How I Accidentally Became a Feminist

I'll start off by saying "ladylike" is one of my absolute least favorite words because the stereotypes that it enforces imply that women have to be restricted to a certain set of qualities that limit their individuality if they want to simply be considered female. A younger version of myself would constantly deny being a "lady" due to the qualities that I was always told a lady was supposed to have: poise, elegance, politeness, perfect manners, respect, obedience, etc. Until only a few years ago, I was the opposite of nearly all of these traits, not because I could not be elegant and respectful, but because I noticed that people treated me differently when I behaved independently of those ideals.

In my experience, some boys would try to gain my favor by complimenting my appearance. Only now do I realize that none of them ever thought to compliment my mind or my spirit. I was easily flattered until fifth grade, when I met a boy I’ll henceforth refer to as Jacob. Jacob and I met at the bus stop when I was in fifth grade and he was in sixth grade. As naïve as I was, capturing an older boy's interest was exciting. I watched him play football with his friends in the field in our neighborhood and blushed and giggled around him, as a girl raised to be sweet and timid would.

I was fine with our gentle limbo of blushing and insignificant glances until he asked me to date him one day at the park. Just as I was raised to be sweet and ladylike, I was also raised to believe that relationships should be connections, not just attraction, and that eleven-year-olds could not handle relationships and did not need them. After several minutes of thought and conversing with my friend who was also present and encouraged me to go for it, I realized what I wanted and told him that I wasn’t ready to date anyone in the way that he wanted us to date. I suppose ten-year-old girls have the best toxic masculinity sensors out of all of us, because even though I thought he was really “hot”, I felt unsure and uncomfortable with the prospect of being his token girlfriend. He knew nothing about me and I knew nothing about him, and he wasn’t interested in getting to know me besides to tell his friends he had a cute girlfriend. I will always be more than cute and I knew that.

I’m glad I saved myself the drama, because he immediately left and his friends later came over to my backyard to pick a fight. I told them to back off and argued with them when they didn’t leave my yard. The next day at the bus stop, I earned various nasty titles from Jacob for being the “mean” girl that rejected him and sassed his friends, as if liking him meant that I owed him any sort of relationship. This was my first experience of berating and bullying and I went home crying. The name-calling continued through the week, even after my mom and I went to talk to the vice principal about the situation. Every single day they refused to shut up and leave me alone. They put things in my hair, poked me constantly, and threw pencils and erasers at me on occasion. They never stopped until I reached behind me as one of their arms came into my seat and scratched one of the boys enough to make him bleed. From then on they kept their distance, but the taunting never stopped until Jacob moved to the middle school and stopped riding my bus.

From then on I decided that I never wanted to be girly again because I never wanted anyone to make the assumption that I was a sweet and fragile girl that would not fight back. I developed habits to put off people that expected me to be a smiling, pink silhouette of innocence. I refused to wear any shade of pink or makeup; skirts and dresses disgusted me. To 11-year-old me, these things represented all of the warnings I had been given simply because I was female; warnings like “how are you going to get a boyfriend if you talk with your mouth full?” and “be a nice little girl” were constantly whirling around my mind, steering me clear of other girls that obsessed over appearance or went out of their way to be nice to everyone. I felt pressured to be nice to everyone when boys who were mean to me were written off as “boys just being boys.” Boys could be mean with little discipline, but a girl who made one outburst from bottling her individuality up was automatically painted as moody, on her period, or plain mean.

In all honesty, I was kind of a mean kid, but I knew it. I much preferred being the “mean” girl for asserting my intelligence in group projects or fighting back when boys that “liked me” teased me. It wasn’t until early in highschool when I began to accept and embrace makeup because it made me feel pretty and wear skirts because I loved the way they spun. The concept of feminism was too radical for me. I thought women were relatively equal to men, and I was perfectly happy not being required to register for the draft. I was raised in a Catholic environment and considered myself conservative, but I was really just too stubborn to bother thinking about politics or social change. Besides, such topics were considered taboo to discuss because of the controversy surrounding them, so I had little knowledge outside of what I had read and been told in my home and at religion class. I had to find other sources in order to get a view of the full picture.

In eighth grade, I read a manga about a gay couple and fell in love with the characters and the characters’ relationship. Freshman year, I made my first transgender friend. Sophomore year, I had an incredible english teacher who came from the same background as I did and shared stories of when he was younger and more arrogant. When we read sexist books in class, he noted my strong opinions regarding exactly why such books were my personal definition of disgraceful trash. He encouraged me to form my own opinions and to question everything I was told by the media and by some toxic men. Flashforward to senior year. I had this teacher again for english and we did essays using our choice of literary theory. He pointed me towards feminist literary theory and exposed me to all of the different connotations and social impacts of sexist language and literature, then he encouraged me to “unleash” my inner feminist openly instead of my occasional passive-aggressive remarks. At my graduation, one of the last things he said to me was, “keep being the feminist powerhouse that you are. Don’t change that.” 

Many people helped make me who I am today, but this teacher was the most influential in my process of believing in feminism. It took a long time and a lot of AP Literature papers for me to realize that the stereotypes of femininity need not govern my behavior, whether in conformation or rebellion. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s first definition for the adjective feminine is “characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women.” All women is not specified because all women are different. There is not a single trait that all women share. Everyday women are redefining the word feminine because as women, “feminine” doesn’t define us, we define it.