101. Go Ahead, Look at Me

101. Go Ahead, Look at Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Curvy & Confident

Go Ahead, Look at Me

A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her.

~David Brinkley

As we were putting the final touches on Chicken Soup for the Soul: Curvy & Confident, Amy, Emme, and I — three relatively confident blondes of varied curviness — met for well-deserved cocktails at a swanky hotel on Central Park South. It was late afternoon on a Friday and we were relaxing together after many weeks of reading and re-reading the stories for this book.

“I want to meet our contributors and hug them,” I said, as we toasted. “They are so brave and vulnerable to tell such personal stories.” Some of the anecdotes about body shaming had touched me so much, I cried while reading them.

Emme had been all over the news the week before talking about that very issue. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had complained about the weight gained by Miss Universe Alicia Machado during her reign, and a lot of people were offended and outraged.

“How can he think this is okay?” Emme asked. “This is completely unacceptable behavior.”

We were all silent for a moment, as Amy and Emme looked at me.

“Natasha,” Amy said quietly, “when are you going to write about your Trump experience?”

Ah yes. That. It was a question Amy had been asking for months, ever since I’d stayed at her house in the spring while coaching her through writing her first solo book, Simply Happy. We’d seen Trump on TV pounding the election trail and I had told her what The Donald had done a decade earlier. Emme had known the story ever since it happened in 2005.

Back then, I’d gone to the Trumps’ Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach to interview them for a People magazine feature and there, Trump had cornered me alone in a room and forcibly kissed, then propositioned, me while his pregnant wife was upstairs.

“Maybe I should, but I’m afraid to,” I said. “Look what he does to women.”

As if on cue, one of our cell phones buzzed with breaking news: A tape had surfaced in which candidate Trump was heard speaking crudely about women and their body parts, describing doing exactly the same kind of thing he had done to me.

“It’s time, Natasha,” both Amy and Emme urged.

Except for a circle of trusted friends, family, and colleagues whom I told at the time, I’d kept mostly quiet about the incident. I had many good reasons to do so. And there was something else lingering at the back of my mind: Trump was known for viciously attacking women’s looks when he didn’t like them or when he wanted to intimidate them — the term “fat pig” rings in my ears as one term he’s fond of using. I was worried he’d do the same to me and it would be a blow to my hard-earned positive body image.

That had been my history: When one family member told me I had the shoulders of a linebacker, I started slouching. When another said my legs were too strong, I stopped wearing skirts. Color me overly sensitive, but I think many of the writers in this book can relate. We have more than a few stories in these pages about harmful, hurtful words uttered by parents, siblings, friends, classmates, and strangers that have caused a lot of pain.

I’d already spent years feeling ashamed and degraded by his actions and words and I didn’t want to subject myself to any more humiliation, especially in front of the entire world.

Skip ahead one week, and that’s exactly what happened.

Two days after our girls’ night out, Trump appeared on the second debate and denied ever kissing a woman without her consent. This statement pushed the issue to its tipping point for me and several other women who decided to come forward. People approached me to tell my story, and I said yes. Three days later, it went online on their website.

A lot of thought — more than a decade’s worth — and many conversations with editors, my family and friends went into the decision. And also, so did my experience working on this book. I’d been inspired by the hundreds of personal anecdotes I’d read about women empowering themselves and not allowing other people’s limited, skewed concepts of beauty interfere with how they thought about themselves. I knew Trump would probably attack my appearance no matter what I looked like, but I took the risk anyway and came forward. If our Curvy & Confident writers could be brave and bare their souls, so could I.

Even when you are trying to be a brave woman and stand up for yourself, it stings to be attacked for your appearance.

A day and a half after the story posted, Trump implied to supporters at a rally in Florida that I wasn’t attractive enough to sexually assault. Now there’s an insult I hadn’t heard before. Or was it a compliment?

“Take a look at her! You tell me what you think!” he yelled to the crowd. “I don’t think so!” The next day he called me a liar and told everyone, “Check out her Facebook page. You’ll understand.”

Gulp. This sort of thing can bruise a girl’s ego.

There was no way I was going to do any TV interviews about this story. People and Chicken Soup for the Soul and other friends were fielding requests for me from CNN, Today, Anderson Cooper, Good Morning America and more.

But besides the fact that I’d said my piece and didn’t want to talk about it anymore (I wasn’t, to quote Trump’s words during the final presidential debate, seeking my “ten minutes of fame”), I didn’t want to put myself out there on camera and invite even more scorn and insults from him. Some articles suggested Trump attacked his accusers’ looks to discourage other women from coming forward. I’m sure his words did have that effect. Even when you are trying to be brave and stand up for yourself, it stings to be attacked for your appearance.

I stayed silent for a week after the story went online, hidden away in a hotel in New Jersey finishing my work on this book and working on my next book, too. My friends protected me, and my privacy. Meanwhile, I took comfort in the hundreds of supportive e-mails and online comments from women whose confidence had been shaken by similar experiences.

But Trump had challenged my credibility, so People decided to publish a follow-up story — interviews from close friends and colleagues I’d told the story to back in 2005. It was important for me and for all the other women out there that my story be corroborated.

This meant I had to come out of hiding and pose for at least one photo. The pictures of me used in news stories and blogs all over the Internet had been grabs from my Facebook page before I shut it down — old selfies and pics taken by friends (one was taken by Emme the day I accompanied her to the hospital for chemo) — and the magazine needed something up-to-date. I felt self-conscious about it, but I agreed.

I met the photographer in a loft in Chelsea and we got to work. Her assistant put on Frank Sinatra ballads, the make-up artist curled my lashes, and I posed. I tried not to think about the reality that millions of people would be scrutinizing this photo, including you-know-who. No pressure! I tried to look good, I tried to look confident, and I held my head up high. As I did this, something surprisingly wonderful happened.

I was a photojournalist in the early days of my career, and I can tell you that the camera doesn’t lie. What you see through the lens is what you get; it is truth.

The People photographer saw it too.

“Confidence!” she yelled out. “Yes!”

I smiled. She was right. It felt good to overcome my fear and do the right thing. It felt good to reclaim my power from him. It didn’t matter what nasty things he said about me. I would no longer let the words, opinions, or actions of one person, any person, hurt me. I was serene, confident, and empowered

So go ahead, look at me.

~Natasha Stoynoff

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