image: Shutterstock
image: Shutterstock

There’s this thing that happens whenever I speak about or write about women’s issues. Things like dress codes, rape culture and sexism. I get the comments: Aren’t there more important things to worry about? Is this really that big of a deal? Aren’t you being overly sensitive? Are you sure you’re being rational about this?

Every. Single. Time.

And every single time I get frustrated. Why don’t they get it?

I think I’ve figured out why.

They don’t know.

They don’t know about de-escalation. Minimizing. Quietly acquiescing.

Hell, even though women live it, we are not always aware of it. But we have all done it.

We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable. How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to.

It doesn’t feel good. It feels icky. Dirty. But we do it because to not do it could put us in danger or get us fired or labeled a bitch. So we usually take the path of least precariousness.

It’s not something we talk about every day. We don’t tell our boyfriends and husbands and friends every time it happens. Because it is so frequent, so pervasive, that it has become something we just deal with.

So maybe they don’t know. Maybe they don’t know that at the tender age of 13 we had to brush off adult men staring at our breasts. Maybe they don’t know that men our dad’s ages actually came on to us while we were working the cash register. They probably don’t know that the guy in English class who asked us out sent angry messages just because we turned him down. They may not be aware that our supervisor regularly pats us on the ass. And they surely don’t know that most of the time we smile, with gritted teeth. That we look away or pretend not to notice. They likely have no idea how often these things happen. That these things have become routine. So expected that we hardly notice it anymore.

So routine that we go through the motions of ignoring it and minimizing. Not showing our suppressed anger and fear and frustration. A quick cursory smile or a clipped laugh will  allow us to continue with our day. We de-escalate. We minimize it. Both internally and externally, we minimize it. We have to. To not shrug it off would put is in confrontation mode more often than most of us feel like dealing with.

We learn at a young age how to do this. We didn’t put a name or label to it. We didn’t even consider that other girls were doing the same thing. But we were teaching ourselves, mastering the art of de-escalation. Learning by way of observation and quick risk assessment what our reactions should and shouldn’t be.

We go through a quick mental checklist. Does he seem volatile, angry? Are there other people around? Does he seem reasonable and is just trying to be funny, albeit clueless? Will saying something impact my school/job/reputation? In a matter of seconds we determine whether we will say something or let it slide. Whether we’ll call him out or turn the other way, smile politely or pretend that we didn’t hear/see/feel it.

It happens all the time. And it’s not always clear if the situation is dangerous or benign.

It is the boss who says or does something inappropriate. It is the customer who holds our tip out of reach until we lean over to hug him. It’s the male friend who has had too much to drink and tries to corner us for a “friends with benefits” moment even though we’ve made it clear we’re not interested. It’s the guy who gets angry if we turn him down for a date. Or a dance. Or a drink.

We see it happen to our friends. We see it happen in so many scenarios and instances that it becomes the norm. And we really don’t think anything of it. Until that one time that came close to being a dangerous situation. Until we hear that the “friend” who cornered us was accused of rape a day later. Until our boss makes good on his promise to kiss us on New Years Eve when he catches us alone in the kitchen. Those times stick out. They’re the ones we may tell your friends, our boyfriends, our husbands about.

But all the other times? All the times we felt uneasy or nervous but nothing more happened? Those times we just go about our business and don’t think twice about.

It’s the reality of being a woman in our world.

It’s laughing off sexism because we felt we had no other option.

It’s feeling sick to your stomach that we had to “play along” to get along.

It’s feeling shame and regret the we didn’t call that guy out, the one who seemed intimidating but in hindsight was probably harmless. Probably.

It’s taking our phone out, finger poised over the “Call” button when we’re walking alone at night.

It’s positioning our keys between our fingers in case we need a weapon when walking to our car.

It’s lying and saying we have a boyfriend just so a guy would take “No” for an answer.

It’s being at a crowded bar/concert/insert any crowded event, and having to turn around to look for the jerk who just grabbed our ass.

It’s knowing that even if we spot him, we might not say anything.

It’s walking through the parking lot of a big box store and politely saying Hello when a guy passing us says Hi. It’s pretending not to hear as he berates us for not stopping to talk further. What? You too good to talk to me? You got a problem? Pffft… bitch.

It’s not telling our friends or our parents or our husbands because it’s just a matter of fact, a part of our lives.

It’s the memory that haunts us of that time we were abused, assaulted or raped.

It’s the stories our friends tell us through heartbreaking tears of that time they were abused, assaulted or raped.

