It takes a lot of heart: an eventful year both on campus and abroad, 2016 was a divisive year for a lot of us. As another year begins, this series of personal essays invites you to ponder this question: where is the love?

“Is he looking? Is he walking towards us?”

“He’s totally smiling at you. Look at me, pretend I said something funny.”

“Do you think he’ll ask me out? On a date?”

He never asked me out. He thought I was cool, a “one of the guys” kind of girl, but not girlfriend material. His rejection hurt, and truthfully, it was the most painful experience I ever endured at the age of 12. Heartbreak left me as quickly as love found me, and I moved on.

In retrospect, my first heartbreak was child’s play, a joke compared to more recent experiences. However, it changed my perspective on boys and what they found desirable in girls. I convinced myself that intelligence was a turnoff; that having long hair, a full face of makeup, and a large chest was what made a girl attractive.

At the beginning of my journey to understand feminism, I believed that strong women were independent in their personal lives — solitude was the key to personal happiness, after all. I learned that shutting people out was a lot easier than dealing with the truth.

I internalized the fear of rejection and the obsessive need to be a “strong” woman until it ruined my body image, self-esteem, and relationships with people. I lost sight of who I was. In my spiral of self-destruction, male attention became my drug — except this time, I no longer cared about the possibility of rejection. I simply needed the hollowness inside my chest to dissipate. How could I fear being unwanted when I did not want myself?

I threw myself at every boy: the good, the bad, the toxic. I wanted their validation. I needed it. I began to fall in love, hard. I have loved three boys so far. Let’s call them Jesse, Keith, and Jack (not their real names). Each one has had an influence on my personal growth throughout adolescence.

[pullquote-default]I fell in love with each boy hoping I would find self-acceptance and self-love.[/pullquote-default]

Jesse was Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome with a charismatic, witty, and sarcastic personality. To my younger self, at the impressionable age of 18, he was perfect. He was my first lover, the first man to see me in my most vulnerable state. He showed me the beauty of sexuality, and the agency I had in exploring my own. I grew hungry for our nights together, tangled in between the sheets, lost in our own secluded world. Every kiss ignited a new passion, and every sigh spoke of promises I believed he would keep. The relationship Jesse and I shared was brief, but it was sensual, intense, and seductive.

Keith was a skater who cared more about smoking pot on the weekends than getting into university and receiving a post-secondary education. He was an angry, rebellious teenager who possessed a compassionate heart. Despite his lack of motivation and ambition, I saw potential in him, and refused to let him throw away his bright future for nights of partying and getting high. As our relationship grew, I discovered that underneath the hostility and laziness was a talented poet. Poetry, to Keith, was personal and too important for him to study at a post-secondary institution. Although we haven’t spoken to one another since high school, he occasionally sends me drafts of his latest pieces.

Jack was a childhood best friend. He was the shoulder I could cry on, the one constant in my dramatic teenage life. He was my person and I was his. There was not a single thing he did not know about me. My childhood would have been different without him — without his optimism, patience, and cheerful spirit. While numerous confessions about romantic feelings were made during our friendship, we never dated. It became apparent that a friendship like ours was hard to come by, and we weren’t willing to take the risk for a chance at love.

I realize now that Jesse, Keith, and Jack were reflections of the qualities I wanted to see in myself. I fell in love with each boy hoping I would find self-acceptance and self-love. Jesse was the first boy to see all of me; his male attention gave me confidence in my body, and in female sexuality. Prior to my relationship with him, I resented my body, and it was in my relationship with Jesse where I accepted my body the way it was. I didn’t crave Jesse’s touch, rather, I hungered for the effect my body had on him: the power I had in claiming my sexuality.

Keith was the boy I believed in wholeheartedly. I was never the smartest student, merely average. My parents were strict and expected straight As. In hindsight, I think I was invested in his success because I saw myself in him — I needed him to succeed, to believe that I could have success if I put my mind to it.

Jack mirrored the independence I needed, both self-assurance and reliability. He taught me to depend on myself during times of need, to begin a lifelong friendship with myself.

I didn’t know how to find self-love until I subconsciously looked for boys I saw pieces of myself in. For the majority of my childhood and early adolescence, I believed that the reason I felt empty and incomplete was because I hadn’t found my other half, my soulmate, to complete me. It never occurred to me that I am my own soulmate.