By: Hayley Morris
Age 4: I don’t really understand why there is a boy’s and girl’s toys section and why I’m only allowed the barbie dolls, because those race cars look pretty cool. But I’m four years old, so I don’t really care.
Age 9: “I need a strong boy to help me carry these books up to the office” I raise my hand. The teacher looks past me, picking a boy who is definitely smaller and I bet not as strong as me. Hmph. I frown. Why can’t I help? I think I’m pretty strong. I am the tallest in the class after all. Whatever. I can’t wait for lunch.
12: “So, who do you have a crush on?” I stop chewing, setting down my sandwich. The whole table is watching me expectantly. Every other girl likes a boy in our class. Even if I don’t, maybe I should just say someone’s name. “Uhhh, Daniel,” I manage. “Really? Daniel? I would have thought Caleb or maybe Michael.” “Oh, haha, well, sure, they’re cute too! Really, I think all the boys in our class are cute, don’t you?” Wait, why is everyone looking at me? “Oh my god, slut.” I don’t know what that word means. I shrug it off. I’ll ask my mom when I get home.
13: Do I like girls? Woah. Nope. Bad train of thought. You’ve got enough to worry about. Forget about it.
14: He wraps his arm around my shoulders, palm pressing possessively into my skin. No, no. I told him I just wanted to be friends. Why is he doing this? Should I say something? The classroom is only a thirty-second walk away, maybe it’ll be okay. I can feel his thumb brushing against my neck and I think the sandwich I ate at lunch is threatening to come up. Ew, I can’t throw up. That’s gross. Just a little further. Wait, wait, what? He wants to walk me home? I can’t. I’m going to snap. “Look,” I say, stepping away, away from his grasp and folding my arms. “I don’t like you like that. I don’t know how much clearer I can be. I’m not interested and I don’t want you to walk me home. Stay away from me.” Wheph. That felt good. Was I too harsh? No, surely not. This will blow over. Wait, what do you mean people are calling me a bitch? Because they overheard? Maybe I was too harsh. I shouldn’t have said anything.
15: A new boy this time. He said something vulgar about what he’d do to me behind my back. I feel sick. And now I can feel him standing behind me while I sit at my desk. His hands are grazing up my shoulders, sinking into my hair. I won’t say anything. Did you see what happened last time? I’ll just make it worse for myself. Club will be over in thirty minutes. I can make it. Then I can go home. It’s just another day.
16: Another boy? I gave him my number because he said he wanted to be my friend. Now he won’t stop calling and talking about me and telling me he’ll hurt himself if I leave him. What am I supposed to do? I have to stay. If he hurts himself because of me I don’t know what I’d do. No. I have to keep talking to him, even if he ignored it when I said I just wanted to be friends.
I think I like girls. Shit. That can’t get out. Do you know how much privilege you’ll lose? Stop it. Just look at that boy over there. Yeah. He’s kind of pretty, I guess. Stop looking at her. Someone will suspect you. You’ll make everyone in your ballet class uncomfortable. Stop it. You’re straight.
“I need a strong boy to help me push this cart.” I rest my head on my palm, zoning out.
“Woah, why’re being so fragile? I just said one thing.” I bite my lip, nodding. “Yeah, probably just PMSing right?” “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” What? No, I was kidding. Jesus. Forget it, they’re not listening anymore.
17: Is that car following me home? I just read an article today about a woman who was murdered by a car following her. They’ve taken the same past three turns as me. I can’t see who is driving the car. What do I do? Should I call my parents? Wait, if I turn down here-no they followed me. Okay, just breathe. Breathe. You’re panicking. Calm down. Wait, wait, they’re slowing, they’re turning onto another street-oh thank God. But what if they’re just finding a less suspicious way to follow me? I don’t know. Remember what mom taught you. Get out of the car, hold your car keys in your fist, sharp point out. It’s a ten-second run from the driveway to the house. You’re almost home. Just be ready. Just in case. Just in case you need to protect yourself.
“You’ve never had a boyfriend because you’re too picky.” Excuse me? You’re telling me to lower my expectations? “I dunno, it might be because of the way you dress. Try a skirt or something, and do your makeup. I really can’t believe you’ve never been in a relationship. You’re running out of time.” I’m running out of time??
Maybe I should take a self-defense class. You need to protect yourself.
“Okay, never mind, you’re clearly not getting it.” His voice slows, as though he’s reprimanding a child. “Maybe the concept is too much for you.” I raise my brows. Because it’s science? “Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the honors class,” I joke, waiting to see what he says. “Yeah,” he mutters, turning away. My heart sinks.
“The truth is, women are more likely to be paid less than their male counterparts, women of color especially so. The gap is slowly closing, but there is still a long way to go.” I sit back in my chair, silent. This isn’t exactly what I wanted to hear heading into the adult world.
18: “I’m bisexual, but keep it lowkey, please? I don’t want other people to know.” I have to protect myself.
“Wait, you’re majoring in English next year? But you’re so good at math for a girl, you shouldn’t let that go to waste.” I frown, trying to hide my frustration. “But I don’t like math.” He shrugs. “Whatever. You’re not going to make as much money writing stories. I think you’re wasting talent.” Well, I thought I was pretty decent at writing too. Jeez.
“Uh, what are you doing?” A random boy is jerking the computer cart out of my hands. The one I’m pushing towards the classroom. “You were struggling, let me.” He begins to fiddle with the cart. I really wasn’t, but there’s no point in arguing. Just shut your mouth and show him where to go.
Shit. Where did I park? It’s dark. Oh, you are an idiot. You should have parked closer to the store. Just… just walk fast okay. I told you to buy that rape whistle last week and you didn’t. Haven’t you read all of those articles? Seen all of those stories. Okay fine, the moment I get home, I’ll order one.
His fingers press against the small of my back for a second and then are gone. I cringe into myself, pulling the skirt of my dress lower. Oh, shut up, he was just pushing you aside to get through. He wasn’t violating your personal space. Stop being fragile. Just don’t wear a dress again. You need to protect yourself.
“I dunno, I just don’t think women should get paid as much if they clearly don’t work as much.” “What do you mean?” “Well, you know, they’re just a bit slower at things and then they have children and take all that time off work. I don’t think they should be paid if they’re not working. It was their choice to have a kid.”
19: There is a boy behind me in line. He stepped just an inch too close into my protective bubble. God that shiver that just ran through you was sickening. Step away. Step away. Look, you idiot. He’s not paying any attention to you at all. Get over yourself.
Is that truck stopped at the sign watching me run? Oh-kay, great. Just keep running. Ignore it. Brush it off. It’s whatever.
Am I… ga-? No. You have to still like boys too. That’s your safety net. You’re going to marry a boy and have kids and settle down and take an easier life. The one without hatred. Without homophobia. You remember those girls who were attacked on the bus for being gay? You need to protect yourself.
You need to protect yourself.
I must protect myself.
The issue of sexism is not isolated to single events. It is a systemic mindset that permeates every aspect of everyday life, asserting that women are not as smart, or as strong, and that they are weak and must quietly protect themselves from being taken advantage of. Men and women buy into this system; they accept this as the norm. My question to you is how much longer will we repeat the phrase “I must protect myself” before we put our feet down and realize this way of living is exhausting, terrifying, and reinforcing the very stereotypes we despise? There is no fix to institutionalized sexism overnight, but we can begin taking the right steps by calling out these issues and bringing them into the spotlight, starting conversations, and demanding change. This means recognizing those moments when we personally reinforce or accept certain sexist stereotypes, and working hard to change this default. Women should not have to accept that they will be viewed as less than men.