When I was 10 years old, I was standing in the hallway at school talking with a friend. I was wearing shorts. Sometime during our conversation, my friend looked down at my legs, then back up at me, and said, “You haven’t started shaving your legs yet? Doesn’t your mom let you?” The answer to both questions was “no,” but I didn’t know what to say. I can’t remember ever having thought of my leg hair before that conversation, but it never left my mind after that.
This happened again toward the end of the school year when another friend was throwing a pool party and whenever I got dressed for gym class, and it didn’t stop happening until I was 12 years old and I shaved my legs for the first time.
I remember my classmates making comments about the fact that I wasn’t wearing a bra during gym class in fifth grade. I remember a male classmate sitting next to me calling my arm hair “gross” in elementary school, saying it “shouldn’t be there.” I remember a friend teaching 15-year-old me how to use mascara and prefacing it with “You need to learn how to be a girl.”
For the most part, it was well-intentioned advice from my friends, but it is devastating to think about how ingrained the expectations of femininity are in us and how early these comments begin.
At 13 years old, I should not have been horrified at the thought of going to the spring formal without my armpits shaved and my heels on. At 16 years old, I should not have been insecure about the fact that I went out barefaced all the time, as I hadn’t yet learned to use makeup. At 20 years old, I shouldn’t have to feel self-conscious when I choose to prioritize comfort for once and go out without a bra. But I was and I am.
Even now, knowing what the expectations are and the harm that’s been done to me, I can’t escape the shame that comes when people point out my “missteps.” A few nights ago, I overheard a man say to his companion as I passed, “She’s not wearing a bra; that’s gross.” A couple weeks before that, another man said, “Look at her legs, man.” Of course, they sounded disgusted — disgusted because I made the mistake of being a woman and thinking that I could exist in a natural state without anyone, for once, making comments about my body.
If I, an adult who has awareness about these things, can’t hear these comments without being affected by them, there’s no chance for younger girls who hear the same.
It’s hard because, while I enjoy some aspects of femininity, I have to come to realize that I’ve always hated shaving my body. After having stopped this past summer, I don’t miss it at all. I don’t wear bras most days, because I’ve realized that they’re sweaty and uncomfortable to me, and I feel so much better without them. But knowing this doesn’t protect me from comments other people make, whether or not they’re “well-intentioned.”
As women, regardless of how feminine our presentation is, it’s conditioned in us that it’s not enough, and there’s something wrong with you if you stop trying to look like whatever female body type is en vogue this month. We’re not supposed to love ourselves and express ourselves authentically, no matter what that looks like, and trying to do it anyway is so exhausting.
I wish I knew what to do. I wish I could go out in public feeling confident about myself, not like there’s something wrong with me just because I exist. I wish I could do what makes me comfortable without the expectation that someone’s going to voice their unwanted opinions and offer their unhelpful suggestions.
It’s difficult not to feel pessimistic, especially when so many men (and women) don’t realize that female liberation doesn’t stop at voting rights, opening our own bank account or receiving higher education. There are so many things that occur in our day-to-day lives, some of which are so subtle that we hardly even notice, that serve as a reminder that “first-world” sexism isn’t a retro concept.
We need to hold each other accountable for spreading harmful patriarchal ideas; men in particular need to hold other men accountable for this. I want to believe in a future where we can present ourselves however we want without the fear of being corrected or shamed, which, most days, just sounds idealistic to me. I’m tired of feeling anxious and cynical, but it’s hard not to when part of my daily routine includes anticipating insults or harassment from strangers.
Shelby York is a sophomore majoring in Writing Seminars and Classics from Owenton, Ky. She is a copyreader for The News-Letter.