Trigger warning: article contains discussions of sexual assault, which may be a trigger for some readers.
Disclaimer: the author wants to acknowledge and make it known that these are her personal experience. The author would like to acknowledge that other people have other experiences and that no two people are the same.
I remember the first time I learned about sexism. Sat in my catholic elementary English class, my teacher carefully explained that we live in a world where people are excluded from things based on features they cannot change. I remember thinking how strange that was, and how I wasn’t sure what to make of it because I – at 7 years old – believed “it hasn’t happened to me”.
Nowadays that thought rings in my head. It hasn’t happened to me. Of course, for a child, this is a reasonable first reaction, but as I’ve grown up and learned more about the microaggressions and deep-rooted cultural status of sexism, I know that wasn’t true. From the day I was born, I belonged to my father – my last name alone didn’t come from my mother or myself. I was immediately branded as a product and associate of him. I was also dominantly exposed to clothing, toys, attitudes, and interests which pushed me to be caring, tidy, attractive, polite, and focused on makeup, clothes and boys. Meanwhile, my brother roughhoused with his friends, left his toy cars or skateboards around the house, and was allowed to be a little less polite or sweet. This, I should mention, is not a reflection on parenting skills, it was just the time and place. However, like my attitude towards my childhood assumption, the way I’ve experienced sexism has morphed with me – as it does for countless women and young girls. Throughout middle school and high school, I tried my best to be self-aware, understand how sexism played a role in my life, and combat it in any way I could. But it’s not that simple.
It was last September when Emily Ratajkowski – a powerhouse writer, activist, businesswoman, mother, and model published her essay “Buying Myself Back – When Does a Model own Her Own Image” in New York Magazine. I read it, then I read it again, and then one last time before I sat in disbelief at what I’d just consumed. She had described something I had so easily neglected to notice, and so seamlessly. Ratajkowski describes her experience with men feeling like they own her – particularly with a photographer she worked with who created a book of her nude photographs without her permission, and another artist who sold a painting of a screenshot of one of her own Instagram photos. She goes into detail on how she had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy back these images of herself or fight for them to be recognized as her property at all.
This had me tongue-tied. How had the men I’d known exercised that same sentiment on me? How had I missed it? How does it affect women generally? I pondered over ex-boyfriends, father figures, family, friends, and cultural norms all over the world. They all drew me to the same conclusion – there is so much in society that inhibits women from being fully autonomous in so many regards. I thought of my last name again, how fathers give their daughters away at weddings, the various cultures where women and girls are still seen as the property of their fathers and husbands. The boyfriends or men I had dated who made decisions for me, neglected my opinions or treated me like a prize they had won and could parade around to have inappropriate conversations about me with their friends. I thought of my guy friends, whose rage on my behalf at other men who had wronged me was rooted in a sense of ownership to protect me. Or other men who addressed the men I was with at parties before me, and those who spoke for me. The list went on. And unfortunately, so does the amount of women who experience this same sneaky manifestation of misogyny.
I realized, for most of my life, men had practiced the same ownership Emily Ratajkowski had written about, just in the most discreet ways and by way of the values about being a woman I was taught at a young age.
Perhaps the most troubling thought was of all the times I had just gone along with situations where I should’ve said no, or the times sexual coercion put me in a situation where I felt like I owed it to the person I was sleeping with, for whatever reason I had decided was acceptable to put up with that degree of trespassing. Those are the most upsetting because even though many women know the statistic, we don’t want to see ourselves in that 97% of women who have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault. Every time it was someone I knew well or was dating, and the feeling of owing them something just because I knew them became a perfect example of the ownership they exercised on me – which I had unknowingly submitted to.
After I had realized these things – many of which are too personal to discuss in an article – I took some time to myself. I told myself that before I dated again, I had to do some self-reflection and work. I promised myself I would try to be upfront with myself about my needs, boundaries, and feelings. I started having more difficult conversations with my male friends, trying to call out more microaggressions. I started therapy again because I quickly learned this was a part of my life I didn’t want to manage alone. I leaned on the women around me and told my girlfriends about my experiences. I cried I got angry – I even dyed my hair, cut it a few times, and got pierced. Point is, it’s all a work in progress!
I understand this issue is complex, and my experience with it is only one perspective and I don’t have any answers. I do know that by talking about it and sharing that experience, maybe someone else can recognize it in their life. Just as Emily Ratajkowski did for me, I would hope a young woman who reads this is encouraged to think about it for herself – and read Ratajkowski’s essay! I hope more young women keep practicing setting boundaries, asking for respect or just saying no because they want to. The sentiment of ownership can’t thrive if practised on someone who understands the issue and has the awareness and strength to exercise their autonomy. Sure, larger cultural practices are harder to change, and not every manifestation of this issue comes with malice. But the sooner we let and teach women to feel certain in their opinions, make their own choices, understand themselves as their own people, and less dependent or focused on relationships surrounding men’s support (in heterosexual relationships), the better. I’ve always believed in women; I’ve met so many incredible ones and can’t wait to meet more. This is why I have full faith that my generation of women will be less tolerant of such problematic cultural sentiments.
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