In honor of International Women’s Day, the school where I work put on a brief presentation in the library to discuss issues like gender inequality, violence against women, and discrimination in the workplace. I read an excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay “We Should All Be Feminists,” which was chosen by one of the students putting the event together. I was impressed with the selection because I didn’t know that Adichie’s work was widely read in Spain (although, I’ve been learning recently not to underestimate teenagers). I was truly grateful, and frankly emotional, to be asked to participate.
I have felt a bit lost at times in this new place. I’ve experienced several instances of blatant sexism at this school with the male teachers that I work with every day, which were extremely hurtful and discouraging. And I’ve been made to feel powerless, as no action was taken and nothing has changed. This sense of powerlessness, which I’ve also experienced and dealt with in the US (who hasn’t?), has felt especially heavy here. I’m physically separated from my community, the people who ground me and guide me through difficult times. I’m also immersed in a new culture, one that I’m constantly learning to navigate. When these instances took place my first instinct was to revolt, but I knew I’d better stay quiet, not cause a scene, and accept that this was normal here. I didn’t want to be the American who projected their views on the rest of the world. Instead, I slowly grew accustomed to silence.
So I was happy to be given a voice, however briefly, despite the fact that I knew many of the students wouldn’t understand every word in English. Still, for the first time since I was silenced, I felt heard.
The teacher who spoke after me read a poem that was written last year by a third grader and went viral shortly after it was posted. I remembered it vaguely and was thankful that it was resurfacing at that exact moment. After being on the verge of tears throughout the presentation, it made me laugh and it made me think. It was exactly what I needed.
I will not be eaten.
Food idioms are my favorite (“easy as pie,” “go bananas,” “piece of cake” etc are GREAT), but “sugar, spice, and everything nice” has always made me cringe. As young girls, this seemingly harmless phrase reinforces the expectation that we must act a certain way in order to be deserving of love and respect. Girls will be sugary sweet, and boys will be boys. The worst thing a little girl can be is (gasp) mean. Or assertive. Or (heaven forbid) bossy.
Needless to say, this stays with us for the rest of our lives. I still live the repercussions of it every day. I don’t say what I really think because I don’t want to come off as “bitchy.” I sugarcoat my thoughts and feelings out of fear that they won’t be accepted otherwise. I carefully gauge the impact of my words and the way I dress. I choose my battles because I know I have to. I constantly edit myself, censor who I am and what I believe for the sake of others.
For example, during the last few days of my senior year of college, my boss confessed that she almost didn’t hire me. She was very weary at first. I was shocked, obviously, because I loved my job and thought I had worked hard during the year and a half that I was with her. She elaborated: during my interview, even when discussing topics that I was clearly passionate about and knowledgable on, I phrased all of my responses as questions. The intonation confused her. It made me seem unsure of myself. I had no idea I was doing it, of course, and after a lot of thought I came to the simple realization that I was subconsciously seeking approval every step of the way. I had been taught my whole life to seek approval, and it was manifesting in a very real way in my professional life as an adult.
I’m a big believer that the way forward in the march towards a more equal and safe world for women cannot only focus on the big ticket items like the wage gap. We need to unlearn the small, subtle, pervasive things that have been handed down generation after generation since before women were allowed to vote or have jobs or be anything other than baby-making machines. We need to teach girls that their worth doesn’t depend on their desirability to other people. That they can be sweet or salty or both or neither. That their anger and frustration is justified. That their voice is important.
We are inching towards change, but there is still work to do. I’ve admittedly felt discouraged lately and at times it seems easier to give up, stay silent, and try to get on with my day. What I learned today, listening to my students speak and watching them listen to each other, is that 1) I’m not alone and there are people who are equally outraged, and that 2) I need to find these people, to surround myself with them, listen and share experiences with them because each of us has a story and each story matters.
As you can see, this “rich pie strong with knowledge” is NOT having it anymore and neither am I.