As an avid gym-goer and self-critic my time in the gym lifting weights is essential to my mental and physical health. I spend hours of my week lifting to become stronger and more capable in my own eyes. I am my own competition, I constantly push myself to my limits in order to set personal records. Being critical of myself is in my nature after dancing for almost 15 years of my life, despite the amount of criticism I receive from others besides myself. Needless to say I work hard to improve myself, but that isn’t only in the gym. At my restaurant job, where I have worked for three years, I bust my butt to make sure I’m on top of my responsibilities. I make sure every customer is satisfied and live by the saying “the customer is always right” even when the majority of them are so wrong it hurts. But, no matter what, I am expected to stay the sweet, happy, unproblematic front counter girl. If I’m not, it makes people uncomfortable. Many times I get called “sweetie” or “honey” and I can do nothing but smile back at customers when what I really want to do is demand respect at the top of my lungs. I’m aware that most people don’t mean anything bad by calling me those things, but when I hear my male coworkers being called “boss” or “man” or even “my friend” I don’t understand why I get called names that put me lower than them. Even though I’m almost 20 years old, I am still treated like a child, especially by male customers. My boss is not different from those middle-aged men. She belittles me in ways that she doesn’t even realize are offensive. I remember being a hostess at that same restaurant, and having to move tables around to set reservations. I was always a strong girl, being an athlete most of my life, but she always preferred boys to do the work. My older coworker said to me “She’s just traditional, she would rather the boys move tables and girls seat people” as if it would make me feel better about myself. Actually, it made me feel worse, but it also made me think. Why would you blame your “traditional” personality on being sexist? Girls can lift and boys can cry, end of story. Who cares who moves the tables as long as the job gets done? I don’t understand why people have a preference for heavy lifting or cooking, I was raised where the chores were all split equally, not by gender normatives.
This was the point in my life where my feminism started to shine through. Plus, our country had just elected the most misogynistic man in the spotlight, at least in my opinion. He was so openly sexist and biased during his presidency it actually shocks me to this day how people could support such a person, but come to think of it, America runs on capitalism and the constant competition between each other. As Americans, we tend to have this need to compete with one another, an effect of the attention economy highlighted by Jenny Odell. In order to feel successful, we need to visualize ourselves on top or beating the competition. It is exhausting, but we still do it out of a sense of satisfaction. We even wrap ourselves around the idea of a “weaker sex” in order to make the “competition” less strenuous. Some men think they are stronger and more powerful than women, and they use this sense of superiority against women in order to assert their dominance. Conforming to “traditional” sexism is just the same as cheering on misogynists in the twenty-first century. In order to preserve and protect women’s rights, we all must slowly ease ourselves out of the misogyny of our past as a country.
Approaching every situation with an open and unbiased mind is the best way to stop the pattern of sexism. Realizing that girls are strong and boys can cry is just the start. Realizing that men are abused in the same ways as women is a very important part of the equality between men and women. Women are the stigma for victims of sexual assault, but it is important to note that one in every ten rape victims are male. They are not seen as widely as women, probably because one out of every six women is a victim of attempted rape. Why does society not give the same attention to male victims? Men are expected and perceived as strong and tough with a hard exterior that is difficult to break. When the general public sees a broken man who had his dignity forcefully taken away from him, it makes them uncomfortable, therefore causing them to ignore the men in this world who have been broken. Male emotions have a stigma, created by other men, of being unattractive or weak, when vulnerability is actually extremely strong and empowering. Abused men are not weak, and those who speak up about their abuse are especially strong. It takes real courage to tell your story, especially when the whole world expects you to have a hard outer shell. When you choose to break that stigma, you are taking a step forward into a future without stereotypes and sexism. Society chooses to see women as the majority of sexual assault victims not only because of statistics, but because they are already perceived as weaker than men. If both biological sexes were considered equal in their strengths, I can almost guarantee more men would be willing to speak up against their own sexual assault and share their stories in order to educate and protect those fortunate enough to not walk in their shoes.
I never really knew all of the parameters of sexual assault until I was 16 in my high school health class. When learning about abusive relationships, the discussion of sexual assault came through and my class learned what really defined sexual assault. I remember not understanding why those parameters resonated with me, but it touched me in a way that triggered a fight-or-flight response in me. I became anxious, sweaty, and defensive every time we had a conversation about sexual assault in health class. It even got to the point where I dreaded going to class and would sit in the nurse’s office in order to avoid my own feelings of panic. I pushed my feelings down even more during my junior year when I started seeing a therapist. Even then, it took me a year to really come to terms with the fact that I was sexually assaulted in my childhood. At eight years old, I had my innocence and my freedom taken away from me, and what hurts the most is I remember thinking that I did something wrong. I thought it was my fault because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and didn’t know how to defend myself at all. After sharing my story with several friends, I realized how common assault against females actually is. I compared discussing our experiences of assault like discussing our menstrual cycles: it is something that happens to most (if not all) women, and it is just something we have to come to terms with. The last thing I want to do is normalize my completely abnormal experience. I cannot fathom how many women who have been assaulted in their lifetime, let alone the ones who are too frightened to share their stories. My experiences as a sexual assault victim pushed me to become a stronger woman and an active feminist. They almost shoved me into being a sexual assault advocate, because I feel as if me speaking out can help prevent it happening to other women too… Not just women, girls especially.