It’s realizing that the dangers we perceive every time we have to choose to confront these situations aren’t in our imagination. Because we know too many women who have been abused, assaulted or raped.

It occurred to me recently that a lot of guys may be unaware of this. They have heard of things that happened, they have probably at times seen it and stepped in to stop it. But they likely have no idea how often it happens. That it colors much of what we say or do and how we do it.

Maybe we need to explain it better. Maybe we need to stop ignoring it to ourselves, minimizing it in our own minds.

The guys that shrug off or tune out when a woman talks about sexism in our culture? They’re not bad guys. They just haven’t lived our reality. And we don’t really talk about the everyday stuff that we witness and experience. So how could they know?

So, maybe the good men in our lives have no idea that we deal with this stuff on regular basis.

Maybe it is so much our norm that it didn’t occur to us that we would have to tell them.

It occurred to me that they don’t know the scope of it and they don’t always understand that this is our reality. So, yeah, when I get fired up about a comment someone makes about a girl’s tight dress, they don’t always get it. When I get worked up over the every day sexism I’m seeing and witnessing and watching… when I’m hearing of the things my daughter and her friends are experiencing… they don’t realize it’s the tiny tip of a much bigger iceberg.

Maybe I’m realizing that men can’t be expected to understand how pervasive everyday sexism is if we don’t start telling them and pointing to it when it happens. Maybe I’m starting to realize that men have no idea that even walking into a store women have to be on guard. We have to be aware, subconsciously, of our surroundings and any perceived threats.

Maybe I’m starting to realize that just shrugging it off and not making a big deal about it is not going to help anyone.

We de-escalate.

We are acutely aware of our vulnerability. Aware that if he wanted to? That guy in the Home Depot parking lot could overpower us and do whatever he wants.

Guys, this is what it means to be a woman. We are sexualized before we even understand what that means. We develop into women while our minds are still innocent. We get stares and comments before we can even drive. From adult men. We feel uncomfortable but don’t know what to do, so we go about our lives. We learn at an early age, that to confront every situation that makes us squirm is to possibly put ourselves in danger. We are aware that we are the smaller, physically weaker sex. That boys and men are capable of overpowering us if they choose to. So we minimize and we de-escalate.

So, the next time a woman talks about being cat-called and how it makes her uncomfortable, don’t dismiss her. Listen.

The next time your wife complains about being called “Sweetheart” at work, don’t shrug in apathy. Listen.

The next time you read about or hear a woman call out sexist language, don’t belittle her for doing so. Listen.

The next time your girlfriend tells you that the way a guy talked to her made her feel uncomfortable, don’t shrug it off. Listen.

Listen because your reality is not the same as hers.

Listen because her concerns are valid and not exaggerated or inflated.

Listen because the reality is that she or someone she knows personally has at some point been abused, assaulted, or raped. And she knows that it’s always a danger of happening to her.

Listen because even a simple comment from a strange man can send ripples of fear through her.

Listen because she may be trying to make her experience not be the experience of her daughters.

Listen because nothing bad can ever come from listening.

Just. Listen.

 

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Last year I went to a Parent-Teacher conference with my daughter’s G.T. (Gifted and Talented) teacher. She sang my daughter’s praises. I basked in her glowing words and swelled with pride. Until she said this:

“She’s really good in math. Probably one of my best math students. Even better than the boys in the class.” – said by a real, live teacher. One that teaches kids.

Cue record screech. I immediately snapped to. I wish I could tell you that I questioned this teacher’s perceptions. I wish I could tell you that I pointed out to her that the very statement she meant as a huge compliment was in itself sexist. But I didn’t. I muttered something along the lines of “She’s always been a natural at math,” and something about “number sense.”

My daughter doesn’t think she’s good at math. She thinks it’s her worst subject.

We’ve tried to remedy this. We’ve tried to give her confidence in all areas and avoid the trap of focusing primarily on her beauty. We try to shine a light on her strengths as much as we can.

But I worry it’s not enough.

I worry it’s not enough because in spite of what we might say or the encouragement we might offer, she’s receiving a message from all around her that is much larger. She’s absorbing the myth.

The myth that boys are better at math and science. The myth that her brain is not built for science or technology or engineering or math (STEM).

It’s an idea that has been around for centuries. That nature (gender) determines a person’s cognitive strengths or weaknesses. That girls are better at reading and writing. Boys are naturally better at math and science.

Wrong.

Researchers are speaking up and coming out against these misguided ideas. Scientists have refuted what they are referring to as junk science or the  psuedeo-science of neuro-sexism.

