I am at the very end of my tether with regards to sexism. It’s a phrase so commonly misused in out-of-context situations to the point where I don’t think any of us know for certain what it is anymore.
There’s being sexist, there’s objectifying women and then as a method of combatting those things, I’ve seen a horrifically warped equality concept being thrown around.
It’s unfathomable as to why I haven’t, until now, chosen to write about gender equality. Perhaps it was the distasteful looks I attracted this morning on my way through Harborough that pushed me just a little bit too far? Do you think I’m overreacting? Maybe I should just expect that sort of behaviour when I leave the house in a skirt and heels, because I’m a female? Don’t be so absurd.
Gender equality is a difficult thing to get right. Men and women are so obviously different that I don’t think I need to explain in great detail why that’s true. Men are biologically engineered to be stronger, and their brains are wired to function in a completely different way. That’s how we’ve evolved and it’s key to survival. If you look into the natural world for guidance you’ll find these differences are a constant point in an ever-changing environment.
Real equality isn’t treating everyone the same. If a child has a learning disability and is treated in exactly the same way as another child without that same disability, that isn’t fair, and it isn’t equal. Real equality is accepting everyone’s differences and treating them all accordingly, so that we can all have the same chance (because in reality, a huge percentage of what we do is all based on chance).
So, from the mind of a high-functioning female, I’d like to explain a few things that are not only prominent issues in our so-called ‘equal’ society, but also the things I most abhor.
I’ve already briefly touched on appearances, so that feels the most natural place to start. To reiterate: Women, throughout history, have been labelled a sexual object and either prevented from revealing certain parts of the body (although that list is considerably shorter now, to the point where it’s nearly non-existent) or used and exploited for their promiscuity. At present, there’s a lot of freedom. With the odd exception we can wear whatever we like so long as it doesn’t offend anybody’s eyes in an especially inappropriate manner. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should, or that we have to, and that hasn’t stopped the general public from judging.
In one of my previous columns I explained how quickly we develop an image of somebody before we’ve really gotten to know them, and that’s perfectly natural. We all make judgements, but what I’m about to say is not exactly the same. There are similarities but that doesn’t make them equal.
One is morally wrong and the other is human nature. What I’ve noticed is that women are heavily judged based on their size. If a woman is overweight, she’s usually judged for that, but nobody except the arrogant and rude is allowed to point it out to her (not that they have permission from anybody but themselves...). We’re taught that we won’t be attractive to anybody unless we’re thin. In schools, they teach lesson after lesson to educate about the negative effects of obesity, but say little to nothing on being too thin. Models and celebrities are shamed for being ‘fat’ when they’re only a UK size 8. We aren’t told that we can be any size or any shape and still be beautiful because the women we’re told are the most attractive are photoshopped to have curves that are impossible on a small frame, with flawless skin that just doesn’t exist in reality. They’re the ones we see as being successful. There’s a mass association of beauty with success, which means we prioritise our appearance over intellect. Even Disney princesses aimed to impress a man. Snow White needed a prince to rescue her, as did Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. I watched Disney films and read all the books when I was little, and those women teach us that we need men in our lives to be beautiful and successful – to make us whole, in a sense.
Some men who say that they feel just as much pressure to be muscular as women do to be thin. That’s a power fantasy. You aren’t taught that it’s the only way to be attractive. I don’t find muscular builds attractive at all, personally. Not all male Hollywood personalities are rippling with solid muscles. Men set themselves that standard because they want to be powerful. Women are given a standard to be attractive to men.
One of the main reasons I formerly became obsessed with weightloss was because I was terrified of being alone my entire life. If a girl is too thin, though, it’s fine to point that out to her. Did it not occur to you that she knows? Both the underweight and overweight alike know how they look and they don’t need you to tell them. Just because somebody is small doesn’t mean they’re confident in themselves; They could be just as insecure as somebody who’s overweight. Pointing out somebody’s flaws, which they see every single day, is not appropriate in any situation. There’s also an apparently ‘socially accepted’ view that overweight women can’t be happy with their bodies. I’ve seen so many people look in surprise at larger women wearing bikinis and shorts, who found it shocking that they were allowed to wear clothes like that, or that they had the confidence. Why is that such a problem? Clothing is made in their size for a reason. You shouldn’t be judging them for being confident you should be empowered and confident to see women who still value themselves as people over the number they see on the scale or on their clothing tags.
