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I have a pretty good memory. Over the years, it’s dulled a bit but I still have the uncanny ability to recall what I was doing on any given weekend over the past 14 years or what day of the week a certain date was (i.e., 10/1/2001 was a Monday). I know that for all you know I could’ve just looked that up but I didn’t, I swear. Okay… I did, but only to double-check, after I’d already written it was a Monday. I mean, how embarrassing would it be to get that wrong …on the internet … while talking about how good my memory is? But anyways, I guess you’ll just have to trust me that I was able to remember that right away and only relied on the internet to ensure a lack of self-humiliation.
Anyways, my point is I have a good memory and as a result, I remember significant chunks of my childhood. In many ways, this is a wonderful gift. For instance, I can remember in vivid detail the “fort” my sister and I created in the woods behind our house. I remember that we “built” it under a fallen pine tree that’s reddening needles and dry bark served as a roof. I remember leaving silly things in this fort, like a snap bracelet that I coiled around a twig to make my fort feel more like home. A more time-specific memory I have is one day in the third grade when a snowstorm struck in the early afternoon. I was sitting at my desk, watching the big, thick flakes settle and pile on to the pine trees outside the classroom window. I remember the boy and girl who sat in awe with me. I remember the feeling of excitement and the unrecognized carefree feelings of watching snow fall without the concerns of ‘how am I going to get home?’ ‘what will the roads be like?’
Sure lot’s of people have distinct childhood memories. But I don’t have only a few. I have a library filled with hundreds of them, complete with a chronological catalog system that I can use to conjure memories from any given part of my childhood. And many of them are lovely.
But some are not. I remember very well what it was like to grow up as a girl in a misogynistic culture. I was very privileged but I still have memories that sting and I recall an overall awareness that I was presumed to be less than. Women are weak, men are strong. That’s one message that sticks with me. I heard many adults in my life say this is only in regards to physical strength, particularly upper body strength, but as a child whose brain was developing and was quite concrete, all I heard was that I was weak, I was less. I also was acutely aware that though this was only supposed to be applied to physical strength, it ended up carrying over into other characteristics too. Like women can’t handle pain, women can’t handle stress, women can’t do math, women can’t, can’t and it slowly became I can’t, can’t, can’t. It was mind-boggling, really. I felt that I was normal and capable and I certainly girls and women in my life that way and yet society kept telling me that because I was a girl, I was less. These messages were reinforced by my parents sometimes and so, I came to doubt my capability.
I remember hearing a woman on TV making a speech about how hard it is to be a woman. I didn’t understand why, I was probably 8 or 9 years old and I wondered to myself, ‘why is being who I am so awful?’ and a feeling of dread filled my stomach. Movies and TV shows that I saw in later elementary school were very much written from a male-perspective, especially when it came to dating and anything sexual. You may wonder what types of movies my parents let me watch. But even in PG movies, like in the family comedy Hocus Pocus there’s a line about a high school boy liking a girl’s boobs. I didn’t have my own boobs yet when I first saw this film and yet I already knew that they were equated with attraction and that society would view me and my future boobs as being there for someone else’s enjoyment, not my own… and there are countless examples like that and it did feel very personal and it did impact me on a very personal level. These instances taught me to see sex from a straight guy’s perspective and as I got older, to feel turned on when a guy was attracted to me and focus less on what attracted me to certain guys. But the fact is even though I now understand patriarchy and the ways in which our identities and sexualities are social constructs, these notions still live deep inside me and they still impact me on a daily basis.
From watching PG-rated movies (like Hocus Pocus) to watching family shows like Home Improvement, I came to see girls, women and myself as unimportant, disposable and that men could make fun of us, look at us, talk about us however they wanted and there was little we could do about it. It was depressing. And even at age 9, I’d look to my female peers and adult women in solidarity, recognizing that we were some sort of societal other. Would I have used those terms? Absolutely not. But I remember the feelings of shame and disappointment and that those feelings, among others, still surface for me.
Messages about women are flung at all of us, girls and boys, from the moment we’re born. And these messages are sometimes pretty vile. This is not a situation where as a woman (or any oppressed group), you can just chose to not watch a sexist show or read a sexist book because our world is covered with sexism and try as you might, you don’t can’t avoid it. Straight, white men have the choice to not read or watch things that belittle them because there are so few examples and even the ones that exist do not carry the same weight. Not that I’d want them to carry the same weight. I’m just saying that for women and all oppressed people, this is not a black and white, take it or leave it issue. Issues of sexism are ones people can’t escape and ones that impact our sense of self whether we want it to or not, or whether we realize it or not.
This is why we need a cultural change. Because saying “like a girl” as an insult is not a joke or an insignificant saying to the six year-old who hears it repeatedly as she grows up and becomes a woman who was told from the get-go that she is less valuable than a male. As adults, we need to treat women with respect and equality so the women in this world come to feel it and so that the girls and other genders don’t ever see their gender as anything but positive and of value.
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