How Sexism Controlled My Life

Content Warning: Mentions of Eating Disorder

Knowing what I do about sexism, and having heard stories about gender inequality and female dis-empowerment in our country and the world, I consider myself fortunate not to have been directly subjected to negative treatment because I was a girl/woman. My family never made me feel as though I was beneath anybody due to my gender, nor was I tormented or bullied by friends or peers for being a woman. However, with that said, sexism had and still has an effect on me. While neither my parents nor my contemporaries made me feel inferior, I believe I made myself feel lesser than my male counterparts. Internalized sexism and gender expectations were a huge part of how I grew up and who I am today.

When I was younger, celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, and Scarlett Johansson intrigued and inspired me. It was not only their talent but the way they presented themselves and appeared. More specifically, I was amazed by how skinny and “perfect” they looked. Magazines and talk shows always seemed to gossip about what they said and how they looked.  They were either too fat or too skinny, had a big or small nose, were not talented or ‘stuck up’, all of which stayed with me throughout my childhood. I was a healthy and seemingly well-adjusted child, but I always felt bigger than the other kids and believed I should look like the celebrities who had one percent body fat and personal stylists.

Many girls in my middle school refused to eat or ate like birds, and looked at me strangely and mockingly when I chose to consume a ‘normal’ lunch. I felt silently judged for being a girl but “eating like a guy.” This led me to seek the help of a nutritionist since I was under the impression that I was severely overweight and there was something wrong with me because I did not look like my peers. I got excellent advice from my nutritionist, but as time passed thoughts of imperfection continued to obsess me.

Flash forward to my senior year of high school and an internalized sexism radar went off the charts for me. I was at an age where I believed there were no excuses for not looking like a model or starlet. The sexist culture around me dictated that women were weaker and less intelligent, caring to a fault, and less competent, unable and undeserving of making the same or more money than men. I began to see the unequal and poor treatment of women as normal, typical, and expected. Women were always supposed to be friendly. If a rude or assertive word came from their mouths they were called bitches. If they had sex they were called sluts. The double standard for men and women was stronger than ever and normalized in my community and in our country.

With regard to being ‘fit’ or ‘thin’ the sexist mantra seemed to be, “if celebrities can do it, why can’t and shouldn’t I?” Internalizing that attitude, I took matters into my own hands and decided to eat only the bare minimum. I did not care that I was always fatigued, unmotivated, and surly, because I was getting skinnier, the goal I aspired to. I was finally developing the body that our sexist culture deemed acceptable, desirable, something that girls were “supposed to have,” and something that males were attracted to.

No matter what my friends or family did, I truly felt not eating was what I was supposed to do in order to be “normal” and desired. The standards our sexist society encouraged told me the only way a girl could be beautiful and desirable is to be emaciated.  In my world and worldview, gender expectations were excessively high and simply unattainable. Despite the fact that I am 5’10”, I felt I had to be a size 2. This was mainly because of celebrities and models who were tall and had miniscule waists, and the press and public who idolized them. But celebrities were not the only ones who influenced me. Those around me, such as my sister, friends, and peers, were mostly skinnier than me, so I wanted to emulate them. It did not matter that my friend was 5’2” or my sister was eight years older than me and out of puberty; I had to be thin or else I was unworthy and unwilling to follow society’s “rules”. As such, gender expectations caused me to question myself and ultimately caused a disorder that made my life much more difficult than it needed to be. While I am improving and do feel much better about myself today than I did in the past, these expectations linger and likely always will to some extent.

Everything and everyone around me encouraged women to ‘be themselves’ but behind closed doors, we all struggled with what that meant, how to achieve it, how supposed role models and celebrity icons appeared, and how they looked far different than the typical female. Yes, it may have seemed as though sexism was finally dead. TV shows depicted women in powerful positions, and advertisements empowered women to be strong, so everything appeared to finally be good and well with women. However, sexism was and still is alive and thriving, and the idea that it was destroyed only made others feel they could continue saying offensive things without consequence. In fact, because of enlightened sexism, I believe my eating disorder existed far longer than it should have. Those around me continued to make passive comments and actions that implied I was not thin enough. I cannot say whether they were judging me or I was judging myself. Regardless, I did not believe I could ever be as beautiful or powerful as the girls presented in the media.

While it is wonderful and inspiring that women have taken more prominent and powerful roles in the media, academia, politics, and business, I was still insecure and vulnerable. Seeing these depictions only made me feel like more of a disappointment to my gender. In summary, I have been lucky not to have been directly subjected to negative treatment due to my gender, but sexism has affected and will continue to affect me and all women. Furthermore, I do not ascribe to the belief that the supposed ‘new gender regime’ will ever make it right or acceptable to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.

 

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