I Am No Shrinking Violet

My mother has a saying, “She’s no shrinking violet.” In other words, she’s strong, assertive, outspoken. My parents didn’t raise shrinking violets, not one among us.

My parents raised me to speak my mind. I was a precocious child who often surprised adults with what I had to say. I remember their amusement. I remember them listening. I enjoyed chatting with adults when I was child.

My parents raised me to be an adventurous eater. We ate everything from wheat germ to big fluffy white-flour pancakes on Saturdays. At restaurants we ordered from the menu–no kid’s menu for us–and usually cleaned our plates. Our appetites were not policed.

My parents raised me to make my own decisions. I grew up with reasonable restrictions but great privilege. They didn’t spoil. We didn’t have TVs in our bedrooms or an excess of toys. My parents focused on experiences. We had only to express our interest in something–violin, horseback riding, summer camp in another state–and my parents made it happen. They did not impose their preferences upon us. They allowed our individual ideas, talents, and proclivities to guide us.

My parents, by their example, made it easier for me to parent my own child.  (Try not repeating the patterns of your parents; it is surprisingly challenging.)

My parents’ values run counter to a culture that says women are not equal to men. A culture that says women shouldn’t be outspoken or make anyone uncomfortable with our words. A culture that says we should check our tone of voice. Women shouldn’t have big appetites. We shouldn’t be too big or too tall. We shouldn’t take up space. Women shouldn’t disagree (especially with men) or be disagreeable.

Despite being raised by progressive, supportive parents, the culture did its work on me. I absorbed the messages and I bought into them. Over the years, my voice became quieter. I second-guessed myself. I never felt attractive enough or thin enough or small enough. I couldn’t squish myself into the box assigned to me no matter how hard I tried.

Sometimes these impossible standards for women are communicated to us directly, but more often they come in the form of microaggressions, small, subtle, often unconscious actions and words that marginalize us and serve to reinforce gender stereotypes. From Everyday Feminism:

Microaggressions are a result of internalized biases, presumptions, and stereotypes about marginalized people and groups. They consist of the things you might even know not to be true, but that have been so thoroughly reinforced by our culture that they occasionally (and unintentionally) leak out into our everyday lives through our actions and words.

But, even if you have good intentions and don’t mean something “in that way,” microaggressions are still insidious. Even in their subtlety, all those “unintentionally” sexist comments and actions gradually build upon each other — and they sting.

In the end, they reinforce the problematic societal structures…And that is exactly why you need to listen when somebody calls you out instead of fixating on whether or not you love women or are a feminist.

Microaggressions create hostile environments at home, in the workplace, or in social settings by serving as a constant reminder of their inequitable position in society. They casually put people “back into their place” by reinforcing prescribed gender norms and their shadow of inequality.

They validate a culture where women still make less than the average man doing the same work, and that women of color make even less than white women. They perpetuate the undervaluing of domestic work because of it’s association with femininity. They even prod us to evaluate if our own bodies are up to par with what society deems to be acceptable.

For most of my life, I’ve absorbed these microaggressions with bitten tongue. I’ve pretended not to hear them. That changed when I gave birth to my daughter. Now those microaggressions ring loudly in my ears. I’ve observed just how early they begin–from birth. I’ve had to confront (and continue to confront) the ways I’ve bought into and participated in our culture of inequality. I’ve had to call myself out. And I’ve begun to call out others. Because raising my voice is a catalyst for change. Because I will not remain silent when it comes to my child.

If you call out a microaggression, bring what’s shadowy and insidious into the light, you may be met with open aggression or hostility. You may be gaslighted. You may be told you didn’t hear what you heard, that your memory is inaccurate, that it was intended to be positive, that you’re “making a big deal out of nothing.” On the other hand, you may be met with open-mindedness, a doorway to discussion, an opportunity for change.

While I can’t control the culture, I can set clear and firm boundaries around the interactions people have with my toddler. I can and will call out sexist microaggressions. I want my daughter to know her value lies not in her appearance but her capabilities. I want her to know she be can whoever she wants to be. She is entitled to take up space, eat what she likes, dress how she likes. She is entitled to follow her heart and speak her mind.

My parents did not raise a shrinking violet, and neither will I.

(Post 282 of 365)







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