I hear a faint yelling in the background as beads of sweat roll down my forehead. My desire to win makes it difficult to make out what the coach is saying. I assume it has something to do with the fact that we are down by one point with only five seconds left on the clock. My heart is racing as I watch my teammate position herself in front of the free throw line; she has one shot left. I pray for her to make it so we can secure redemption in overtime. We can’t lose the championship game. That has never happened before; our school is the very best at every sport with a female category. We deserve it, we practice harder, we are dedicated, I tell myself. I don’t realize that there is more to it than hard work.
As the wealthiest school in the country, we live in a bubble of illusions, where we are told that girls and boys matter equally. The truth is, that it’s not true, and the older you get, the more you realize that not even money can make it true anymore. We are just lucky our parents support us to pursue sports and that we have the resources to do so at a young age. I don’t realize that in Nicaragua it is difficult to get girls to go to school, to play sports, that it is difficult for them to find the support they need to do the things they love, that if their schools have any resources, they will not get to them first. Up until this moment I haven’t experienced it myself. It is only a matter of time.
The last few second of the game happen in a blur, my teammate takes her shot, and before I know it, the ball bounces off the rim straight into my hands; I don’t even have the chance to actively seek the rebound. Without thinking I just aim at the basket, swish! right as the buzzer goes off. This must be the most cliché moment of my life, I’m thinking. In all the commotion of my teammates jumping around me ecstatically and our coach running over to celebrate with us, the one thing that I can’t shake off is the look on the face of one of the girls on the other team; she looks at me in disappointment. I have just taken away her well-deserved victory.
I wish I had known then, how important that was to her. How much more it meant to her than it did to me.
Following my championship win, I am sure I will continue to play basketball in middle school, but to my dismay there is no girls basketball team, and no one seems to care about that. I often sit at the bleachers after school watching bitterly as the boys’ team runs up and down the court, warming up for practice. As if that isn’t enough to bother me about my status as a second-class citizen, middle school begins to open my eyes to other disappointing truths. Suddenly I become more aware of my own presence, no matter how hard I try to dismiss the staring eyes or how much I look down at my feet while passing by groups of men anywhere I go, I can’t help but clench my fists when I hear the “psst psst chelita!” I wonder why they even bother, it’s not like I will ever answer.
Now I know that that’s what they wanted, they were exerting their power over me, proving that they controlled me. I can’t even be the master of my own reactions because they know they intimidate me, I am afraid.
As I grow older, my cousins and I come up with ‘clever’ solutions to try to avoid that ‘psst psst,’ anything from wearing my uncle’s oversized T-shirts so we can pretend we only have one arm to drawing unibrows on our faces so we can simply walk down the street to the gas station and buy a soda on a hot day. None of these solutions ever make us feel powerful or in control of the situation, they are just ways we think we can hide our vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities that shouldn’t even be considered as such. Why do boys get to walk around tall, looking everyone in the eye confidently, and I have to slouch and keep my eyes low in fear of making eye contact with a man? I ask myself in anger. I hate the reality I live in. “Why do I have to be afraid, and you don’t?” I demand of every male in my life. I can’t help but wonder why I am stuck growing up in this backwards, poor country full of macho men. To think that I had once happily danced along to that song, “Macho man,” when I was six in the first grade amuses me. Even the things I once liked become tainted when I begin to think of their hidden meanings, from remembering how difficult it was to play tag or climb the monkey bars when I was seven because girls had to wear a skirt as part of the uniform, to listening to songs like ‘Tocarte Toa’ with its explicit sexualization of women that I had been too young to understand. Still I comfort myself in the belief that if I leave Nicaragua, I can one day feel like I am not a second-class citizen anymore.
I become accustomed to the idea of not playing basketball ever again after trying unsuccessfully to encourage all my friends to join the team. Girls that age tend feel insecure about themselves, especially when playing sports, and it doesn’t help that even our PE teacher from Denmark, a place which in my mind I’d built up to be a perfectly advanced society where men and women are equal, keeps implying that none of the girls are good at physical activities. He always makes it so that all the boys are picked first before any girls when picking teams, and he never lets any of us pitch or goalie despite wanting to do so. So at times, I don’t mind not playing or being on a basketball team, that means I don’t have to deal with those uncomfortable things in a setting that has remained in my mind a perfect and sacred place. It isn’t until halfway through the seventh grade that the new middle school basketball coach (a teammates’ mother) was able to round up enough of us to get us to start practicing. Eventually, by the end of eighth grade I am showing a lot of potential. I start playing for my high school varsity basketball team the summer before freshmen year. I go to Honduras to represent Nicaragua in the AASCA (Association of American Schools of Central America) tournament. I think, finally, being a girl doesn’t have to feel so bad. I can have the same opportunities as any boy. I am excited to play, to cheer on our male teammates in the name of Nicaragua. People pack the gymnasium for their first game, I am glad I get to cheer them on because after all, we are in this together right? The time comes for us girls to play, I am excited for the energy our fans will bring to the game based on the turnout for the men’s game, but the crowds dwindle out. Not even the men stay to cheer us on. I dismiss it, thinking, they must be tired after their game, they’ll be here for the next one. They never are. As long as there is a men’s basketball game going on at the same time, you can count on our bleachers being empty. No one wants to watch a girl play. She isn’t worth it. In the end, we do better than the male division in our country, but that doesn’t matter, why should it?
