To be female in a sexist culture is to accumulate trauma.
Even if you are lucky enough never to be raped, beaten, stalked or sexually harassed out of a job, you come to inhabit your body and your world in a different way than if you were free.
In the book Living A Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed describes the micro changes in her after a sexist incident that shook her up:
I was out jogging, just near my home. A man whirled passed on a bike
and put his hand up the back of my shorts. He did not stop; he just
carried on cycling as if nothing had happened, as if he had not done
anything. I stopped, shaking. I felt so sick; invaded, confused, upset, angry.
She goes on to ask: "What do we do when these kinds of things happen? Who do we become?"
I kept on going. I began jogging again, but I was different: I was different.
I was much more nervous. Every time someone came up behind me I was
ready, tense, waiting. I felt differently in my body, which was a different way
of encountering the world.
People -- certainly men but often women too -- believe that if something isn't life threatening, if it only lasted a second or a minute it can't be that bad. It's true, one sexist incident is often easier to manage than many. But most women in their lives experience chronic sexism via jokes, jeering, flashings, objectification, cat-calling, being interrupted, ignored, not taken seriously, not viewed as credible, etc. And they are privy to a steady stream of warnings from parents and from the violence against women in the daily news.
Over time, girls and women internalize what they see, hear and how they're treated. They become cautious, anxious, withdrawn, doing what they must to avoid being broken. They begin to believe they are less smart, interesting and worthy. As Ahmed puts it:
Experiences like this: they seem to accumulate over time, gathering
like things in a bag, but the bag is your body, so that you feel like you
are carrying more and more weight. The past becomes heavy. We all
have different biographies of violence, entangled as they are with so
many aspects of ourselves: things that happen because of how we are
seen; and how we are not seen.
The discomfort and degradation that girls and women live with is so baked into the culture that we hardly know it’s there or we think it’s a necessary, if icky, ingredient. It’s what psychologists call invisible trauma because it happens subtly over time, repeatedly bruising a girls’ self-confidence and sense of wholeness.
Many successful adult women struggle with the same problems as their teenage daughters. They pour their creative energy into their appearance rather than into a sense of purpose; they view themselves from the outside, nitpicking their bodies, skin and faces; and the unspoken competition and envy born of a culture toxic for women destabilizes their relationships.
While many girls today are aware that sexism and inequality are pervasive, they can’t always recognize it when it’s happening to them. When harassing behavior is not recognized as harassment, the feeling of powerlessness that occurs has a long-term impact on girls’ education, economic life, and mental health and sets them up for further sexual harassment or worse.
The hope is that as we deconstruct phenomena like sexism, objectification and gender bias throughout this website, you will have some aha! moments that allow you to reframe something that happened in the past or reject unfair and biased treatment in your, and your daughter’s day-to-day life.
Making sense of our confusing, upsetting and unjust experiences is what it is to become a feminist.