We’re sitting in a basement. Some of the guys are stoned, some nursing beers. I’m leaning back in my chair, legs uncrossed, in all-black clothing. I haven’t spoken much, but just enough to fulfill my role as the only girl in the room. I laugh a lot, maybe too much. I contribute to the conversation when I can. I’m comfortable, as I always have been in groups of guys.
One guy who I’d just met, is belligerently drunk. He talks of a waitress he saw at a diner earlier that week.
“You’ve gotta see her,” he tells us. “She’s so fucking hot.”
Once he feels everyone is paying attention, he elaborates: “she’s kind of worn out and really skinny, dude. Like really skinny.”
His eager tone is apparent. He’s desperate to describe her body like it’s his own. To him, physical attraction equates with possession: if his friends agree that she is “fuckable,” it is he who will feel flattered and complimented.
One of the guys asks how skinny “really skinny” is, to which he replies “I’d break her with my dick.”
The shock and quiet in the room was surreal. I am instantly nauseated and infuriated. I already argued with him earlier that day over an anti-Semitic comment and again for being obnoxious and rude to a cashier. And yet, even though this is the most personally offensive thing he’s said all day, I am silent.
I feel multiple pairs of eyes turn to me, all of them embarrassed and uncomfortable. But no one speaks: it’s as if the comment is only offensive because there is a woman present and therefore I, the one woman in the room, am responsible for rebuking him. I wonder if I wasn’t here, the room wouldn’t be so quiet.
I can only muster a fiery glare. He does not see me, nor look in my direction.
“Woah, dude,” says one of guys, breaking the silence. “That’s a little much.”
The loudmouth defends his point in garbled, tense, defensive sentences without any acknowledgement of the harm he’s done.
After years of often having more male friends than female, I learned the expectations of being a “bro.” I got along well with my guy friends, and had one consistent responsibility: to confirm their complaints about girls.
When a girlfriend dumped one of them, I reassured his innocence. When a rumor was spread about one of their sister’s sex lives, I sympathized with his embarrassment. When he wanted to sleep with someone, I made sure she was worth the trouble. I kept their secrets. I talked our way out of bad situations. I was the smart one, the perfectionist, the honest opinion no other girl was willing to be.
I never said no. I never said a lot of things.
This meant maintaining that I was “unlike other girls” (or rather more like the guys), consequently meaning I was in charge of validating their misogynistic grievances about other women when they expressed them.
I am and always have been a believer that not all guys are bad. I’ve never really experienced being jaded after a breakup, and I never saw swearing off men as a solution to being screwed over by one of them. That still rings true to me.
But when I was younger and more naïve, declaring feminism as nothing more than an overreaction was simply a requirement to keep my friends and my own identity. I had no concept of institutional misogyny, let alone the compounded disadvantages that women different than me—such as women of color, transgender women, and women in poverty—endured on a daily basis. I clung to the subjectivity that I thought negated feminism and the claim of widespread sexism: Some guys are nice and some aren’t; same with girls. I’m not oppressed, right? What’s the big deal?
Consequently, I supported a lot of actions and words that I now shudder at. I grimace at degrading sex stories that I nodded along to, the romantic jealousy I justified for my significant others, and the self-hate I never blamed on my male friends.
I was always a tomboy and never fulfilled the conventional image of beauty or sex appeal. While I haven’t had trouble dating, I was often insecure about the way my male friends perceived me. I often found myself jealous of the “hot” girls they talked and bragged about. I now realize this was a large factor in my desperation to cling to the male attention I did receive; if I wasn’t going to be the hot girl, at least I could be the “bro.”
This made me even more desperate to please the guys who did want to date me. Aside from my current boyfriend, every boyfriend I had used his male privilege in one way or another to get something from me. Whether it was pressure for sex, smothering insecurity, criticism of my body, or belittlement of my emotions, I became expectant and compliant with men who didn’t make me happy—largely because I didn’t think demanding respect and equality was worth the fight, and the probable loneliness.
This habit culminated in various unhealthy relationships, the worst being an abusive one. I’ve never been spoken to so poorly in my life by anyone else, let alone someone who claimed to love me. On our best days, I faked orgasms for fear of being honest with him and cried while he insulted my weight and disappointing physical appearance. On our worst, I laid in bed while being screamed at for literally hours at a time about how I didn’t deserve such a good guy.
Eventually, I believed every word that came out of his mouth. There were moments I literally feared for my life. There were even moments I wished he’d hit me. He never did, but I often thought if he hits me, even just once, this would be abuse. Then I could leave. But only then.
He was a self-proclaimed anti-feminist. I’m nauseated at the thought of thinking this acceptable at the time, but he once told me verbatim, “my biggest fear is women taking over the world.”
