year-old me that "I was beautiful but would be MORE beautiful with a padded bra."
How could I ever forget my first modeling job when I was just 16 years old? Weight had fallen off me in the past year, because I had just learned that having the body of a 12-year-old boy was in fashion and I wanted to be in fashion. An old man swigging a martini came up to me and sneered,
“Let me give you some life advice, pretty lady. You're a gorgeous teenage girl, but if you want to be really, really beautiful, wear a padded bra next time. Then you would be, like, super hot."
I thanked him, then cried momentarily in the bathroom (and ironically tried hard drugs for the first time a few hours later and learned all about their wonderful numbing effects and why models like them so much).
4. When a friend's dad told me "Wow, you've grown up" when staring directly at my breasts.
Yeah, it's harassment even when disguised as a compliment or safely hidden in the subtext of "growing up."
5. When a much older boy told me that he would "fuck the shit out of me" when I was only 12.
Somehow I got stuck in the car with a much older boy when visiting a friend from camp, who had spent the school year making older new friends who drove cars. The boy pulled the car over to buy some weed and my friend flew out of the car to hug the drug dealer (things had changed since innocent camp days).
He stepped on the gas pedal the moment my friend exited the car and took off as I clutched my seatbelt and bit the inside of my lip. I was 12. Alone. In a car with a man in his 20s. He kept telling me he wanted to "fuck the shit out of me” but “wouldn't, out of respect to his friend.”
Again through tears and an unwavering fear for my life, I thanked him.
6. Every single time in my life I was humorously "slapped on the ass" from a stranger.
Look, I'm a sexual creature and I won't let anyone rob me of that. I've been outspoken about my vehement love of sex since day one. But that doesn't give you the right to slap me on the ass without my consent.
7. When a casting director told me I wasn't "fuckable enough."
There is this thing that happens in Hollywood, where they tell you, "you're no longer a person, you're a product." I've been doing the acting thing most of my life and I will tell you that's bullshit. Yes, some roles require a specific sexy look -- but no one ever has the right to tell you that you're "fuckable" in a professional environment.
Imagine going in a for a job interview and having HR tell you "well, we like you, but you're not quite fuckable enough." It's an industry that needs certain people to exude sexuality for certain parts -- but no one ever should speak to you like that, in a professional setting or otherwise.
8. All the times I've ever been called a slut, a dyke, a girl who asks for it, a whore who should go kill herself and that I need a dick in my mouth on the internet.
Sexual harassment doesn't have to happen in person. In fact, the new wave of sexual harassment is digital and just because it's behind a screen doesn't make it hurt less or make it any less real.
As a female internet writer with an outspoken personality, I'm sexually harassed by both men and women every day of my life. And I don't subscribe to the theory that if you throw yourself and your opinions out there, it's totally OK to be told "you're a disgusting, STD-ridden slut who should kill herself."
By our society excusing this kind of harassment by saying it just "goes with the the territory," we are showing a whole generation of young men that it's OK to harass girls, as long it's behind a screen.
So kittens, if you're being harassed, please, please speak up about it. I know the lines get blurry on what is harassment and what's a "friendly joke." I'm still confused by all of it. But trust your girl gut. Your instincts are the most powerful force in the world and chances are, if your girl alarms are going off -- it's for a reason.
Don't listen to anyone who tells you that you're being "dramatic" -- that's what society always says to strong women, to try and invalidate us and stop us from speaking up.
There are many resources out there to help you. And of course, as your internet big sister, message me on Facebook if you're struggling. You deserve a school, a work environment and a life that's free from sexual harassment.