Rachel Berger is a NYC student, reader, and writer who often wishes she had more time to read, write, and study. You can find her online at personalslashpolitical.blogspot.com.

Walking home after dark a few nights ago, I passed a pair of guys sprawled on a park bench. As I reached the corner, one of them turned to the other and commented, “Yeah, she’s pretty.”

I decided not to ignore it. I turned my head and gave him a look. As I walked away, the guy called after me. “You don’t think you are, but you are.”

Maybe some girls would have been flattered by this. The guy wasn’t your typical “creeper”, after all — he was young, probably in his 20s, and not bad looking himself. He wasn’t wolf-whistling or leering at my body. It was a compliment, right? He probably thought he’d made my day.

Somehow, I wasn’t flattered. I was annoyed. Rankled, even. My look wasn’t meant to say “I don’t believe you” but “Who do you think you are?” I didn’t walk past for his benefit. I wasn’t interested in his opinion. But somehow, this guy had the idea that all girls are desperate for male attention. That a girl who doesn’t flaunt her body must be ashamed or self-conscious of it.

There’s a strange paradox when it comes to words like “beautiful” and “pretty” and “sexy”.  For any other attribute, like kindness or honesty, the opinions of strangers are irrelevant. You can’t assess the true strength of a person’s character until you know them well. But when it comes to beauty, nothing your friends say counts. Your feelings of self-worth are placed in the hands of the people who know you least — that random guy on the street.

Did this twenty-something guy realize I’m still in high school? Did he care? As soon as a girl hits puberty, when she’s reached a point where she looks adult, she’s open to any and all appraisals of her physical appearance. Her beauty, and her sexiness, is defined by anyone who’s brash enough to call out to her about it. For too long the media, and male-dominated society, has been given the authority to tell girls and women what “sexy” is — and by extension, how we should be.

I don’t know how I feel about “taking sexy back”. In a way, girls and women redefining sexy is like blacks reclaiming “n—–” or gays reclaiming “queer”, “f—–” and “d—“. For some, it feels triumphant and true. But sometimes the negative connotations of these words can’t be untangled from the words themselves. Can we arbitrarily ascribe a word like “sexy”, which is descriptive of physical appearance, to positive attributes like confidence and intelligence?

For me, liberation comes from saying, “I’m not sexy. I’m not pretty,” and that’s okay — really, it is. Because on my list of qualities to aspire to, those words don’t even appear. Smart, compassionate, funny, determined, talented, loyal — those are the adjectives that come first.