We all have ideas of what makes a beautiful sight and I’m not the first to admit that there are some clothing items that just don’t suit certain body types. That goes for skinny girls too, though. I don’t want to see rolls of fat squeezed into a tight body-con dress any more than I want to see a skinny girl through her cheap, see-through leggings (which, for the record, don’t look good on anybody). If that’s what they want to wear, though, then let them. You can’t decide what people can and can’t wear depending on their body.
Following on from body size comes shape and assets. Some women have curves and others don’t. That’s the simplest way of saying it. Having a tiny waist and voluptuous hips is the stereotype for sexy but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to be sexy. You can’t judge a female based on something which she has no control over. It’s the same as her weight. If she’s insecure about it, you don’t need to point it out, so keep your mouth shut and let her keep smiling. Everybody has a different idea of what makes a beautiful woman and nobody has the authority to label one woman as being attractive over another, because I can guarantee there would be a long line of people who disagree. There are plenty of books for children that explain we’re all unique and different, and that’s great, but as soon as we get to school we’re made to dress the same, are treated the same and are bombarded by all of the skinny women and stereotypes that begin to shape our views of women. It doesn’t matter how many times somebody tells you that you’re beautiful, just the way you are, because you’ve been told by the rest of the world that you’re not.
As well as our natural, physical appearances, we’re judged on how we dress. I’ve mentioned leggings already, but I don’t mean how we dress for our body shape or size, I mean how revealing, and the sorts of clothing we wear. I’m quite feminine, mostly (I love a good pair of Converse and my baggy Iron Man T-shirt, though) and like your stereotypical girl, I like shoes. I love skirts and dresses and shorts. We all make a lot of judgements about girls based on their clothing, though, and whilst that isn’t always a bad thing, it has the potential to be outrageously inappropriate.
This is the problem I find the most infuriating. If I leave the house, on a hot day, in my short-shorts with a tank top, or in a skirt with a light top, I’ll attract winks and smirks and have on multiple occasions been shouted or whistled at by men driving by in their cars.
Alternatively, I could wear jeans and a baggy sweat. I’d be uncomfortably hot all day and people would harass me with questions about my clothing choice, but at least men wouldn’t objectify me. Either way I’ll be judged. If I wear something revealing, I’m treated as a sexual object and am instantly labelled a ‘slut’ for my promiscuity, but if I cover up I’m frigid and insecure. I’m not insecure, I just feel uncomfortable knowing that any of the men I might encounter whilst I’m out are going to appreciate me as a pretty girl. I cannot stand being seen that way. Nobody appreciates being whilstled at from a car, or having a car horn honked at them. I should be flattered? Not at all. I’m flattered if somebody calls me beautiful or says they appreciate me for my mind, but there is nothing complimentary about a misogynistic pig of a man thinking I’m an item to be ogled.
When I get dressed I wear clothes that I feel happy in. Of course I want to look good – who doesn’t? But I dress for myself, not to impress the opposite sex. As such I find it highly agitating to be treated as a lesser human being. It’s lovely to feel attractive, but I have a brain. I’m not defined by the clothes I wear and should I decide to wear fishnet tights, because they make me feel good, it doesn’t give any man the right to call me a female dog when I refuse to have sex with him (although they might get away with it when I tell them in an explicit way to leave me alone). I can’t stress enough how wrong it is that men feel it’s appropriate. Women are not there just to be stared at. Our choice of clothing isn’t an invitation to you. We have minds of our own and believe it or not it makes us feel very uncomfortable to be thought of as sexual beings with no intellectual value to speak of. It’s offensive and arrogant of men to treat us like that and it’s creepy and unsettling for women. I have one piece of advice for any man who thinks he has the right to wolf-whistle women he thinks are sexy: Don’t leave your house.
