You grew up being complimented based on your looks. “What a pretty child,” they say. “You look like you’ve gotten more beautiful,” they comment. Marks of praise you happily accepted because you felt appreciated, accepted, wanted. Their praise was a mark of achievement, a stamp of approval.
“You shouldn’t wear vertical stripes because it makes you look fat.”
“Black is a slimming colour.”
“Have you gained weight recently?”
They say these things to you so nonchalantly, subtly, as if commenting on the weather. You don’t think much of it, in fact, you just take it as it is — well-meaning advice. So, you don’t buy clothes with vertical stripes, your wardrobe starts looking darker and you look at yourself in the mirror and wonder, “Have I really put on weight?”
Over the years, the implications of these thoughts start creeping in and make up your world view that ‘skinny’ equals beauty, that beauty is desirable. Then, you begin to wonder:
Is being beautiful so important?
Regardless, you go to school and attend classes — Math, Science, English, History, the like. A classic question is thrown your way, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
You say something in the fields of engineering, finance, law.
The response comes in the form of a surprise. They would not have thought it suited you.
Their response strikes you as strange, so you ask them why.
“Girls don’t typically go into those fields.”
You feel indignant and initially you start to refute their claims, but something stops you. Lo and behold, the amalgamation of voices throughout your life tells you, “Girls are not as good at rational thinking as men, girls are better suited to simpler fields.” These claims have no basis, built upon false impressions and flawed reasons, brittle material to create your cage. Yet you hesitate to test its bars.
What if it turns out to be true?
In hindsight, when you proved the stereotype true, there were few consequences. But in that moment you felt like something much bigger was at stake. Your pride? Your self-esteem? You cannot quite put your finger on it, so you wonder:
Am I limited because of my gender?
At the end of the day, you walk down a street. The street is not particularly dark or deserted or even dangerous. But you clutch your backpack tighter, think of everything on your person that can be used as a weapon, assess who might hear you if you scream, and wonder if anyone knows your location. The caution seems like a natural reaction to such a situation, what anyone would do.
“Was it a super sketchy place? I’ve rarely ever felt the need to do those things,” your male friend says.
That is when it hits you. The two of you do not live in the same world. Your world is danger, fear, and vulnerability. His world is free — one where his heart doesn’t race every time he walks alone, where he rarely has to think twice about the clothes he wears or the way he speaks, and where he feels like the world is on his side. How strange to live so far apart when you are standing right next to each other. You wonder:
Does this world have no place for me?
You continue to grow up: speaking to a broader range of people, reading books, living in different settings, learning and learning. These questions you keep asking yourself, you get it now.
But the answer is not yes or no. It holds nuance.
Beauty matters, but not by the metrics with which it was defined to you. You learn that there are different kinds. There is the beauty that shines from within when you see love and kindness. There is the beauty of self-expression that manifests in interesting fashion choices, dyed hair, tattoos and the golden halo of self-love. There is the beauty of perspective.
Your gender limits you, but not inherently. Society’s fixation with gender roles lacks any sort of scientific basis and is borne out of a culture that perpetuates these views through their actions. A single Google search proves it to you and shows the disparity in the number of women in fields of engineering, finance, law compared to men and the barriers denying women’s entrance. These statistics are recent and the women’s struggles from the 1800s so relatable. False impressions caging two hundred years of women from reaching their potential.
You take a chance and pull the bars only to realise they were holograms — figments of an erroneous society’s imagination.
And finally, you find a place where you belong. A place in the hearts of tens of millions of people who feel like you. They wait for you to step through the bars, patiently wait for you to realise that these holograms are all playing a trick on your eyes — a perceptual deception. You make that step. And you feel free. At times, the bars look a little more solid, a little more real, but you remember that you will find a way to be set free, just as you did the first time and just as you will do every time.
And continue to do until you can stand together with the rest of the world unhindered by gender — equal, united, happy.