“Ugh,” she says, turning over on her beach towel and holding her phone above her face, “I just do NOT want to go to this baby shower. I don’t even know this woman that well and I won’t know anyone there. And it’s in New Jersey.”
“So don’t go.”
“But I feel bad…”
“Do you want to go?”
“So just say you can’t make it. Honestly, it took me a long time to learn this. I used to feel needlessly guilty for all sorts of things until my friend Bekah taught me how to say no to things.”
Bekah was my roommate and confidant for the strange but beautiful year in which we lived in Budapest, Hungary. I now recall lying in bed, with a headache and cramps, contemplating canceling my afternoon tutoring appointment.
“Just text and say you aren’t feeling well.”
“But I feel bad…”
“Caroline, you ACTUALLY aren’t feeling well.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right…”
Bekah was also the one who had to convince me that a group of male friends, none of whom I was ever in a relationship with, didn’t have the right to make me feel guilty about some admittedly unwise decisions I made regarding breaking up with someone in a closely intertwined group of friends and then promptly kissing his housemate two weeks later. Afterwards, FOUR men I once considered some of my closest friends attempted to fulfill some sort of male-loyalty duty by explaining to me via text messages and phone calls how much I f***ed up to the point where someone actually told me, “I can’t love you right now.” While I now see this as arrogant, misogynistic slut-shaming, at the time I took it to be an indicator that I was the no-good black sheep in the pure-bred, holistic, Midwestern friend group I worshiped more than the God I still believe in. I walked around in tears and blamed myself for weeks (pathetic, I know) until I found women who talked some sense into me. We’ve all grown up since then, but it was formative.
I’m spoken to on the street by a male almost every day, and it makes me feel worse about myself 100% of the time. Most of the time it is a positive but unwanted comment, but every now and then a guy goes far enough to say I am “rude” when I don’t respond to his compliment. The worst is when men ask if I’m “feeling sad?” or “what’s wrong?” and then I have to ACTIVELY tell myself not to think, “Crap. What was my face like? Do I really look sad? I should work on that.” or “Shouldn’t have worn this outfit.” I gave my number to a guy at a party just last month only because I didn’t want to say no. I know it’s good to have a conscience and to feel guilty for doing something wrong, but this is just ridiculous.
Which is why I still tell people, “My dear friend Bekah taught me how to say no and stand up for myself.” We need to be this type of woman for each other.
Stop blaming yourself. Start saying no. You obviously heard this before. There’s a TLC song and a Meghan Trainor song about it. But I think it bears repeating.
Caroline Higgins (’11) lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she spends the vast majority of her time teaching English Language Arts. You may also find her at barre exercise classes or playing (and losing) at bar trivia. She continues to be inspired by the energy and diversity of New York City and the beauty of that certain slant of light.