Changing a culture of everyday sexism

Wmc Fbomb Erica Penner 5218

When I first began educating myself about feminism, I was warned that I would soon start seeing sexism and misogyny all around me. Those who warned me were right. When I began to believe that I had a choice to stand up to discrimination — that I could defend myself against men who directly insulted me, that I could pursue a career in science or mechanics if I wanted to — I realized just how much inequality I had experienced without previously recognizing it as such.

I am a photographer. I recently collaborated with another photographer on a photo session that illustrated body positivity and vulnerability. We took pictures of each other with black paint handprints on our shoulders and backs. We stood in the shower, water pouring down our faces and bodies, smudging our makeup. We hoped the photos would convey the idea that women do not always take off our clothes with sexual intentions, although images that capture our nakedness are often perceived as such. In reality, women often take off their clothes to be comfortable, alone, and quiet. We hoped to show that the shower is not only useful for washing off the day’s dirt, or even as a site of sexual activity, but a place to think, recover, release stress, and start over afresh.

I love the way the photos turned out. My parents did not. “I don’t like it,” my mom said. I tried to explain to her that art is not always meant to exist for a viewer’s pleasure, but also to raise awareness on a topic and stir complicated emotions in them. “These are sexual photos,” my dad said. I corrected him. These are vulnerable photos. A woman is topless in the photo, but her actions do not inherently imply sexuality.

Another day, some acquaintances and I were gathered around a fire, talking about a young pregnant girl we knew. “You can’t blame him,” someone said, referring to the boy who impregnated her. “He’s a teenager.” That comment came and went quickly, and the conversation carried on. No one stopped to notice how that seemingly simple comment embodied the gendered shame that often surrounds teenage pregnancy, not to mention sexist rape culture, so efficiently. I couldn’t follow the rest of the conversation because I was fuming in silence.

I drive my 13-year-old sister to school every morning. Every single day, men in their cars look at me in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I’m tired of being objectified. It simply doesn’t feel good, and that should matter.

Another time, an acquaintance of mine referred to women as a “natural resource.” I responded, “Excuse me, but we humans don’t like to be called a natural resource.” He laughed and said, “And yet you are!” I know I did the right thing by standing up for myself and for women in general. I didn’t degrade him in my attempt to do so, either; I simply corrected his statement. But apparently he couldn’t understand my perspective.

Long before I had ever heard the word “feminism,” I was mad at my male friend for refusing to clear the table at his mom’s command because “that’s a girl’s job.” Before I ever heard the word “sexism,” I shaved my head to prove that I am still a wonderful, talented human being even when I do not meet the social standards for a female’s appearance. I have always believed in my rights, even when it’s evident that those around me don’t feel the same way.

I am going to marry him, because I see things in him that I am proud of, that I want to build a life with, that I want to pass on to our children. We will teach our children equally when it comes to household responsibilities. We’ll teach our daughter to fix the car and our son to wash the dishes, and vice versa. I believe I have found a man who will not hold me back from my dreams, who will not make me stay home and keep his house clean, as I have witnessed husbands do in the families near me. And yet, I will keep our house clean, and I will cook meals for him, and I will support his dreams --and I expect him to do the same for me. We will do these things because we love each other, not because we feel we need to fit roles prescribed to us.

Now I am dating Jeremy, a man who loves me and respects me. With his support, I’ll continue to do what I love. I’ll take photographs of women who want to be empowered, who want to feel comfortable in their own skin. I will use my talent to destigmatize the vulnerable human skin that we all wear, and to help women to be confident, fearless, and powerful. My children will not grow up with the everyday sexism that I did. If they encounter sexism, they will call it out early and often.

I am going to make a change.

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Erica Penner
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