So it’s your first semester in college, and you’ve probably already survived a few exciting-slash-terrifying moments. I remember when my grandparents dropped me off to start my freshman year at the University of California. I couldn’t get them out of my dorm room fast enough. I was ready for freedom, dining hall cookies, and, honestly, some of the sexual experiences I had definitely not been having in high school. Everyone had told me that college was where chubby nerds like me really got to have their moment. And they weren’t wrong. I had some of the mythical experiences I’d been dreaming of back in my small suburban town. I was ready for some of them, but honestly, being raised by conservative Christian helicopter parents didn’t prepare me for most of the experiences I was about to have.
In addition to my lack of sexual experience, I had super low self-esteem (thanks, fatphobia). I was constantly on a diet, worried about the “freshman 15,” and terrified that my body wouldn’t measure up to social standards. I waded through a lot of confusion, guilt, shame, and a glaring need for boundaries. In hopes that you don’t need to go through all that, I decided to make this list to offer you the rules I wish I’d had when I started my life as an undergraduate:
1. You have the right to assert that your body is unbelievably precious.
This is the cardinal rule. Every single body is precious. Every single body matters. Say it with me! You’re going to get literally quadrillions of messages that will attempt to deny the reality of this basic, fundamental truth (because: capitalism, sexism, racism, white supremacy, advertising, ableism, transphobia, fatphobia, and lots of other trash). Your biggest job is to ignore them by any means necessary. If I feel like I’m losing my way, I simply bring myself back to one question: “What would I do in this situation if I believed that I was precious beyond belief?”
2. You have the right to recognize that talk of the “freshman 15” is fat-shaming (& that’s not cute)
You’re going to hear a lot of fear-mongering around weight-gain and your first year of college. Feel free to not only ignore it, but call it out for the messed-up, fatphobic bigotry that it is. You have the right to eat what you want, when you want, and in the amount that you want. For many people, college is the first time their families aren’t monitoring what and how they eat. That can be incredibly freeing. We should celebrate that, not live in fear of it. Your body is good, worthy, and valuable no matter your size or how you eat. Period.
3. You have the right to make “enthusiastic consent” the norm for EVERYTHING you do with your body
Here’s a definition of consent that I like (from YesMeansYes.com):
“Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games. Consent is a whole body experience. It is not just a verbal ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – it involves paying attention to your partner as a person and checking in with physical and emotional cues as well.”
Adding enthusiasm to this definition means that you are not only verbally, physically, and emotionally agreeing to something happening, but that you are, in fact, stoked about it. High bar, I know, but it’s kind of the key to a rad life. It’s my personal standard, and I highly recommend it.
4. You have the right to protect your body from unwanted touch or experiences
If someone is saying something that makes you feel weird or acting in a way that doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to explain yourself. You can just leave. Always. Even if you’ve been making out with someone for seven hours, you do not owe another person one more minute than you want to give them.
5. You have the right to NOT be low-maintenance
You never have to go with the flow or “be chill.” “Chill” is a word that has been coopted by misogynists everywhere in an attempt to get femmes and women to stop asserting their wants and needs. There’s a real premium placed on being, remaining, and staying low-maintenance and not asking for what you want and need. Guess what? Your wants and needs matter. They are information from your body, informed by your past experiences and your desires for the future.
6. You have the right to make a plan that keeps your body (and mind and spirit) safe
I am the biggest fan of planning. You can’t anticipate every event that’s going to happen while you’re in college, but there are certain things that are inevitable: conflict, disagreement, desires, and boundaries. When you are clear on what you want—and what you for sure don’t want—it’s easier to set guidelines for how to keep yourself safe. It helps a lot to write these things down and place them somewhere visible.
My friend has this wall of notes she keeps in her bathroom. There are different categories, like “things I’m avoiding” and “things I want to do.” Toilet time is her reflection time. You may not have the luxury of your own private bathroom for this, but find a space that is your own—like your journal or the wall above your work space—to keep track of things like people, places, and ideas that make you feel good in your body as well as those that don’t.
7. You have the right to experience pleasure in your body
Pleasure is a human right. It can come from spending time with people you love, eating yummy things, touching trees, petting puppies, a good night’s sleep, orgasms, and/or sex had with enthusiastic consent. Pleasure is your body’s way of telling you, “Yes, keep doing this!” Feelings of dread, fear, or reluctance are your body’s way of telling you, “Stop this immediately, please!” Listen. If you have OCD or anxiety, which might make it harder to sort through and make meaning of these kinds of feelings, take the time you need, preferably with the support of a therapist, to figure out what feels safe and good for you and what doesn’t.
Growing up believing that a woman’s job was to pleasure her man really put a damper on my sex life. Until I started dating someone who pointed out to me that I really was allowed to have a good time, it had never occurred to me that sex was meant to be pleasurable for women too. This revelation completely rewired my brain. So, let me pass on to you this piece of information: sex is not an act of service. Sex is an act of shared pleasure. Don’t feel shy about telling your partner(s) what you like and how to make you feel good.
This list could be a lot longer and probably still not cover the unique needs that your body has. Add what you want. Talk with friends about how they take care of their bodies. Make checking in with your body—its needs, wants, and limits—a consistent part of your college experience. In the next two or four years, you could totally graduate as a full-fledged expert in Body Autonomy (that was a BA joke, sorry).