Taking up space with pride

During my first three years of college, I confidently strolled through campus wearing my heart on my sleeve and my hat backwards on my head – and if you looked closely enough at my cap, you would’ve spotted a rainbow pin.

Two Septembers ago, I was passing through the crowded dining hall with a spring in my step when my feet were trampled by another student clearly not paying attention to his surroundings.

I reacted instinctively, saying, “Hey, watch where you’re going,” and I continued into the annex to find a lunch table.

Rather than leave it at that, the stranger who stepped on my feet followed me to my chosen table and said he didn’t intend to step on me, but that didn’t mean I had “to be such a f***ing bitch” about it.

I responded just as colorfully, telling him, “You can go f**k yourself.”

He responded by pouring 28 ounces of water from his Gatorade bottle all over me.

In a jam-packed cafeteria, a complete stranger felt it was appropriate to dump his water on me simply because I defended my personal space.

In a room full of my peers, classmates, and even friends – not one person said one word.

I was surrounded, yet completely alone.

I could hardly gather my thoughts, but I mopped up my soggy belongings and headed to Campus Police to report the incident. The officers were helpful and worked diligently to identify the stranger – whose face was no longer unfamiliar to me as I began to search for it in every man I passed on campus.

Though he was identified and reprimanded, the advice I received from faculty, administrators, and even family members – was not so helpful.

I was advised not to speak up the way I did because a man’s reaction to my words of self-defense is unpredictable and could result in violence.

I can’t deny that’s a fair piece of advice, but what I cannot stand for is the notion that women must tiptoe through their own existences so as not to inconvenience men.

Sadly, that advice easily rolled off the tips of the tongues of just about everyone I discussed the situation with – as if it’s not just as easy, dare I say easier, to tell men not to react violently to women defending themselves.

After the incident, I was not just humiliated – I was truly frightened.

If a stranger is bold enough to aggressively confront me in a crowded room – what else is he capable of? How far is he willing to go? Who else might target me in similar situations?

While my thoughts consumed me, I consumed little-to-no food because I hardly stepped foot in the dining hall for the rest of the fall semester.

My stroll was no longer confident as I avoided various people and places on campus. I felt as if I had been thrust back into the claustrophobic confines of my closet – afraid to take up any more space.

My dear mentor and advisor Desmond McCarthy provided the empowering advice I so desperately needed.

His remarkable words: “You deserve to take up space in this world. If somebody disrupts your personal space, you are allowed to tell them, ‘Hey, watch where you’re going,’ and you shouldn’t have to fear the results.”

I finally sought therapeutic treatment and began taking medication for my anxiety and depression.

Desmond’s advice served as a reminder that though this incident unfortunately defined much of my fourth year of college, it did not have to define me as an individual.

I may only take up 5 feet 2 inches of space – but now, I do it with pride.