Content warning: Sexual harassment and brief mentions of rape.
A few weeks ago, when the weather was still warm and I was embracing sun-kissed cheeks, I strolled over to Memorial Glade to read in the sunshine. As I was nearing North Gate in a T-shirt and shorts, minding nothing but my own business and the warm weather, two men drove by, slowed down next to me and shouted, “OK, OK! Look at those legs!”
Every time this happens, I sink into a routine response. First, utter indifference; I shut off and become stone cold. Then humiliation finds its way in, eventually leading me to question what I did to ask for that. What did I do to cause those men to single me out, but not that other girl across the street? God, I knew I shouldn’t have worn these. Especially when I’m walking alone.
I drown in this routine that too closely parallels that of the “bad feminist” described by Roxane Gay. I’m a textbook example of what she describes: one who preaches equality for women but crumbles when push comes to shove. I’ve marched for women’s rights, subscribed to Ms. Magazine and signed numerous Equal Rights Amendment petitions. On paper, I’m a feminist, but in practice, it’s difficult to always stand by what I preach.
No matter the circumstances, we should have all been taught to never blame the victim. When a woman experiences the unspeakable, you don’t ask her what she was wearing. You don’t ask her why she was in that area, why she was with those men or why she drank as much as she did. We know you should never ask these questions because a predator’s actions can never be undermined by the rightful choices of the victim.
That incident with those two men near North Gate was nothing compared to what women go through, and even in terms of what I’ve been through. I didn’t feel victimized or sexualized. I knew my safety wasn’t at risk, so I just kept walking. I walked on knowing they weren’t following me and knowing that their intent wasn’t really malicious. I was fine, as far as my safety went, but what lingered was the shame.
I went against everything I had been taught by strong women and turned the tables to shame myself. I convinced myself that I shouldn’t have worn something so short and then walked alone down the street. I told myself that I invited their remarks. I was revealing and, so, those men just did what men do.
No matter how many women’s courses I’ve taken, feminist books I’ve read or how many strong women I surround myself with, some of the lessons I’m taught just don’t seem to stick. Instead, I internalize sexist beliefs and cling to the rhetoric I’ve been fed that beats women down.
This self-shaming didn’t just show up; a seed was planted and sprouted this way. When I was about 13, I stood in line with my mom and little brother at Disneyland on what was yet another very hot day. I knew we would be there all day, so I wore what was most comfortable: shorts and a tank top. I accounted for the hot weather, but what I hadn’t accounted for were my bra straps. Oh, the shame! How dare the world know that I had boobs? I barely even knew I had boobs at that point. They were nothing more than mosquito bites, but that was enough to cause a stir.
My body was changing and I didn’t quite understand it, except that everything that was happening was utter taboo. I was taught that my boobs were not for what my biology textbooks had claimed but rather for the rest of the world to gawk at and sexualize. And when I allow the world to do that, no one is to blame but me.
As we stood in line on that hot day, my mom caught sight of my bra straps and told me I was dressed like a “h–.” I’ll never forget how that felt, how much I hated her and myself in that moment. I felt belittled down to my breasts and shamed for something I could hardly control.
I don’t know if I’ll sink into my usual routine of indifference and self-blame the next time I’m catcalled on the street, but I can hope that the nature by which other women are raised changes to cease this destructive cycle of internalized sexism.
I love my mother. She’s one of my best friends and a clear example of what women can accomplish. She took me to my first Women’s March and introduced me to many of my greatest feminist idols. She escaped an abusive relationship, raised my older brother as a single mother and started numerous businesses. She’s a shining image of a strong woman, but she’s also dealing with her own internalized sexist ideas of what women can and can’t do.
My mom grew up in the Bible Belt, born and raised in Oklahoma. Her stretch of the Midwest is rancid with patriarchal normativity. Nearly every woman in my mother’s childhood filled one of three occupational roles: teacher, secretary or stay-at-home parent. Of course, nothing is wrong with the paths that many of those women followed, but far too many of them were never encouraged to reach beyond those roles. Complacency flows like water there, and patriarchal roles seem to only become more pervasive. My mother moved away from the Midwest and broke through that glass ceiling of gender roles, but she never fully shed the ideas she was fed.
I have boundless respect for my mother and her accomplishments, but just like myself, she hasn’t shaken the ideas that she was raised with. She took what she was taught and spoon-fed it to me, only for it to manifest and grow into the shame I feed myself.
But she isn’t the only one. Far too many women know what we should do when a woman is inappropriately sexualized, but we don’t always rise to the occasion of upholding feminist messages. Instead, we allow rape culture to manifest. We uphold musicians who groom young girls and produce songs that glorify rape. We give passes to celebrities and athletes who have numerous sexual assault or abuse allegations. We even elected a man into office who made blatant statements about nonconsensual sexual encounters, followed by yet another with multiple sexual assault allegations levied against him.
For women who live in this type of society — one that upholds rape culture — separating those ideals from internalized thoughts becomes seemingly impossible. We diminish our personal experiences and blame ourselves. It’s a slippery slope of wanting to protect ourselves and other women, but it upholds structures of rape culture and leaves room for others to blame women, too. I don’t know if I’ll sink into my usual routine of indifference and self-blame the next time I’m catcalled on the street, but I can hope that the nature by which other women are raised changes to cease this destructive cycle of internalized sexism.