I realize that even unintentionally, girls are made to feel worthless in many things. For a while I am sheltered from it at university. Men no longer look at me with lust like they do in Nicaragua where I remember many times going out to run an errand only after making myself look as unattractive as possible to avoid the stares and the catcalls. Nothing ever works. Moving to a ‘developed’ country I think will put an end to those fears of being regarded as a second-class citizen, as an object. I don’t realize that just because the more blatant day-to-day forms of sexism are not present here, does not mean that it doesn’t exist. In some ways, it seems to be manifested even worse. Compared to the feelings that sometimes consume me now, I would give anything to go back to being catcalled and stared at. That only affected me for a minute, it made me angry, but it disn’t break me. I still knew I was worth something, and I still allowed myself to believe that somewhere else, things were different. Now that I’ve experienced life in that somewhere else, I realize it is an illusion, an elaborate lie I told myself as a young girl to make me think I mattered. Now, the things I experience make me sick, they weaken me enough so that I don’t feel angry anymore. I feel miserable. I feel broken.
“You can’t let it get to you because if you do, it will drive you crazy,” he said.
“I feel it happening…” I whisper through tears.
I don’t know why that scene in that movie upset me so much; I’ve seen millions just like it. Naked women dancing around like it’s nothing to please the sleezeballs we call friends, boyfriends, family. Maybe that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was sick of Hollywood and their sexism. I want to burn them, every movie director, producer, actor…even the stupid women that allow themselves to be used like objects. Don’t they know they make it worse for all of us, struggling to hold on to our humanity, hoping with every fiber of our being that not every man thinks of us that way? As a thing? A sex object? It’s just hard to know what men really think of us in this world we live in, constantly bombarding us with messages of objectification and degradation of women, in songs, in movies, in the media…it’s as if every advancement we made in the last century didn’t even happen. Are there any good men out there? Why do they treat us this way? When they say they care, do they really? They are completely unfazed, oblivious.
I feel empty. What is happening to me? I can’t look my boyfriend in the eyes. I know that if I do, there is no way I can swallow the bump in my throat. I can’t stand the feeling of vulnerability. It is the one thing I am most afraid of. Failure, getting hurt, dying…none of this scares me like showing weakness. The truth is, I’m mostly afraid of it because I feel the need to prove myself as a woman. It’s a constant competition to prove that I am worth it, that I am strong. But what made me this way? I grew up in a loving family, sheltered from any sort of pain, being told I am important, that I matter, yet these feelings of unworthiness consume me, feeding a fire inside of me that I cannot control. It devours me.
I hate being a woman.
I try to convince myself it’s not true though. That the things that make me feel this way shouldn’t bother me because we’ve come a long way. That if I had been born 100 years ago I would be married against my will by now with two or more children, and if I had been born 50 years ago I would have never had the chance to attend a prestigious university. “Be grateful for what you have,” “Things aren’t so bad” they say … “You have to pick and choose your battles” “Life is unfair” “Inequality is a reality we just have to deal with.”
Well I don’t agree.
And what bothers me the most is that even some of the women I speak to seem not to care. Why? How come I often go to bed in tears after an upsetting scene in a film that my boyfriend reacted cluelessly to? Then he raises his voice at me and says ‘it’s impossible to watch a movie with you.’ He doesn’t understand that what bothers me is something deeper. He doesn’t understand that in that I see my past and my future. Am I just a thing to him? To every man? How can I trust any of them?
Men. They don’t know, living their lies in their willful oblivion. They don’t experience that sense of worthlessness that comes from being pushed down by the pervasive forces of sexism in everyday life. And the fact is, the women in their lives are so used to being in an environment where their gender forces them to be on guard all the time, forces them to stay aware, even subconsciously of their surroundings so much so that they have normalized it and don’t tell them. Men don’t know what it means to have to de-escalate and shrug things off because a sense of vulnerability tells them that they are the weaker sex and should feel threatened. They are not sexualized before they have a chance to understand what it means. Our reality is not the same.