There is no difference between the brains of girls and boys. There is only individual differences. These are not based on gender. Or race. Or social class.

Signs are pointing to nurture playing a bigger role in girls’ attitudes towards STEM.

Girls often start off liking math and science. In elementary school 66% of girls say they are good in math. By high school that number drops to 18%. Girls are not showing up in STEM in high school and college.

And that is a problem.

According to recent studies, confidence is key when it comes to girls pursuing math and science.

Some factors that affect girls’ confidence in these subjects:

The soft-sexism of low expectations: The attitudes and assumptions of parents. Of teachers. Without even realizing it we are perpetuating the false notion of girls’ weakness in these subjects. It’s in the things we say to girls (as evidenced by my daughter’s well-meaning teacher). It’s pervasive.

In studies, teachers have shown a bias in how they grade students in math based on gender. When asked to indicate their gender on tests, girls are shown to score 20% lower. Teachers have been shown to discourage girls from pursuing higher levels of math and science while encouraging boys. When girls’ grades are lower they conclude that they are not smart. And what people think, especially people that girls look up to, influences the way girls perceive themselves.

STEMStereotypes

 

(My daughter’s school inexplicably took Science out of the GT program and replaced it with Language Arts. Baffling considering that STEM job growth is outpacing the rest of the economy by 300%).

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The Politeness Trap. Girls are taught first and foremost to be good. To be polite. And yes, boys are often taught these lessons. But there is a premium on politeness in girls and being sweet and “lady-like” that teaches them to lower their voice, to not interrupt, to defer when someone else is talking. “Boys will be boys” is often cited as an excuse for behavior that would not be excused so easily for girls. Boys are taught to be bold, assertive, independent. If at times they are loud and interrupt, so be it. The result is girls being silenced or not heard. In the classroom especially.

Perfectionism. Girls in our society are raised to be pleasers. Our society has always looked to the women to be the nurturers. They will be the caretakers. Then there’s the pressure to look a certain way. How you dress matters. Looking cute matters. There is infinitely more pressure on girls in this area than boys. Boys don’t have to sit still to have their hair braided. Boys don’t have to worry about dirtying their cute outfit or losing their hair bow. This is so much a part of our culture that we don’t even realize that these things are being absorbed and registered by girls at a very young age. It is imprinting on their brains. It is affecting their sense of self.

Perfect has no place in math and science. Hand writing can be perfect. Speech and reading can be perfect. But math and science rely on failure. Trial and error. If a child is under pressure in so many other areas it is logical that the idea of “freedom to fail” is contradictory to everything else they learn. The “error” portion of trial and error or developing a hypothesis that may be proven wrong are antithetical to so many things that girls are taught.

(This video powerfully illustrates how we are doing a disservice to our girls every day.)

All of these things add up to girls hearing the message loud and clear. Science and math are not their “natural” habitat. All of these things should make you angry. We have been boxing our daughters into a corner of limited options by our willingness to buy into these prejudices. By our ignorance and obliviousness to all of the things we say and do, all of the things they see and hear, all around them, from the day they are born. This makes me angry. Angry at myself for not realizing it sooner. Angry that I have been unknowingly guilty of buying into an ignorant and outdated mindset. Angry that our society still operates under archaic assumptions.

It’s time to un-learn what we’ve been told. It’s time to pay attention to the messages we’re sending. We need to take the pressure off of girls to be “perfect” and “polite” and “nice.” We have to stop quibbling over whether “bossy” is a bad word and simply allow girls to express themselves loudly and boldly and without apology.

Attempts are being made to bring more girls to STEM. There are initiatives and campaigns directed at motivating girls and encouraging them. But I worry that this will be a whisper under the roar of long held ideas about gender and socialization. Confidence is key. The question is how do we unlock it? 

What obstacles do you think stand in the way of girls pursuing STEM subjects and careers? What are your personal experiences with science and math? What do you think can be done to change this trend?

 

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Getty Images

School is fraught with all kinds of issues. Standardized tests to pass, social and behavioral issues to navigate. Bullying. And clothes. Don’t forget the clothes.

Apparently clothes are a big danger to our children. Specifically our boys. Well, not just clothes. But the girls who wear them. Their bodies and the clothes that they put on them are a distraction to our boys.

This is what the dress codes in many schools imply. It’s also what is frequently cited as justification for singling out girls in violation of dress codes.

As the new school year begins, social media is once again flooded with pictures of girls who were sent home or forced to change clothes. In one notable incident, a girl was instructed to put a scarf on to cover her collarbone. Yes. Because now collarbones are provocative too. The Principal’s statement in regards to this incident?

