Sometimes I’m scared to feel pretty, or express my femininity in a way that I like because I think it will make me a target. I’m uncomfortable at times living in my own body knowing that it’s being talked about or looked at with ill intent. I’ve realized that I tend to suppress versions of who I am or what I want to look like to keep myself safe.
Silencing myself has been my go-to means for protection. I’ve developed a fear of being a young woman in places where judgment and ridicule can potentially occur such as at school, social events, and even in my own home. I’ve noticed that these places are sadly not uncommon, as I often enter them daily. Sometimes, these places exist in my head, when my thoughts alone are the perpetrators of misogyny.
Girls’ bodies seem to be such a popular topic of conversation. Straight men and boys love to comment on every inch of our skin, remarking on what’s wrong with it, what parts are too small, what parts are too big. They completely pick apart the body in which we live. The sad thing is, girls have grown so accustomed to this that they do it to themselves, and they do it to other girls.
Internalized misogyny is a virus, and it’s killing us because we’re letting it. I remember once in middle school, a girl in my grade commented on the fact that it was so annoying that the boys in our grade were “obsessed with and directed so much attention” at another girl. This friend said that the other girl was receiving attention because of her big chest and that she definitely used a push up bra. She rolled her eyes then walked away.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it and moved on with my day, but something obviously stuck with me considering I remember it so vividly. I think her comment is a perfect example of the type of mindset girls grow into having. To imply that boys would only talk to another girl because of her large breasts shows that girls are taught that boys only talk to us for some sexual benefit or gratification. I guess we’re all just sexual objects in the eyes of men and boys, and it would be stupid for us to think otherwise. Right? Isn’t that what the world is trying to project on to us?
I think when my friend said that the boys were obsessed with this girl she was attempting to shame her, even though bringing her body into the conversation was unnecessary. She placed blame onto the other girl implying that she tried “too hard” for attention, when all this girl did was exist. In addition to girls being socialized to hate on each other, girls and guys in high school will comment on the number of people you’ve ‘hooked up’ with. They’ll also talk about how that number is too high, or how that number is too low, or they’ll offer their opinion of how little “respect” certain girls have for themselves. They’ll talk about the clothes you wear, how that skirt is too short, or how her top is too little. They’ll say that she wears too much makeup, or she flirts with too many guys. In short, there seems to be some perfect balance of conservative femininity and open-minded sexuality that all girls must attain or else they’ll be shamed.
Girls get eaten alive in high school by everyone, not just boys.
What I also believe to be the cause of this perpetuation of misogyny is the notion that girls and women have been socialized to be likable in the eyes of men and boys. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay titled, We Should All Be Feminists, she touches upon the desire for women and girls to be viewed as likeable, and how this trait is held at a high importance. She goes on to explain that developing likeableness means that women and girls are taught to have no room for anger, aggression, or disagreement. Essentially, women are here to please men and must behave as such.
While taking Ileana Jiménez’s intersectional feminism class in high school, I have read texts and essays written by Audre Lorde from Sister Outsider. One essay that particularly stood out to me was titled, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” The master’s tools are the systems and beliefs that uphold structures of oppression. We constantly use the master’s tools to climb up the hierarchy ladder just so that we can live comfortably in the master’s house. We try to grab power from the system and we don’t even realize it. Lorde asserts that we as girls and women “define the master’s house as our only source of support” and that’s a part of how we’ve been stuck and held captive in this world of sexism and misogyny as well as racism and homophobia.
We never teach men and boys to care about being likable, as they are extremely unapologetic about the ways in which they behave compared to the very detailed list of parameters a woman must live under for her existence to be acceptable, and even after we have tried to reach these impossible standards, we still seem to be apologetic. Not only are women and girls trying to grab power from the source of oppression, but we are also trying to fit within a small box of likeableness to please the oppressor.
When girls hear these comments being said about other girls, there is no room for disagreement, anger, or correction because that strays from the likable persona you’re taught to put on. This is why we often feel silenced. Lorde explains in her essay, “The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action,” that silence will not protect you, and that silencing your thoughts is one of the most harmful things you can do to yourself.
She states, “We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.” We fear judgment, challenge, rejection, and unlikeability, and we let that consume us to the point of silence. Or even worse, when we agree with these sexist comments, we too feed into the fire. I have been at fault for this throughout my life because as a young white girl, I was taught to believe that silence will bring safety and comfort. For if I was to break that silence, that would be like jumping into an entire world of discomfort, fear, and danger.
One tool used by the master is the concept of victim blaming. When any girl or woman reports an instance of sexual harassment, assault, or violence they are often met with questions such as “what were you wearing?” or “what did you do to incite this?” to essentially imply that you brought danger onto yourself and that anything that happened is your fault. This is victim blaming.
In our feminism class, we watched the documentary Roll Red Roll, which is about a girl who was raped in Ohio by a group of high school football players. During sections of this film, victim blaming is explored in powerful ways. In one scene, two high school girls are interviewed as part of the film, and they said that the girl who was raped should have known better than to get drunk around high school boys. We’ve created a world where men and boys will never be held accountable, and the blame will always get passed on to the victim. It’s so sickening and outrageous but it’s so real. This concept is so real and prevalent we’ve become numb to it. As girls and women, we’ve been socialized to develop a horrible internalized sexist and misogynist mindset that even blames each other for the violent actions that boys and men perpetuate.
Every night before I go out, I look in the mirror and ask myself if what I’m wearing is too much. Meaning I ask myself, will someone see me and want to hurt me? Every night. One time this junior year of high school, I wore something that was different from my usual jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers. I wore a dress I had recently bought that ended just a little before my knees. I painted my nails red, wore my hair long, and put on some heels. I looked in the mirror and I felt pretty, I felt “extra” feminine. As always, I asked myself that same question I always do. My answer was “I don’t care.” I shouldn’t have to change myself out of fear, I will not let the broken culture of our modern society have power over my decisions.
Looking back after the events of that night, sometimes I wish I would’ve changed my outfit. Would that have changed anything? Probably not, but the world tells me it would. If I just looked a little less like I was “asking for it,” maybe that night wouldn’t have turned out so badly. I can still feel my arms pushing bodies off and away from me. I can still see the look on these boys’ faces, like their eyes were seeing past the human in me, and just looking at my flesh and bones and knowing they wanted their hands all over it no matter what I had to say about it. I felt the entitlement they thought they had to my body. I still remember my blood getting cold, my heart beating a little faster, as fear started to wrap around me.
I still think about that night and what I wore, and I try to analyze if my outfit and the events of that night are connected. I keep thinking my feminine expression made me a magnet for danger. But I know that based on the conversations we have in our feminism class and club, that it’s not about how I dressed at all. I’m in danger because I’m a woman and nothing more. I’m a woman in a world of predatory boys and men who are free to act as they wish, because we live in a culture of sexist hierarchy and they are at the top. They have used their power to manipulate my thoughts to work against me.
These are just some of the realizations I’ve had over time and my analysis of the culture I feel is in place as a young woman. I know as I get older, I will be greeted with more struggles and a stronger awareness of the oppression that exists in my life. I try my best to break free of the internalized misogyny within me, but that too takes deep self-reflection. I wish I didn’t live in constant fear when I’m in social settings or walking home at night. I wish I wasn’t as receptive to those harmful messages I internalized as a child. I wish I didn’t live in fear of judgment from others or myself. And I wish I hadn’t grown so accustomed to these feelings and thoughts to the point where they have become nothing but normal.
But I have, and I can only move forward with the power and strength I have acquired through knowledge, experience, and self-reflection. And I hope I can channel that power and strength into action to dismantle the patriarchal systems into which we are held so captive.