My boyfriend often reminisces about his first year of college, calling it the best year of his life. To me, that is when I have my first wake up call.
It is a Saturday evening. There is no one around; either because they have all gone to the party or it is late enough that everyone is asleep. I am talking to a friend. Someone comes up behind me and before I know it I feel a hand up my skirt. I look back; it is some college kid I’ve never seen before. I am alarmed. I look at him in disbelief unable to utter a single word. He is drunk. He laughs and says he is sorry and introduces himself. I don’t know what it is, but I laugh too and introduce myself. I can’t find the words to defend myself. Three years later he becomes the student association president. He gets whatever he wants because he is a man and he thinks he deserves everything. No one stands in his way. Do they know what he is capable of?
Years later, I’ve almost entirely forgotten about that experience until I relive it. It is another typical late night returning home from the usual bar. My friend is with me on the bus. It’s crowded. I can’t get a seat at the top of the red double decker. It’s ok though; it will only be a 20-minute ride to my neighborhood. I am standing close to the door, and I feel someone pushing against my back. I try to move away to give them space. It feels uncomfortable. He keeps pressing against me. Thankfully my stop is soon and my friend gets off the bus with me. I tell him what happened, I have tears in my eyes. He says, ‘I’m sorry. It’s over now.’ That’s all. He doesn’t understand. We walk the rest of the way to my flat, he speaks of other things, but I am clearly still distressed. I guess he just doesn’t know how to comfort me. How can he when he doesn’t know what that feels like and never will? I look at him and see the man in the bus in him; it’s too late now though. I give in. What for though? He never says he cares, and though I know he doesn’t, I delude myself into thinking he does. I want to believe they’re not all bad.
It’s easy to be blinded from reality when you are taught to expect the best from people. I often miss the days when I believed it, but I know that if I still did, I would not be thirsty for change. I would not be desperately finding ways to make things better for me and my fellow women, attending marches for women’s rights, helping organizations that foster female empowerment and education, talking incessantly to my male friends and boyfriend about these issues, though I can’t help but feel they don’t care when I do. I tell myself that I didn’t fight before because I wasn’t exposed to the worst aspects of our sexist society, I convince myself that I didn’t know.
But the truth is I did. I have known all along. Even when I tell myself I am sheltered in college because I have the same opportunities as the men in my class and most of them speak of equality and respect, I know it isn’t true. The times drunken college boys come onto me at parties or try to take me back to their room, thinking that just because they have needs they can do whatever they want with me. Just because they are stronger, they can take advantage of me. I am a thing to them. I used to deny this truth, dismissing it as drunken behavior. Thankfully I never let my guard down, I never allow myself to drink as much as I want to because I know I am not safe. But what if I do? What if I act how I truly want to? Why do I still have to be afraid at age 20 in this modern society?
After college, I start my new job. I tell myself, I deserve this job, I worked hard and I got here through my own merits. Though I know it’s true, I still feel the need to prove myself, to work harder than my male co-workers. I burn with bitterness when I see the new guy who started the same day as I cracking jokes with my boss who sits next to me and rarely says a word to me. This boy didn’t even go to college; he is barely 19 working as an IT assistant, chasing girls around the office. And yet he is the well-liked one, and here I am, working diligently until 9-10 every day, finishing every assignment on time, and even coming in early almost every day unable to make a dent in the system. I smile, pay attention, exchange pleasantries, and even joke around to be likeable. I often wonder what people think of me, of what I wear, of the fact that most of my friends are men…it isn’t my fault few women become architects, I assure myself. I dread being branded as an office whore though I know I will never do something to merit that title. Irrational fears that come when I look at myself in the mirror, is this too short? Is this too much make up? I often look through the office directory and can’t help but feel a sense of hopelessness when I see that there are only 2 female principals at the firm. Though I know I make as much money as other men at my level, I have a hard time grappling with the fact that the glass ceiling still exists. I ponder the idea of marrying rich. Maybe it will be an easy way out to not deal with this shit. I’ll pick the lesser of two evils. Maybe I can stand to be a trophy wife, at least then I’ll have money. Maybe I can start my own relief campaign with it, help other women make it when I couldn’t…
I look at my relationships with my boyfriends and I realize that I have never fully trusted any of them. Not because they did anything to make me feel that way or because I have had bad examples in my life. The problem is that I convince myself that the times have changed too much, that the values I grew up with no longer exist. The middle ground was never found. Either we are stuck in the past where women’s voices are not heard, and women are not more than property, or we are in the future, where they are objects not to be owned, but simply to be used and discarded. How can I trust someone who has grown up in a valueless world I ask myself constantly? I struggle with what I have become, senselessly insecure, a devout believer in the existence of an undefeatable androcentric empire. I am a product of a man’s world. Everything around me seems to shout out that there is no purpose to the fight. Some days I wake up invigorated, ready to challenge the current state of the world. Others, I wake up devoid of purpose, feeling stripped of an identity, soulless, convinced of the fact that I am not a person. I am just an object.
