I remember the first few experiences that made me uncomfortable with being a woman.
They weren’t even anything to do with my body. Some women cite their first period (which was definitely embarrassing), or going bra shopping the first time (yes, definitely awkward!).
But for me, what made me uncomfortable was the realisation, for the first time, that the world wasn’t built for me. It was, instead, built for men. My place, as a woman, was to be the object.
“Out of bounds”
I must have been eleven or twelve when I garnered the attention of a local workman near the building I lived in, in Hong Kong. I was so naive, and I thought of him as my “friend”. I used to go down to the carparks in the basement below, and rollerskate there, and I’d often see him, working on construction.
He’d come on over, and despite his limited English and my even more limited Cantonese, we’d chat and he’d hold my hand while I skated. I never thought anything of it, until one day he started pressuring me for a kiss.
And then I got away as fast as I could, ashamed and guilty – although I’d done nothing wrong, and very red-faced, even though I’d said no and nothing had happened. But from then on I didn’t skate in the carparks any more. I got the feeling that they were an “out of bounds” place for me.
That wasn’t the only “out of bounds” area. Not long after, I started avoiding a street I’d walk down to go to school, because of the catcalls from more building workers. They made me feel uncomfortable and helpless – powerless. I don’t know what their goal was in whistling to a pre-teen, but its effect was my discomfort.
I took a longer, different way to school from then on. My brother once asked me why, but I felt too awkward to tell him. Once again, I felt like I’d done something wrong, and like if I told him, I’d be admitting some type of weakness or defeat in myself for not having the strength to ignore the hecklers.
But I was only a kid.
You get 10%, they get 90%
There were countless other instances like this. When I moved back to school in Australia, I made the faux pas of going out on to the oval to play, and was immediately held in contempt by my new friends when I returned at lunch.
“We don’t play there,” I remember Kathryn telling me. “That’s for the guys. Girls stay on the asphalt. But only in the courtyards, and not near the transportables.”
I didn’t ask why the girls only played in about 10% of the school property, while the boys could go wherever they wanted. We had 10%, they had 90%. I was a young teenager, and you just didn’t ask questions like that: it was social suicide to do so, and even more suicidal to try to violate the unwritten rules.
Conform or die
My mother never got a straight answer when, on my second day at my new school in Australia, I took her dressmaking scissors to my yellow checked school uniform and hacked a full foot and half off the length of its skirt.
“What have you done that for!” she demanded in anger.
“It’s how we wear them,” I said snarkily, parading around in the dress whose skirt now barely covered my ass cheeks. “All the girls wear them like this. Nobody wears them long!”
And I was telling her the truth. But I never asked myself why.
I didn’t ask why. None of the girls did. We just wore our skirts as short as we could, and the shorter the better. Mum didn’t push it. Maybe she knew the unspoken reason better than I did.
Hypocrites and liars
All through my school years I used to sit with my friends and discuss boys and the soaps on TV, neither of which I was particularly interested in. But I had to keep the show up, and if I hadn’t at least pretended to be interested in the conversation, I’d have had no friends at all.
Everyone was talking about who had done what with whom. I hadn’t done anything – I’d kissed a few guys but that was it, but I lied and told outrageous stories of my sexploits with the best of them.
I don’t think anyone believed me but then, I didn’t really believe any of the stories my friends told me either. It was a bizarre competition of lies and one-upmanship, where the best bragging won the day. But at the same time, while we were sharing all our outrageous fabrications, we were slagging off the real “sluts” of the school who everyone just knew were really truly sexually active.
Because they were trash.
In other words, we were hypocrites and liars, and jealous ones at that, who hated the girls who were maybe actually doing what we secretly longed to do. Or longed to do, but were scared of doing. Or maybe were thinking about doing but weren’t ready for just yet.
Diets and magazines
Society makes objects of all women, and it certainly objectified me. I remember starting my first diet when I was in my early teens, even though I was underweight. My best friend ended up in hospital with bulimia – she got down to 27 kgs (59 pounds) and nearly died.
We were obsessed with looking like the girls in magazines, and distressed that we looked…well, like ourselves. Like normal young women.
Looking back, it wasn’t my body I was uncomfortable with, it was the objectifcation that came with being a woman. Being told I had to look a certain way, act a certain way, be a certain way.
When you don’t fit
I didn’t fit the stereotype of small, delicate, weak, meek, quiet, gentle. No matter what I did or how I tried, I was big, tall, strong, powerful, intelligent, geeky, sporty, awkward…and the objectification that came with being a woman made me even more acutely aware that I didn’t fit the gender role I was supposed to submit to.
What it’s really about
I’m grown up now, and these things don’t affect me as much as they used to. But I still cringe when I get wolf-whistles – because that small, awkward girl inside of me remembers. They’re not a compliment. They never were a compliment.
They’re about control. And power.
And there are places in the city where I feel uncomfortable and unsafe, despite being nearly six feet tall and a weightlifter and probably well strong enough to defend myself. This is an experience common to all women – from the moment we learned that we can’t play on the playground any more, because “that’s where the boys play”, we’ve never felt like our world was our own any more.
An experience commonly shared…being the object. That’s what learning to be a woman is all about. That’s why strong girls grow up into awkward women, and take decades sometimes to reover themselves. Our society is cruel.
But I can’t help wondering, would I be a different person if I’d stood my ground, walked on past the hecklers, kept skating in the carpark despite the threat? And maybe we can teach our daughter to be strong too.
Just my thoughts. Because nobody should be forced to be an object.