“Certain outfits that [female students] wore created this situation where guys would make inappropriate statements, and there was a distraction to the learning environment based on what some of the folks were wearing at school.

This man who -is paid to lead and teach young people- just blamed the girls at his school for the inappropriate behavior of some “guys.” Let that sink in for a minute.

Last year we had the younger generation schooling administrators on the sexism in the school dress code policies. There were the yoga pant clad students carrying signs to school that read “Are My Pants Lowering Your Test Scores?” There were the middle schoolers in New Jersey who got #IAmMoreThanADistraction trending.

What these girls were pointing out with their civil disobedience was a glaring issue facing school aged girls all over our country.

Dress codes sexualize young girls.

The bulk of school dress codes are aimed at girls. No tank tops or spaghetti straps. No exposed shoulders. No cleavage. No tight fighting yoga pants or leggings.

Girls are being singled out at school. They are made to line up and pass “fingertip tests”  when wearing shorts and skirts. We’ve seen a School Superintendent refer to girls dressed immodestly as skanks. My own daughter was forced to wear a cardigan from the school Lost and Found because she was wearing a sundress. In the 1st Grade. This is a problem.

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All of this sends a clear message to our young girls. They are being told that walking around in their bodies is too much for boys to handle. They are being told that they will give boys impure thoughts. That they’re very existence, unless covered appropriately, is responsible for other student’s education and behavior.

These girls are being embarrassed.

Shamed.

Sexualized.

Objectified.

It’s a story as old as time. Women and girls bear the burden of covering up. Women are walking temptations. Victorian times had women covering their ankles. Some religions require women to swim in full length dresses. Some tout the phrase “Modest is hottest.” The irony in that phrase is worthy of 1000 words unto itself.

But girls are fighting back. These young girls are reminding everyone that they are more than their bodies. That their bodies serve real practical functions, amazing feats, power and strength. Their bodies are more than objects to be ogled.

And let’s not forget. These are young girls. These are girls just trying to understand their growing bodies. These are girls going through puberty much sooner than previous generations. These are girls just trying to dress comfortably or maybe fashionably.

Let’s try to remember that these are growing girls who’s bodies change overnight. The skirt that fit last week might be noticeably shorter this week. The shirt that wasn’t tight last month might show cleavage this month. Let’s remember how hard it is to go through these teen years with ever changing bodies and moods and temperaments. And let’s acknowledge that girls who are more physically developed than their peers are getting called out more often.

Let’s remember that these are girls.

They are not trying to seduce.

They are trying to learn.

They are not aiming to distract.

They are usually trying to fit in and fly under the radar.

They don’t view their bodies as sexual. They don’t think of their bodies as a means to produce “impure thoughts.” Not until you suggest it, imply it, or outright state it as you wave your sacred dress code in their confused faces.

Many of us rail against objectification of women in media. Many of us rant about the sexualization of women’s bodies and how that contributes to rape culture.

Yet, we’re letting it happen in our schools. To our young girls. By people we pay to educate them.

What effect is this having on our girls? Well, we’re teaching them young. We’re teaching them that society will view them as sexual even as they try to learn.

But what about the boys? Exactly. We’re not giving boys much credit. These policies tell them that they are easily distracted. They tell them that they have little or no self control. They imply that they shouldn’t even try to have self control. It’s also suggesting ideas that may not have been a part of their mindset to begin with. 

A bra strap is not going to send them into a dizzying flurry of hormones that will render them unable to be educated. Leggings or yoga pants or any tight pants are not going to cause such a distraction that they won’t be able to function. No. But do you know what does cause that kind of disruption and distraction? Singling the girls out.

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photo: so basicallylindsayjones.tumblr.com

We’re sending our kids off to school, entrusting teachers and administrators with educating them. We want our kids to learn to follow rules. To show respect. To respect the educators. To respect others. To respect themselves.

I’m not so sure that these dress codes are serving that purpose so well. Maybe it’s time for the school dress code policies to grow up.

We need to remind our schools. These girls are more than their physical appearance. They are more than temptations. They are more than distractions. By the looks of these protests, they are much more. They are a force to be reckoned with.

This is the Sixth in our Feminist Friday series, a collaborative effort with Gene’O (@Sourcererblog) and Diana (@parttimemonster) and Natacha Guyot (@natachaguyot) We’ve had some interesting, thoughtful, lively discussions over the last month. To see a roundup of the last five weeks’ discussions, check out Gene’O’s summary here. 