I am afraid of the future, of what could happen if we continue to accept every form of sexism, from decriminalizing wife beating to that ad in the subway with a girl advertising a burger in a bikini. Why is that even necessary? We subconsciously teach men that it is okay to sexualize a woman, to degrade her, to see her as nothing more than a beautiful object to handle, and we teach women that their worth is tied to the way a man lusts for her. Men don’t always understand, they have no idea the everyday struggle every woman goes through. They don’t consider that that girl they are catcalling down the street, or grabbing on the bus, or coming onto too strongly at the club is their mother, their sister, their daughter. I wonder if they even care? I remember the time my boyfriend and his friend were making fun of his sister, telling her she wasted her time on her degree because she wasn’t making as much money as they were having not gone to college, but only getting lucky by falling into the IT world. Perhaps they meant it just as a joke in response to her saying she wished she could travel more, but it wasn’t a joke to me, and I don’t think it was to her either. They were implying that as men they had ‘made it,’ they don’t realize that if either she or I had tried to go the unconventional route, it wouldn’t have worked. The reality is that women don’t get lucky. Men do. That struck me harshly, and I told my boyfriend about it, but I don’t he cared.
Sometimes it feels like men just don’t want to listen. Or if they do hear you out, they put on their sad faces only for an instant to listen to you speak about why that comment he made about his sister upset you, or why that man who said something to you about your look at work today made you feel inferior, but then they unmute the TV and it’s forgotten. It’s futile to bring it up again, it’ll be the same, or worse…will he leave me for not being able to let go of these petty little things? Am I crazy for making a fuss? The spiral of self-doubt begins. Rebecca Solnit says in her book, Men Explains Things to Me, that it is the overconfidence and cluelessness of men that causes them to have this need to explain things to women and diminish them, that this presumption “crushes young women into silence by indicating […] that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.” As women we are taught to question our voices, our ideas, our truths, even our own value when men dismiss them. He may forget what I said, but I will never forget that he did.
We believe that just because now there are laws against rape, and that women can own property or divorce that we have somehow progressed, but the reality is that we haven’t. Not when the men in our lives continue to make us feel inferior… like we don’t matter, like things. Often men have the ability to make us feel like we don’t matter to them, like we can be discarded. Why do they do that? I want to believe they don’t really feel that way, but they truly do though, if not, why would they treat us like that? It took me leaving to get my boyfriend to admit he cared about me. Almost a full year of hanging out, and he never said he cared. Why did I stick around I wonder, I still doubt my decision to stay honestly. I just can’t imagine it being any different with another man. They take what they want and that’s that, will I ever feel like I am more than a thing to someone? Every time a man treats a woman like a subhuman, he creates this black hole of trust. Simple misogyny like this is making it impossible to trust anyone nowadays; we alienate each other, feeding this vicious cycle of abuse, physical and emotional. Is there a way to stop it? We need to believe there is.
The fight continues. It is up to all of us alike to fight against this pervasive sexism that seeps in our society, in our workplace, in our home. Most importantly, men need to listen in order to understand the truth; they need to put themselves in our shoes in order to comprehend the dichotomy of our realities. They can’t just take what they want. Men have as much of a responsibility as women to change the future and strive for equality, but it is all too easy for those in positions of power to forget those they push down in order to become taller. The issue is that for centuries, women have been conditioned to believe they don’t deserve any better. How can someone like this help herself, I wonder. Men need to do something too. Just like people in power are supposed to do something for those who don’t have any, to empower them, to strive for equality, so does the same have to happen with the war on gender inequality. The problem is that those in power always fear losing it. That needs to change. There is no loss of power when you empower others to help you do what’s right. That is what we, as human beings do not seem to understand, no one gains anything from diminishing others. Inequality is not something anyone should be willing to settle for, and “things are better than they were” is no excuse to.
We are not objects. We will not be silenced.