By Aniska Tonge
I’m still afraid.
Afraid of what people might think or say. Afraid of sharing too much. I am an avid believer in keeping some things, most things, to yourself. But things change, once you live through certain trials, things change.
I was fifteen years old, a junior in high school the first time I was physically assaulted by my boyfriend. I wasn’t sure who I was yet, and not quite equipped to determine who I wanted to be. But that one moment, that thirty or so minutes that I remember vividly would shape my idea of womanhood for the next six years of my life.
That boyfriend and I broke up, but something happened to me after that incident, something I could not reverse. You see when you’re violated, you feel “less than”. When it’s someone that means whatever the world is to a fifteen year old, you are bewildered and confused. I was just an A-plus, honor, drill team, SGA, Junior Commissioner of Tourism student. But now I was a “victim” and that word seemed to stand out the most.
I began accepting certain behaviors because he screamed at me and pointed a gun at me. But he didn’t hit me so I was lucky, it could’ve be worse. If I got the short end of the stick, well at least I got a piece. I was terrified, always terrified and slowly but surely that became anxiety. It was my second year of college and things had become unmanageable. I found myself in a constant dark corner no matter what was occurring around me. I got help. In the community I come from, you don’t get “help.” But I’m sure I wouldn’t be a part of any community had I not.
With clarity came this euphoric thought; if I can feel like this, a million other girls probably do too and in came the sharing. I had to tell my story because what if my story could change hers? I had to find the courage and the platform to save those girls that are who I use to be. Enter Miss America. A beauty pageant. Of all things I chose a beauty pageant! Ha.
But Miss America (not the organization but the women and the experiences) saved me. It showed me that I had something to achieve that was greater than myself. I had a purpose and now I knew what it was. At the time, I didn’t feel ready. I was still going about it the wrong way. So in interviews I stumbled over words because my heart wasn’t speaking, in talent my nerves corroded because I was still concerned about what I looked like. I was still wounded.
The 4Her foundation was founded six months after I got back from Miss America. Because I’d finally figured it out. It was about saving the soul, not self. It was about saving “the girl” from destruction and not being afraid of seeing our problems as just that. Low self-esteem is a problem. Anxiety is a problem. Physical, emotional and sexual assault are all problems. Problems that too often, young women face without assistance, and 4Her aims to change that.
So I began tackling this problem as a one-woman team. I’d hold seminars both on and off school campuses. 4Her has been personally funded because sponsorship is scarce, but I saw the need on my girls’ faces every time we met.
I remember distinctly the moment I knew I had been led to my responsibility of this lifetime. A young woman I’d met on a recent trip to a local middle school. She was twelve, a baby. But she was being abused by an ex boyfriend, she was questioning her sexuality and had started dating a seventeen year old girl. She had no one to talk to or turn to and I became that person the moment we exchanged numbers.
You see it’s one thing to talk to an adult who just doesn’t get it or a peer who is incapable of help. But I’m a good compromise. I’m a peer because I’m still young and still learning, but I’m also an adult in the sense that I’ve seen everything my girls have seen. Through 4Her my aim is to be, above all else, a mentor and a friend.
And now here we are, another pageant, Miss World. A bigger platform and a bigger stage. But my purpose is now as clear as day. A stronger me now exists. A me willing to share all that I have suffered AND conquered. I know now that in order to help one, I have to find the courage to show what and who I am. I’m not afraid of my scars anymore, nor am I ashamed of my wounds.
It’s funny how accepting your flaws allows you to embrace the good that is within you. I am filled with so much good and I don’t have to hide that anymore. I am so good, so very worth it and that’s where it starts.
I’m not sure how many people I will touch, but one will be enough. So from now until the day I don’t have the choice, I am for every girl that thinks she can’t leave or thinks she doesn’t deserve the best.
There are still times where the walls close in around me, and I become terrified that the past will sneak up on me. I worry that the woman I’ve fought so hard to become will get lost in a world I’ve just started to properly maneuver. In those moments I breathe in, love, because that’s where it starts. Then I breathe out, thank you, because I am still here and I still have quite a bit of work to do.
Aniska Tonge on the island of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, and is a graduate of the University of South Florida where she earned her BS in Psychology with minor in Women & Gender Studies. Aniska’s most distinguishing accolade, is the title of Miss Virgin Islands 2012. After having won this prestigious title, Aniska represented the territory at the Miss America Pageant in 2013.
Aniska is also the Founder and CEO of the 4Her Foundation. The organization is a non-profit dedicated to promoting the positive progression of young women personally, professionally, and socially. She is a contributor for Live Inspired magazine, covering issues relating to millennials. Aniska says her most important characteristics are her inner beauty and commitment to seeing those around her succeed.