10 Things I Was Told That Turned me into a Feminist

Photo: SO 2013

Photo: SO 2013

It all started with #10: “When I saw you wearing a tank top, you caused me to stumble. Will you please stop wearing tank tops? [ignores my response.] Will you please stop wearing tank tops?” I was a college sophomore moving into my apartment one sticky August day. I worked up a sweat and headed across campus to pick up a refreshing smoothie when I ran into a guy I knew from a campus ministry I was then a part of. We said “hi” briefly and went our own ways. Little did I know he would soon ask to meet to admonish me for wearing a tank top on a breezeless humid day, because it “caused him to stumble.” It took me a minute to realize this meant “getting a boner,” a completely natural body reaction that can happen from many kinds of stimuli; such a reaction, I believe, that shouldn’t cause shame— and DEFINITELY not blame of another human being for the experience. After three attempts of requesting that I not wear tank tops and me explaining that I’d rather not walk around with sweat stains all day, he gave up.

This was my first of many experiences in which I was told what I should, shouldn’t, can or can’t do as a female. Here are 9 others:

9. “This would be so much easier if I were a girl,” he snubbed, clearly frustrated with himself for missing the district cutoff in the 50 freestyle. I was a high school senior, competing in my favorite sport, and couldn’t help but feel the sting of my teammate’s words. We were a co-ed team in which girls and boys completed the same practice, in the same lanes, sorted by speed. In that moment, the respect we built for each other faded into the background, as the words I really heard him say were, “You’re not strong enough. Your bodies are weak. Men’s are so much stronger. Don’t ever forget that.”
8. “You should always say ‘yes’ to a guy who asks you on a date because it took him courage to do so.” Many of these words are from people I met during my Evangelical-ish days (another post entirely…). Though I never agreed with them, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t speak up then. The message that came through was, “Don’t listen to your own voice and feelings- deny them. Show deference to a man’s wishes and requests, even when they go against your own needs or desires.”
7. “You shouldn’t trust anything that bleeds for 5 days.” In full transparency, a man didn’t actually tell me this, but it was on my newsfeed a couple years ago, leaving an awful taste in my mouth that I never addressed. The message I heard was not, “I think this bodily process is gross,” but “YOU are gross. You do something that is grotesque,” as if women willingly choose this for ourselves.
6. “You’re pretty good, I mean for a girl,” he told me after hearing my best swimming times. The message I heard was, “You’re good, but you’re not great.” Good thing I didn’t believe him.
5. “Go ahead, ladies first,” a gentleman said as he held the door open, “Even though Adam was created first.” I debated going into a litany of all that was said to have been created before Adam: light, sky, dry ground, vegetation, plants, trees, moon, sun, bird and sea creatures, land animals, Eve, and all this happened before Jesus, who said, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” clearly showing that hierarchy as usual simply doesn’t exist in the Commonwealth (gender neutral for ‘Kingdom’) of God. The message this man promoted was one of hierarchy, in which men are at the top, and women on the bottom. Instead, his words encouraged my own critical thinking enough to see that if you’re going to use God to promote hierarchy, the argument is null.
4. “I couldn’t let myself get beat by a girl,” a male runner told me after the finish line of a 5k race last year. He beat me by a whopping 45 seconds. The message being sent was that women are less than, infantile, someone who should be easy to win against in a physical challenge due to our smaller body composition, and a man should have enough pride in himself to see that this ‘less-than’ doesn’t out-perform him. Thanks, male allies in my life, for dismantling this message, too.
3. “Girls don’t fart,” He told me. “Oh but I just did,” I responded. Granted, he was “just kidding,” but the message that comes across when you say “girls don’t fart,” is that women can’t be human- and do the bodily things that are an essential part of our human existence.
2. “You should find a guy you love so much that you would want to change your last name.” This is a tough one because it came from a woman I respect. In full disclosure, it wasn’t about the last name: she was pointing out that I wasn’t fully in love with a former partner (which was true at the time). But she knew where I stood with my adamant desire to keep my last name, and the message that was seeping in was, “If you were only more in love, you might be interested in doing something that doesn’t ring true to you.” (Side note: still dissecting this topic from a historical, social, cultural and personal choice perspective. I do not believe there is one “right” or “wrong” way to handle surnames in marriage when mutually discussed and both partners are happy with their decision)
1. “Women are like fine china and men are like sturdy pots,” a male Bible study leader explained. I know, I know— I told you these were my Evangelical-ish days, hence all the Church stories. Sitting in his apartment living room with a wine glass glaring me in the face, being told that’s what my gender is: essentially, fragile, I felt an aloneness and righteous anger that I will never forget. When this Bible study night of oppression was over, I walked out of his apartment, tears warming my eyes, imbued to work twice as hard the next day at swim practice, with each kick of my leg in the pool shouting, “I AM NOT FINE CHINA!”
In the spirit of allyship, this guy came back to me years later to apologize when I wrote a post about how this experience felt. Because I think we all can look back on our actions towards a person of another gender at sometime in our lives and see how we could have been a better ally, understanding how our words impacted another. 

Since the tank top escapade in 2006, I have grown a lot and my voice is stronger, no longer quelled with fear. I’m proud of the freedom I’ve found in a spiritual expression that I can’t codify, the circles I left, the new hands of vibrant shades and hues that my hands have held. The other side of this coin that I’ve found myself on is allyship. Allyship is what happened when a male friend called me out on saying “sorry” too much. Allyship was when I told a male companion why I desired to keep my last name, and he putting himself in my shoes, began to understand a different perspective. Allyship was my male swim coach telling our women’s team, “If you want to go on a date with a guy, ask him for his phone number. Make things happen with your life and don’t wait for them to come to you.” Allyship was male friends sitting down to talk with me about damaging messages they’ve received about manhood, together discussing ways in which we can address the disempowering messages we received as men and women- because once you see how men and women both hurt from societal mores, you almost can’t change one without ripple effecting the other. 

This other side of the coin is beautiful, and it’s taken me a long journey through fear, anger, indignation, and shame to get to this more peaceful, whole place. I’m not done yet. But I’m so grateful to have female and male allies like you by my side lighting this path toward light. Together, we’ll walk, run, bike, dance and high five each other toward mutuality. We can even wear tank tops. 

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1NiWRTc

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1NiWRTc

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