Halsey brings to light some of her personal stories and speaks for those who are forced into silence. In her poem “A Story Like Mine” spoken at the 2018 Women’s March in New York City, “be a voice for all those who have prisoner tongues” has been an inspiration for me to come out and tell my story. I heard this speech for the first time around when I truly realized I was sexually assaulted, and it approached me with a question: Will you be a voice, or will you be silent? I had a choice in whether I wanted to be imprisoned or empowered by my own unfortunate experience, and I chose to “yell at the top of [my] lungs” in my own time, because of course that courage does not come immediately. It’s important to remember that when approaching victims of sexual assault. Questioning women on their choice to speak out about their experiences only pushes others deeper into hiding about their abuse or assault. Speaking out is hard, but with people like Halsey who have great media presence, it can make a difference in empowering women to come out of hiding and be free of their hurtful experiences.
Similar to Odell, I use my story as a sort of segue into who I am. The experiences that I have had in my life, especially this one, shaped me into who I am today. Without my series of unfortunate events, I would not have come out the strong and motivated woman writing this piece. Odell’s writing emphasizes the importance of an interesting story and how it connects to the bigger ideas in her mind. If you take another look at it, her writing techniques are very similar to life and the events that occur. These defining moments shape your identity and how you define yourself. They influence your values, future actions, and the nature of your relationships. These small stories create a ripple effect that touches you to your core, whether you realize it or not. Odell shares her stories to lead into her viewpoint, and her readers can see how her life experiences pushed her to pursue her writing in this style.
I want people to hear my story and be aware that you can use your experiences to better yourself as well as motivate yourself to find something you are truly passionate about. I love empowering women in any way I can and I feel it gives me more confidence, which women in American society generally lack in the twenty-first century. Women who reclaim their power through gender identity, activism, and service work feel stronger in their sense of self. Once they see one woman reclaim their power, they feel less alone in reclaiming theirs. Feminism is a misunderstood concept, being portrayed as the extremists through social media and press. Society sees radical feminists and categorizes all feminists into this violent, hateful box. It is human nature to create “categories” in order to make sense of reality, but this can backfire very quickly. Even regarding Halsey’s speech, I came across a link with the title “Halsey’s Anti Trump Speech” when she says one line about Donald Trump in the entire five minutes she’s on stage. People categorized her as anti-Trump because she called him out, saying “not one fucking word from the man who is president”. All she did was acknowledge the fact that Trump was completely silent in all of his sexual assault allegations, and now her entire speech has been overlooked and plastered with and anti-Trump label. This is so hurtful to victims of sexual assault and Halsey herself because her speech was solely about being a voice for the wounded and not about politics. But, with media being easily accessible, anyone can manipulate opinions to fit a category they deem appropriate. Even in Odell’s How to Do Nothing she briefly mentions Trump’s election, which can be pushed into the category as anti-Trump. You could even throw this essay in there if you wanted to, since I mention him so much, but you would be missing the point. My writing is not about him, it’s about the stigma behind gender roles, feminism, and sexual assault, and you would just be proving my point. Odell’s mention of intense social media usage has poisoned the minds of everyone around us to make assumptions about what they think is being said, not actually what is being said. You can edit anything you want, add a caption, and claim someone is saying something they completely did not mean. Loosely monitored media is the kindle for the fire of assumption, and it makes not only the assumer look unintelligent, but it can create a false profile for the person the assumption is being made about.
My identity is shaped by my experiences, as many people’s is, and prior to reflecting on that to write this piece, I really had no idea how much of my assault is in my personality today. The things I am bothered by in my place of work stem from the misogyny and lack of control I experienced at eight years old. Since I obviously didn’t have the brain development to process my trauma, I forgot about that day for a long time and drowned myself in the issues of my current life at the time. Even so, I came to a roadblock when I had to learn about sensitive topics in an already awkward class. I came to the realization that I had been taken advantage of, and instead of approaching that calmly and maturely, I pushed it down. Once I saw Halsey’s speech on Twitter for the first time, just months after Donald Trump’s election, I decided to take a stand when I was ready. I knew that if I wanted to come out about my story, I had to do it strong and hard. I needed to be bulletproof against the guns of questioning, because I know my truth. I am molded by my morals that root from my experience, and my role models are those who share similar ideals but have platforms that reach millions. You can take whatever you want from this piece, but my choice to share my story is just that: my choice. You can perceive it however you want, but this is my truth: my assault pushed me to be the women’s rights activist I am today, and nothing or nobody can take that away from me. To me, that is empowerment.
Odell, Jenny. How to Do Nothing. Brooklyn: Melville, 2019.
Halsey. “A Story Like Mine.” Women’s March, 20 Jan. 2018. New York City, NY, Speech.