It was a regular Thursday afternoon rush and I was looking forward to going home for the weekend. I was crossing the corner of Vito Cruz with my bag full of laundry when it happened. I barely registered the small, nondescript man coming from the opposite direction. As we crossed each other’s paths, he inched closer and rubbed his elbow against the side of my chest. Before I knew it, he disappeared into the street behind me. I didn’t even have time to react; I had to cross the street.
Once I was seated on the bus, I began to mull over what happened. I wanted to be rational, and so I played the scene over and over in my head. I second-guessed myself, thinking that maybe the man didn’t mean to. But the pedestrian crossing wasn’t even crowded. There was no reason for him to be so close I could feel his breath on my face and his elbow to be unmistakably rubbing against me.
The whole thing happened in less than 10 seconds and yet I felt horribly violated. I began to hyperventilate, scrambling for anything to ground me to reality or I would just lose it in that bus. I felt small, weak, and afraid. I beat myself up for not reacting faster, for not screaming at him, and at least humiliating him in public. I wanted to rewrite the story; I wanted to not be the victim but instead a vindictive, self-assured woman. I ended up sobbing to my mom on the phone while inside a restroom stall in the Mall of Asia.
Growing up, I never had the greatest relationship with my body. There are days I want to smash the mirror at the sight of my reflection—a product of years of contorting myself to the male gaze and hating myself for not living up to it. It was a weird place in between wanting to be wanted and resenting being defined by what men see.
I thought about how all these small moments of violation throughout the years can chip away at your soul. How it destroys the inner peace you’ve laboriously built brick by brick. I thought, too, of all the other moments. The older man from church who found out my number and called me incessantly to meet up with him when I was 14, the foreigner on Telegram who messaged me one day out of the blue and called me “my love.” It was the same sinking feeling of being small and trapped.
It’s not just sexualization, either. It’s always the men who have something to say about my body. “If only you were a little fairer,” a classmate once said. “Don’t you want to go to the gym and lose a few pounds?” a boy I had been seeing commented.
I struggled with finding empowerment when all I felt was that I was a pig being carved up for parts. How do I take on this centuries-old system that has rendered my body an object for the consumption of others? That has deprived me of my agency time and again?
It turns out, it does take a village. I found comfort in conversations with female friends who knew exactly what I went through. I got the strength to speak of the stories I couldn’t bring to tell others before. There is solidarity in the ranks of women who seethe at being pigeonholed by the patriarchy.
I still have days when I feel powerless, but there are always more days where I can be courageous. I can tell my younger friends and family members what I wished someone told me back then. These days, I think we can take on the system. Burn it to the ground, salt the earth, and build the world anew—brick by brick.