I’m not talking about men who smile at you and make a friendly, mildly flirty comment when you’re at the till in a shop or are browsing the shelves. That’s tasteful and is appreciated. I mean men who objectify women by assuming we’re dressing ourselves well just to attract them. Here I’d like to briefly touch on your choice of language in complimenting a female, as I don’t think it’s as widely known as it should be that ‘sexy’, ‘hot’ and ‘beautiful’ have very different meanings. ‘Hot’ and ‘sexy’ are bordering being misogynistic depending on context, but if you really want to compliment a girl and tell her she’s attractive, tell her she’s ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’ (or ‘pulchritudinous’ if you think she might appreciate your wide vocabulary). There’s a huge difference between those words to us. If you call a girl ‘sexy’ or ‘hot’, she probably thinks of a bikini model or someone who’s only really appreciated for their body. Women appreciate knowing that you think they have nice bodies but mature women would much rather be ‘beautiful’: Something we imagine as being breath-taking and ethereal. I much prefer to be called beautiful than anything else and so do most women.
No end of times have I been walking through town in Harborough, either going to work or to meet my boyfriend, and have been acknowledged in the most malapropos of ways. It happened this morning, more than once. I have a fantastic example from just a month or so ago. I’d met my boyfriend at the train station and was walking back to his house with him. It was hot and I’d chosen to wear purple cut-off shorts and a grey tank top. A man in a car rolled down his window as he was driving by and made a point of shouting to me. I was blatantly walking with my boyfriend and he still thought that was appropriate. On a separate occasion, I was waiting at the train station to catch a bus back to Saddington. I was wearing a strapless dress with some high heels. A car with two men in it stopped, with the window down, looked me up and down, asked if I was busy that night and winked, smirked and one of them even dared to lick his bottom lip. Obviously the only response I could give to that was “%*&£ off!”, but I couldn’t believe it. Not only was it creepy, disgusting and disturbing, but also slightly frightening. It’s upsetting to think about how often this must happen.
Women are so very different from men, I can appreciate that, but there’s a balance. I don’t want to be treated like a man. I want to be treated like a girl because that’s what I am, but I also want to be respected as an intelligent human being who is independent and doesn’t need a man by her side to function.
As well as women being taken for granted, some of us push for equality a little too hard. None of us should be treated in the ways I’ve described by anybody, but in some ways, sexism has been taken too far. Women get away with a lot more than they should in some cases, because if anybody stops them it’s ‘sexist’. Men have to be increasingly careful of what they say and how they treat women. I wouldn’t have said telling a lady to ‘calm down dear’ is sexist; It was witty and personally I thought that was hilarious. Somebody took that as sexist and created trouble, even though it was, in essence, a harmless joke.
There are plenty of feminists who think men should still pay when they go out for dinner, buy them gifts and look after them, even though they’re not willing to do that themselves. You can’t expect to be looked after and then not give anything back. That isn’t feminism, that’s taking advantage. Likewise, I read a story about a group of women complaining that men were holding doors open for them, as if that’s sexist of them. I thought that was just good manners. If you want to be treated equally then you have to show everybody respect, not just people of your gender.
That was exactly what I meant when I said that I don’t think people know what sexism is anymore. To a point where the definition is whatever you make it, but of course there has to be an official meaning because otherwise somebody, somewhere, will take it far out of context and abuse sexism as an excuse to be disrespectful. I consider sexism as the hatred of a particular gender because you perceive them to be inferior.
Treating women differently to men isn’t sexist, because they are different. Actions that spawn from malice are sexist, politely holding open a door or making a light-hearted joke certain aren’t examples of sexism.
I want to be treated differently because I am different; We’re all unique. I just don’t want to be used and seen as a piece of skin made for the opposite sex to enjoy. That doesn’t give you an excuse to treat me differently in an abusive or unjust way. It just means you should be appreciative of the fact that I’m probably not as strong as you, and in return I’ll account for the fact that you might find elucidating my vernacular imperceptibly formidable.
Column by Ruby Hryniszak (pictured, inset). Ruby is a regular writer/columnist for the Harborough Mail online.
Follow Ruby on Twitter, @13eautifulLife.