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Monday, Dec 11, 2023

On respect and dignity

I remember exactly what I was wearing: a white, spaghetti-strapped, shirred crop top and my favorite high-waisted blue jeans. Gold hoop earrings. Worn-in Stan Smiths.

It was the evening of graduation. I was exhausted from having been the commencement marshal during the ceremony earlier that morning, from having packed my entire dorm room away in less than two hours. The dining halls were closed, so I made my way to Shafer’s to get a sandwich to go.

As I walked out of the store, I noticed two men sitting across from each other at one of the picnic tables outside. I didn’t know them personally, but I recognized them as Midd Kids. One of them was looking directly at me and didn’t take his eyes off of me. As I turned onto the sidewalk, I heard him ask his friend if he knew who I was. The friend looked at me and then proceeded to tell him that I was the new SGA president.

Immediately, the guy slammed his hands on the table, swerved his head in my direction to take a look at me again and exclaimed dramatically, “That piece is the SGA president?!”

I kept walking. I consider myself to be an outspoken person, someone who doesn’t take anyone else’s sh*t. But I kept walking, quietly. As if I hadn’t heard them.

At parties, some men feel entitled to approach me simply because they “know” who I am. I’ve overheard someone say, “Imagine if I f*cked the SGA president,” and another guy dare his friend to “take the president home.” Just the other day, I walked by two men after parking my car in the Ridgeline lot. As soon as they passed me, they began to giggle and one commented, “Did you check out the SGA prez?”

I’ve only really been in this role for three months, but already these interactions have become the norm. It’s terrible already that I have to overhear others sexualizing me. What’s worse is that my title itself — SGA President — seems to play a central role in their sexual fantasies.

Let me be frank. I have worked my ass off to earn my peers’ respect and assume this role. I prioritize SGA every single g*ddamn day, often at the expense of my academics, sleep, social life and senior year in general. I work constantly to try to make Middlebury a better place for all students. 

I did not do all this just to be degraded, to be reduced to nothing more than a powerful woman some guys would get a kick out of “conquering.” I did not do all this just to cry in countless counseling sessions about this same exact issue. To be reminded nearly every day that no matter how much I accomplish, I am still primarily perceived as a sex object.

That’s not part of the job description.

I refrained from writing about this for the longest time, but it has gotten to a point where I feel unable to confidently do my job. I find myself wondering if some men do what I ask because they agree with me, or because they find me attractive. If my looks on any given day are a more important tool of persuasion than my intellect ever will be. I doubt myself and my abilities on a daily basis even though I know I am more than qualified. 

I also know that unfortunately, none of this is unique to me.

It feels like women have to work extra hard just to get a chance at assuming a position of power. But I’ve come to realize that getting into the room isn’t the hard part — staying in that role with legitimacy and respect is.

It’s a pattern we need to break.

Varsha Vijayakumar ’20 is president of the Student Government Association.