“She’s such a pretty little thing.”
The girl was nine.
“She’s going to break hearts when she’s legal.”
The girl was fifteen.
“Baby, why not give us a smile?”
The girl was seventeen.
“You can either be smart or sexy. Choose one.”
The woman was twenty.
“Isn’t that body too sexy for politics?”
The woman was twenty-eight.
Every single girl in this world evolves into a woman. She is unique. She is beautiful. She is the sole creation with her own individual characteristics. But every single woman in this world has been objectified, been seen as something for the taking, and has been viewed as less than a person and more of a nuisance. She has been subjected to hearing taunting words and objectifying comments, from birth into today. She has been forced in front of a mirror, instructed to compare herself to other women, and been taught to measure her value with whatever she sees in that fateful mirror. She has grown up in a world that has valued women’s bodies over their minds, denigrated their accomplishments and attacked their power, and has taught her how to avoid the reality all women face.
This is a nuanced reality. It is a reality where one in three women experience sexual assault in their lifetime. A reality where women’s accomplishments are celebrated if they are confined within traditional gender roles. It is a reality where a woman must consider if the clothes she puts on now may be seen as “tempting” later. It is a reality overflowing with gender expectations, danger, and taunts.
The taunts are especially endless. We are called “sluts,” for either being provocative or unapologetic. We are called “bitches,” for either having a simple opinion or telling the truth. We are called “ugly” for wearing whatever we desire, displaying our bodies proudly, and being outside of the narrow spectrum of what society has deemed “beautiful.” We are called “whores” for engaging in the simple expression of human affection, and owning our sexuality. When we are complicated, we are called “messy.” When we are confident, we are called “arrogant.” When we are powerful, we are called “boring.”
And the taunts are just the echoes in the metaphorical room every woman is confined in. She is brought into this room with nothing but a mirror from a tender, young age. This mirror teaches her to equate her value with how she appears, instructs her to zip her mouth, and minimizes the possibilities of her character. It tells her: You cannot be both sexy and dignified. You cannot be both selfish and selfless. You cannot be both soft and fierce. You cannot be both beautiful and a nightmare. It restricts the nuance of her character in every single stretch of her being.
But the taunts and restrictions are but the ostensible surface layer of the reality of being a woman. Because underneath the cruel words lies the deep scarring from a world unapologetically treacherous for a woman. I speak of realities that are evident in statistics. Of all the women murdered in the US, around one-third were reportedly killed by an intimate partner. Women in the US experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year. Young women, low-income women and some minorities are especially vulnerable, making up a disproportionately large part of survivors of domestic violence and rape (1). Ask any woman, and you’ll realize that most of us are no stranger to sexual violence, those taking without our consent, and those refusing to listen to us when we do come forward. This is the perpetually vicious reality women face, society barely acknowledges, and, even more concerning, never pauses to consider the effects this reality has on women.
I know this reality intimately. I have been groped on the T, and said nothing to avoid calling any attention. I have had the clothes ripped from my body, my lungs frozen in fear. I have been terrified walking home, encountering a group of drunken men whose calls I pretend to not have heard. I have been roughly pushed against a wall by someone much stronger than me, my breaths skipping oxygen. I have been touched without my consent, threatened, bullied, and am often terrified in a world so seemingly cruel to its women. I have cried myself to sleep at the unfairness of the mark left on me and not my aggressor.
And I have also encountered those men who have always asked if it’s okay to touch me. The men who inquire if I’m okay with everything they’re doing. The men who tell me to let them know if I am uncomfortable with anything. I want to make this a very clear distinction: men who truly hurt and take without consent have been comparatively few in my encounters, but they have undeniably left a mark.
It’s a mark that reveals itself in small things; I jump when I experience a sudden touch—something as simple as a hand on my shoulder—expecting it to be for the purpose of hurting me. I cannot handle when people scream at each other—my anxiety rears its ugly head—the shouts and echoes leading me back to a place where I was scared and helpless. I can count on one hand the number of men I truly trust in the world. I am desperately terrified of relationships because I irrationally fear that my partner might one day become verbally and physically violent towards me. I invest so much of my time and energy into projects and success as a way to avoid being “emotionally available” for a relationship. I avoid any possibility of a man knocking on the door to my soul, requesting entrance, so as to prevent him from witnessing the black tsunami I have raging inside. I have drunk myself nigh dead into the depths of caution, losing myself in the inhibitions of distrust.
Do we talk about the effects of these harsh realities that women are entombed in? We don’t. We ignore this conversation, treading lightly for foolish reasons. We do, however, continue to force the confining mirror of what the proper woman is onto women everywhere, causing their real, true self to bend and break and shatter. We do, however, call out to a woman to give us a smile as she unassumingly walks by. We tell women that they are not allowed to be angry or tired or anything that is outside the confines of that awful mirror.
We teach but we never understand.
We listen but we never hear.
We witness but we never see.
So no. No, I won’t smile. I won’t bend. And I certainly won’t break. I am angry at the inherent bias against women. I am tired of the higher expectations that are ingrained into women. I am so, so tired of hungering for intimacy and being too scared to engage in it. I am exhausted from being so convinced that I will inevitably get hurt in a relationship.
I am confident. I am unapologetically selfish. I am remorselessly ambitious.
I do not forgive. I relish power. I revel in successes.
I dance as if I have no audience.
I am everything the mirror has taught me not to be.
A beautiful nightmare.
And every woman in the world can be one too.