As a girl, I was put on notice that the world demanded my acquiescence. At 13-, 14-, and 15-years old, my growing hips, legs, and breasts drew stares, leers, and ooh baby’s. I’d cross the street to avoid men’s sexual aggression. Like my friends, I’d lie when pressed for personal information. I’d give out false numbers, claim my phone was broken, create a boyfriend or a husband. What I didn’t do was say no.
At birth we are all wired to speak the language of “no.” Remember when, as children, our no’s flew directly from heart to mouth? Then somewhere during the approach of adulthood, the moment arrives when, instead of a firm “no,” a mumbled “maybe” slips out. Suddenly, we are paralyzed, unable to speak our minds. What is it that we fear most? Appearing harsh? Being left out, disliked, or ostracized? Displaying a self-assured audacity? Perhaps the silence is an attempt to ignore the ugly reality that, without a fight, a woman’s no’s are likely to fall on deaf ears.
In the street, I was punished when I voiced a no. A furious stream of “bitch,” “you’re ugly anyway” and “what’s wrong with you?” would rain down on my head. In a world were men are not beyond violence, I protected myself with politeness and avoided injury with lies. Though my evasive tactics carried me safely past male anger, I was permanently rattled by my own powerlessness. What kind of adult was I if I couldn’t voice the no’s romping through my body?
Today, I find liberation within the mighty walls of no. The word I feared uttering has freed me from strategic maneuvering and dishonest responses. Now, when the “hey sexy’s” and “can I walk with you’s” fall at my feet, I fearlessly decline the invitations and keep stepping. “No,” I say, and freedom rushes through my body. “I’m not interested,” I say, and power bursts through my chest. Anger is not necessary, hostility is not required-a simple, well-intoned “no” carries its own weight in the world.
It is invaluable when friends ask you to run inconveniencing errands. When the doctor states, “hysterectomy,” before exploring other options. When colleagues pass the pen and pad so you can take notes. Whenever you are uncomfortable, not committed, or simply not interested, “no” creates a pocket of freedom—a self-defined boundary to stake around the territory of yourself. At its base, the ability to say no is the unassailable belief in the “rightness” of your self.
Dexterity with “no” has been essential for the full blossoming of my womanhood. In my arsenal of no, I keep the quietly fierce “that’s not going to work for me” close to my hip. With the flick of the wrist, I employ the unequivocally direct “I’m not interested.” And of course, I hold a few well-mannered “No, thank yous” on the tip of my tongue.
The mouth that embraces “no” declares: my decisions are sound, my feelings are valid, my thoughts are worthy of note. Each time the word springs from female lips, the scent of woman swells up, distinct and uncompromising. “No” is an adult utterance, a moment of unabashed self-expression, a spark of courage, an unashamed commitment to self. Can a female body be self-possessed if its voice is not intimate with the art of negation? The answer is no.
Published in Ms. magazine © 2001
Reprinted in Utne Reader © 2001 and Reading Into Writing: A Guide to Composing, Longman Publishers © 2003