When I broke up with my high school boyfriend at age 16, he joined a group of boys in calling me a name I'd never expected people would ever think to call me. Once he learned that I'd fallen in love with my best friend, though, shots were fired; an ego likely diminished. During a group beach day in July, I was caught off guard by words that cut deep, like cross-stitch scissors snipping into the seams of the leopard bikini I was wearing. As I got up from my towel to approach a friend, I turned around to find him and a few other guys from my class snickering. “Look at her with her tatas hanging out,” one boy mocked. “Slut!” they said while laughing.
I turned around, half-expecting there to be another girl standing there. My face grew hot, and embarrassment permeated my body, a body that I was told long ago to keep sacred. Because I came from a tight-knit religious community, my reputation, above anything else, meant everything. Before I started high school, my mother sat me down and told me that my name should never be passed from the lips of gossipers and my body shouldn't be passed around in the hands of teenage boys. After hearing the word I was called on the beach that day, I felt cheated because I thought I'd played by the rules my mother laid out. Still, I shoved that leopard bathing suit to the back of my drawer.
Not long after, those boys doubled down: They took to Twitter to declare their opinion of me with a derogative hashtag coined on my behalf. When our senior year began, they gathered like sheep in the hallways.
Because I was lucky enough to have female friends and even some strangers in my corner at the time—some tried clearing my name on Twitter and sent me private messages condemning the injustices of slut shaming—I felt confident enough to continue wearing what I wanted. It also helped tremendously having a boyfriend who stood up for me when trolls tried tearing me down.
I tried a tough-girl approach when I faced the boys in the hallway by flipping my middle finger here and there, but sometimes I couldn’t even make it into a bathroom stall before the tears came. One time a teacher checked in while we were both in the elevator because he said he kept hearing my name whispered in one of his classrooms. I even went to great lengths to apologize to my ex because I thought the way in which he was handling our breakup and my new relationship was my fault.
A part of me thought I deserved to be called names; I deserved to feel guilty for moving on so quickly with someone I’d known almost all my life—especially given the backlash pop culture bestows upon women who move frequently from one relationship to the next (see Taylor Swift).
But another part of me felt that the only reason they thought it was OK to belittle me was because I had worn a leopard bikini. That somehow a stereotypically "slutty" item gave them permission. Although it’s come full circle and is often used in even modest clothing, leopard or cheetah print, historically, tends to carry a stigma that casts women wearing it in a promiscuous light, much like the color red or fishnet tights. Not that its definition is particularly scholarly, but even Urban Dictionary—in 2019!—describes cheetah print as what’s “most often worn by women who provide certain services to a man for pay." (The “dictionary” entry only gets more offensive from there, FYI.)
I bought that damned Victoria’s Secret bikini the summer going into senior year—an age when my mom still shopped with me. I’d have to spin around so she could confirm that the bathing suit bottoms fully covered my butt. The top is what really drew my attention, though. Unlike my past strapless or triangle-shaped purchases, this one included pad inserts, underwire, and structured lining that held you in tight in a way I'd thought only a bra could. Ironically, it made me feel protected and comfortable in my own skin. I wasn’t worried I’d have a nip slip the way I did with other swimwear. Even my mom approved. But as I soon found out, there were other things to worry about.
I’m 24 now. It’s been seven years since that day at the beach and the Twitter bullying that ensued. I’m still filled with fury when I see some of those boys walking the streets of my hometown. But a few years ago, I received an unexpected apology text from my first boyfriend—the one I’d broken up with—whom I haven’t spoken to since our junior year. When his name lit up on my phone, I was shocked. He said he had reached out because he wanted to make amends after a friend sent him something I wrote years ago on my blog where I mentioned how the ordeal has affected me.
I forgave him. And immediately after I did, I felt…lighter. I think about what it would be like if all men—or even some men—apologized to women after rejection may have fueled their aggression.
After the apology I felt I owed it to my high-school-aged self—and to who I am today—to excavate that bikini from the back of my drawer. When I discovered that it no longer fit, I went to the store and tried on another leopard two-piece that barely fit my ass and revealed a hint of side boob. I bought it anyway.
Originally Appeared on Glamour