This week I have the honor of hosting our topic and discussion. We will be delving into the issues surrounding female body image. The comment thread is open to any and all who want to participate. If you have thoughts or ideas, please chime in!

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Male Body Image vs Female Body Image

Louis CK is so brave. He is, really. He gets up on stage, he puts himself in front of the tv cameras. He does it even though he doesn’t have the rock hard abs of other actors. He is breaking ground… This sounds ridiculous, right? That’s because it is. To think that someone as funny and talented as Louis CK should hesitate to share his art with the world just because he doesn’t look like a Greek god, well that would be crazy. Yet this is the very attitude that has greeted talents like Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling. They are breaking ground with their bodies. Never mind their brilliant minds that write, produce and act. Even for those women who have achieved status and recognition, it all eventually comes down to their body.

Insanity. 

Is it any wonder that women struggle with their body image? The standards of beauty for women in our society trumps their intellect, their knowledge, their accomplishments. Hilary Clinton was derided when she started going without makeup and contacts while serving as the most travelled Secretary of State. Lena Dunham gets shamed for galavanting around nude on her show. She played ping pong. Naked. The horror! Mindy Kaling causes a stir when she says she doesn’t want to be skinny. Both women have been scorned for showing up on t.v. with atypical Hollywood bodies. And both have been hailed as heroes for showing up on t.v. with atypical Hollywood bodies. They are unapologetic about how they look. And that has people taking notice.

I applaud Lena Dunham’s attempt to “normalize” her body type (which is, in fact, NORMAL). But how sick is it that a woman showing a “less than ideal” body on t.v. is heroic? This is where we’re at, people. Being not model thin and having the audacity to show yourself is heroic. The standards of the female form have become so ingrained in us that we have all bought into it. We now see people like Dunham and Kaling and applaud them. We are applauding them for being. For walking around on this earth as themselves. Because they aren’t tall and thin. And that, my friends, is ‘effed up.

This all trickles down. Seeing women in the media being discussed in this way is absorbed by all of us. By our kids. We have become so accustomed to women twisting themselves literally and figuratively into a pretzel to try to fit into an unattainable ideal. And when we see these successful women not contorting themselves it’s kind of shocking.

The Flip Side.

The endless stream of images. We’re inundated with them. The magazines. The t.v. shows. The singers. The actors. We see before us  parades of women who have that perfect form. They pose in bikinis mere months after giving birth. They seem to be impervious to the changing female body that grows and expands and evolves as we age. So we look at that and think what’s wrong with me?

Dieting. Binging. Starving. Weight loss pills. These are the things many women resort to. Living a normal healthy lifestyle will not give most of us the model’s body. It is estimated that only 5 percent of women in the U.S. have the type of body that is shoved in our faces every day. And even they get airbrushed because “perfect” isn’t perfect enough.

So, here are some facts to chew on…

Our bodies?

Are they in fact our bodies? Is their purpose to carry us through life, to carry children? Then why is so much importance placed on how the female body looks? If it is exposed, it must be to titillate, no?  Our society thinks it owns our bodies. It tells us how we should look. What we should or shouldn’t do with our bodies. What we can and can’t do with our bodies. Even the most utilitarian female body part- our breasts- have been co-opted. The body part whose sole purpose is to nourish a baby, has been sexualized to the point that women are shamed for feeding their baby in public. Our society, our media, is screaming at us “How dare you walk around looking anything but sexy and enticing and appealing? How dare you show a body part for any reason other than the pleasure of others?” We do own our bodies. But our culture hasn’t gotten that memo.

The Pressure.

It’s enormous. Many of us feel defeated before we even exit puberty. We have been set up for failure by the expectations placed squarely on the shoulders and psyches of every woman growing up in Western society. I have seen friends, friends with beautiful curvy bodies, feel less than because of their natural shape. Most people can’t climb Mt. Everest. Only a small percentage reach the peak. So must of us don’t try, don’t even consider it something we should do. But women are trying to climb this steep rocky beast, the monster that is the “perfect body”.” And most of us will fail. Some of us will die. And some of us will make it…  approximately 5 percent of us.

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And now, the questions…

It starts young. Girls are dieting earlier. What changes can be made to affect this growing trend?

How has social media affected female body image perceptions?

Why do you think the “ideal” body image has changed from the full figured, voluptuous woman to the “ideal” standards of thin that we see today?

Why does the media and society at large, put much more importance and emphasis on the female body vs the male body?

How much negative self image is passed down?