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On "Just Wanting Attention," Slut Shaming, and Why We Shouldn't Apologize

I hear from a lot of girls who are struggling through the hell that is being labeled a “slut” in middle school or high school. Often, they just want to know that they’re not alone. Sometimes, they want to share their experiences with me and even publicly, through The UnSlut Project.

I love hearing from these girls – after all, they are the very reason I started this project by posting my own middle school diaries online back in 2013. But I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in their messages: Many girls will begin their emails with a disclaimer along the lines of, “I’m not looking for attention, but…” or “I know you might think I just want attention, but…” and it always makes me cringe.

Here they are, bravely reaching out, baring their hearts and sharing their personal experiences – so why do they feel compelled to frame those experiences in a way that diminishes what they’ve gone through? Why, before they tell their story, must they make sure I know they are not seeking attention by sharing it?

I can relate completely. When I was labeled the school “slut” at age eleven, there were few things I dreaded more than hearing the words, “Oh, she’s just looking for attention.” Whether it came from a friend who had noticed the cuts on my wrists after I began self-harming, or from a teacher who had heard the latest rumor about me, that accusation of “just wanting attention” was devastating. In so neatly dismissing my pain, those words added to it immeasurably.

Because I did want attention. I wanted to be noticed. I wanted to be important. But I believed, as do many of the girls who are emailing me now over fifteen years later, that my desire for attention was shameful. That belief compounded the shame I already felt because of my reputation as a “slut.”

Where does this belief come from? Why is it so scary to think that someone might assume that, as girls, we want – heaven forbid – attention? I think it stems, at least in part, from deep-seated cultural expectations about how girls should behave. That we should be self-effacing, quiet, and humble. We should not assume that we matter, or that anyone would ever care about us and our personal stories.

Especially for those of us who have been labeled a “slut” among our peers, it can feel like all attention is something to be avoided. That’s because the attention we’re receiving has gotten out of our control; perhaps rumors about us are creating attention that we’d rather not have. But we cannot react by becoming fearful of all attention, or of living in fear that someone might suspect attention is what we’re after.

Maybe it is what we’re after. So what? We all deserve attention. I’d go so far as to say that we all need it. Wanting it, if we do, should not be something we have to admit. It should not be something we can be accused of and dismissed because of.

So go! Re-define yourself the way you want to be defined in this world. Others might have defined you as a “slut,” but that doesn’t have to mean anything at all. You get to decide how you will be defined, and then you get to become that person. The process might involve drawing attention to your talents, your passions, and your experiences – and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.



More articles by Category: Feminism, Girls
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Sexuality, Sexism
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Emily Lindin
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