My friend and I were walking down a street near my house one humid night last summer. Minding our own business, we laughed and chatted in jean shorts and tank tops. Some men in their twenties drove down the street and yelled, “nice a**” and “looking good ladies,” followed by a cackle of laughter by the other members in the car. Embarrassed and self-conscious, my friend and I ran back down the street to my house, immediately changed into sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and sat on the couch for the rest of the day.
As a 17-year-old, this was my first experience personally being sexualized by men, but sadly women experience situations like this daily. We live in a society where men have an overwhelming amount of power over women both socially and politically. Women feel pressured to dress the way that men characterize as “sexy” and “attractive.” In turn for feeling attractive and confident, women are attacked with unwanted comments from men. This leads to an unequal power dynamic and makes it hard for women to be their true selves without apprehensions.
I went to a temporary exhibit in Chicago called “Womanish” that was constructed based on female empowerment and self-expression. There, I was immediately immersed in a three-story building full of naked mannequins, bananas, and peaches which were labeled as “private parts.” First I was shocked and uncomfortable because I usually am uncomfortable when I see girls wearing little to no clothing. Socially, I have been taught that girls showing lots of skin are “whores” or “skanks.” I was so confused with why I was uncomfortable; I was in a room full of only women, embracing their femininity while posing next to the statues of naked women. I then understood that I was uncomfortable with this new environment because the women in the museum were embracing their femininity and bodies in a positive way. Normally, I feel so self-conscious about the way people view me, but in a room full of all women, I was empowered to be my true self without any social constraints.
I realized that in a room full of women, I could truly be myself. I noticed the different ways women were acting now that men were not around. The womanish museum taught women to embrace their bodies and femininity while bringing to light the problem that our society has set by letting men decide how women should act and be.
To further my research about the power balance between genders, I watched a documentary on Netflix called “Feminists What Were They Thinking?”. In this documentary, multiple women, who were involved in the feminist movement over a variety of decades, were interviewed about their lives and how they grew their feminist perspective. These women talked about how men assume the authority to be condescending to women in order to continue the unequal power dynamic in daily life. Lily Tomlin shared how she began to be a feminist what she left her childhood home. She knew that it was not right for men to be condescending to women, but she often found herself in situations where men would say rude or sexist things to her and she would “have the feeling to laugh it off to make the man feel comfortable.” I can think of countless times that I have brushed things off to avoid confrontation because, at the moment, I am shocked about what has been said. When those men yelled at me and my friend down the street, instead of confronting the situation, I took it upon myself to feel shame about how I was dressed.
To understand why women feel this way, I researched the reasons behind the submissive tendency to not confront offensive actions from men. A Harvard Business Review Article teaches people skills that can be used to disrupt sexist conversations. In order to break out of the Cycle of Socialization, both men and women need to act as allies and work together to call out these offensive actions and dismantle the harmful prejudices. Even if disturbing this norm could lead to uncomfortable situations, calling people out and allowing others’ to change their perspective on how to treat people will improve society as a whole. The only way to break this cycle of socialization is to call out these inequalities which will create a wholesale change of the power dynamic. This can be done by calling people out for their actions and acknowledging their words aren’t right. If I am ever put in that type of situation again, I will acknowledge my worth as a woman and not feel shame based on how I dress.
While researching the power dynamics between men and women, I had to connect the political aspect of gender inequality as well. A few days ago, Kamala Harris, the first female Vice President, was elected into office. While this is a monumental step for women and the role that women play in politics, there is still a gigantic discrepancy between the representation of men and women in political power. A study done by the Center for American Women and Politics found that the percentage of women holding political roles is under 30%.
That means the people in power, representing the entire nation, are not truly representative of half of the true population. How can a group of people, with the majority being men, be in charge of making laws that determine what women can and cannot do?
I watched a documentary on Netflix called “Reversing Roe” that talked about the political disputes about abortion in the United States. The documentary featured women from all over the country fighting for equal representation in the government. I believe that it is the woman’s right to choose what is best for her body, but what seemed crazy to me was that the people making these decisions were men and not women.
In CST, we are continually asked the question of “how do individuals or groups initiate change when society’s assumptions and biases result in injustice?”. Through my explorations and the Cycle of Liberation by Bobbie Harro, I learned that the core of this cycle is self-love and self-esteem. Women need to have the confidence, not just in a Womanish exhibit with only other women, but everywhere in their lives, to be and love their truest selves. Seeing women like Kamala Harris in positions of power shows me that I have the power to do anything a man can do. My SAMO experience taught me the importance of self-love, and from this, I will be able to work on my self-esteem in order to secure the core of my cycle of liberation and work towards gender equality.