I eventually left him. It was equally terrifying and relieving.
The most painful thing about the breakup was knowing he’d never understand the misogyny and hate behind his words and actions. Knowing I’d never get a chance to tell him, I sought out to educate myself about feminism; I needed to be empowered and supported more than ever before. I needed to find a community of people who’d understand what I’d been through.
It was during this time that I learned the true definition and purpose of feminism. I realized the absolute necessity of third-wave feminism, and the ways that literally every woman—no matter her circumstances—suffers in some way in our, and other, sexist societies.
After years of exhausting myself trying to win the affection and approval of men, I vowed to never again let someone dictate the things I did, said, or thought. Though this was—and is—harder than I expected it to be. Our society absolutely breeds female silence, and in turn makes women who refuse to stay quiet feel guilty for speaking up. In other words, women often internalize the misogyny around them because they are taught to feel ashamed when they don’t do what society or a man expects of them. Internalized misogyny keeps a woman blind to the outside oppression they endure and redirects blame on herself.
I thought I was liberated after leaving my abusive ex, but he was everywhere: the man buying groceries in my lane at Target, the professor making jokes about date rape, the drunk, uninvited arm around my friend at a party, the nice guy at a barbecue unaware of his verbal violence, the gas station attendant licking his lips at me in my rearview mirror.
My feminist identity couldn’t be won with a simple breakup: I realized I had a lot more to fight against than an ex.
And that meant standing up for what I believed—unapologetically and unwaveringly. Despite all of the abuse I’ve endured and all that I’ve learned, it is still cripplingly difficult to speak up sometimes. I’m not even exactly sure why: am I afraid of being judged? Am I the only one in the room who feels this way? Will I be supported? Am I overreacting?
I often wonder if feeling hesitant about spreading feminism to those who don’t want to hear it means I haven’t earned the title “feminist” at all. It’s the predicament of the retired bro-girl: can I afford to pick my battles, especially with my friends, when it comes to matters of social justice? Must I hand feminism to men on a silver platter and in an apologetic baby-voice to make sure they can handle it? Must I, and so many other girls, make feminism easy to swallow for those who perpetuate the opposite?
I think the answer to that question is “no,” despite the fact that I still find myself biting my tongue at times when I shouldn’t.
As proud as I am of my progress and that of my fellow feminists—of every gender—I feel we’re in desperate need of more active feminism.
Yes, that means more protests, more public statements, more petitioning for change to the powers that be—that is in societies where women are allowed that kind of space. A woman’s ability to speak is dependent on her specific circumstances, such as race, location, and economic means; we must realize that not all women in the world have access to a public forum.
That’s why we must appreciate and support the many ways women can speak out, and also remember all of the ways we can affect change. That means broadening our definition of protesting to include smaller acts of feminism, which are often more difficult to execute than larger acts.
How do you tell those close to you—your romantic partner, you father, your boss, your best friend—that they’re being sexist?
While we sometimes roll with the punches and stay quiet in the face of slut shaming, dirty jokes, or downright disgusting language for the sake of keeping the peace, this is more harmful to our society than any inter-personal altercation that would result from saying something.
If people who are uneducated about feminism are never taught, how can they be expected to change? And if we as feminists fear retribution, especially from those we care about, how far can the movement actually go? Every time a woman is uncomfortable and chooses to bite her tongue out of fear of judgment, disagreement, or hurting another’s feelings, she is denying herself the right to equality.
That means even seemingly harmless microaggressions need to be corrected. For instance, I was the only girl at a holiday party when the host poured every guest a shot, and said in a sweet, almost paternal voice to me and no one else, “Taryn, would you like a chaser?”
I said “no” through a facetious, vicious smile. But literally over a year later, I’m still kicking myself for not calling him out.
The small, often ignored signs of misogyny are covertly destructive—and so they can’t go on being ignored. We can change policy as much as we want; but as long as there are men who think catcalling is a compliment, misogyny is still alive and well.
After years of being an adolescent bro, I’ve learned to define myself outside my relationships with men, and in turn speak to men about feminism. I was shocked when I learned how many men think feminism can’t include them; I mean men who literally think men can’t be feminists by definition.
I don’t want feminism to be a dirty word anymore. And for that to happen, I need to feel safe and secure in declaring their feminist beliefs, as do other women. Education needs to be the backbone of this movement.
And so I don’t call myself a bro anymore. I define myself by many titles. I’m a privileged woman who wants progressive change, but also acknowledges her race, sexuality, and economic advantages. I’m a domestic abuse survivor who can think of nothing worse than staying silent in the face of disrespect ever again. I’m a writer who uses the Internet and her pen for good. I’m a feminist whose voice is growing louder and louder with every word.
[image via x]