I Am Reminded I Am a Woman When I Learn to Be Silent

TW: sexual harassment, sexual violence

A friend recently asked me how often I think about being a woman. Shaking my head and shrugging, I said not often.

"Well," I modified, "maybe in terms of leadership positions and things like that." Otherwise, I convinced myself that performing this role of "woman" was not something I considered regularly throughout my day.

That question (and my clearly false answer) followed me around for weeks. It wasn't as if his prompting was the first time I considered womanhood. I am a Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major. I was co-president of my school's feminist club last year, led sexual violence prevention training sessions at my college, and worked for a feminist non-profit over the summer.

I can confidently say I am knowledgeable on issues of gender identity and sexuality, surround myself with the words of Lorde, hooks, Foucault, and Butler, constantly strive to be a "better" feminist, work harder, learn more about the intersections, and own up to my inevitable (and frequent) mistakes.

It didn't take long for me to realize I had formed my reactionary answer, not because I don't think about being a woman, but rather because I think about being a woman so often that it has become white noise, second nature, just another part of my daily experience.

I am reminded I am a woman when I have to decide whether or not to leave my hair down and potentially be harassed for it, or stuff it under a hat. Not that it matters; I'll get harassed anyway, but if my hair is up, it gives me the chance to find another part of my body to blame.

I am reminded I am a woman when I walk across the street from my building and cringe at the sight of the sidewalk where two construction workers yelled obscenities at me at last week. "Thank you," I want to say to them. "You made me afraid of coming home."

I am reminded I am a woman when I quickly navigate alleyways to make sure I keep maximum distance away from the men standing, smoking, watching. Head down, headphones in. I am reminded I am a woman when I adjust my route to avoid the groups of white men in suits who refuse to let me pass them, refuse to acknowledge the way they were taught to take up space while I was taught to adapt to their bodies.

I am reminded I am a woman when the male barista tries to start a conversation with me about my weekend, and I am reluctant to respond because I have learned that welcoming discussion from strangers means I am at fault for anything that could happen next. I am reminded I am a woman when I feel guilty and paranoid for not answering his questions with a smile.

I am reminded I am a woman when I say "sorry" for the seventh time before noon, then apologize when people tell me to stop saying "sorry" so often.

I am reminded I am a woman when my depression is attractive to boys because it gives them another reason to protect me, a Plathian Tragedy who needs to be told she's beautiful, whose brokenness beckons for callused hands to put her back together. I am reminded I am a woman when I am taught that I should be grateful for anyone who loves me, even if they hurt me -- I'm damaged goods, after all, and according to one boy, it's not easy to love damaged goods.

I am reminded I am a woman when I am terrified to publish these words or say them out loud because I know Commenter 1 will tell me to stop playing victim, Commenter 2 will say men experience the same thing, Commenter 3 will tell me micro-aggressions aren't important, and Commenter 4 will keep it simple by calling me a whiny, worthless bitch.

I am reminded I am a woman when I learn it is easier to say "yes" more often than "no," regardless of what I really want to consent to. I taught freshmen to ask each other, "is this okay?" but never taught them how to respond when society demands you be agreeable.

I am reminded I am a woman when I am convinced that my memory is faulty; that the street harasser didn't direct it towards me, that the man who almost mauled me was drunk, that the boy who assaulted me truly loved me, that the sexist comment wasn't intentional, that the eating disorder was survivable, that his hand slipped, and that's why that professor touched my stomach, that it wasn't really stalking, that the fear is unfounded.

I am reminded I am a woman when I master the art of accommodation. My mouth was created to memorize certain phrases: not that bad, could have been worse, grin and bear it, forgive and forget, happy girls are the prettiest. The patriarchy tricks us into thinking there is a binary called gender within which we all must perform. It then teaches men to act as if they can't be bothered with emotion, even when bad things happen. It teaches women to believe nothing bad really happens to us in the first place.

I am reminded I am a woman when I grow so immune to being afraid that I stop questioning whether or not I am really living.

I am reminded I am a woman when I learn to be silent.

F*ck being silent.