In recognition of International Women’s Day with The Wellness Universe, please enjoy Estelle Bonaceto’s article on changing sexist assumptions.
Changing Sexist Assumptions: A Critical Component To Women’s Empowerment
At a very young age, I became aware of the imbalances in power between men and women and observed gender role stereotypes. The sexist assumptions that later became internalizations had a direct impact on the choices I made. It took many years to heal from the consequences of those choices and it wasn’t until I’d fully challenged deeper distorted beliefs, that I’d successfully came to a place of personal empowerment.
The First Test
I can’t help but wonder why after all of this time, do you suddenly want to sit with me, to be my friend? Nothing’s changed. The only thing that’s changed is my pants. I have new pants. Not the kind my mom usually buys from Sears, but the kind from Dress Barn. They zipper up super high and I think that’s pretty neat, never noticing that they accentuate my small waist and flatter my backside. I hadn’t noticed at all. That is until I was put into a position of reflection. As I look at my reflection, somewhere in my mind I realize that I “look good’ by some unknown standard. A connection is made (unconsciously then) between how my body looks and how I’ll be accepted or liked. The stage is set. My first moment of being seen is because of how my body looks.
Environments Change: The Seed Grows
I had long left the school of these early experiences and went on to another school that seemed more accepting when my focus on my physical appearance grew. A product of the 80’s, I was sporting big hair and leopard patterned spandex pants during a time when MTV was airing the first of many sexually objectifying videos. We were all tuned in and could act out the scenes. Like many teens, I gravitated toward popular culture for guidance on how “to be”. During the formative years that followed, I wore heavy make-up, dressed in clothing that emphasized my sexual appeal and brought forth experiences in alignment with that objectification.
A combination of my childhood and teen experiences resulted in adopting some strong opinions on social and gender equality and my desire to take action on issues of social justice grew. In particular, the relationship between societal influences on adversarial sexual beliefs and its correlation to violence against women. My efforts to make a difference in these areas included undergraduate research and providing education and services to women in crisis. The irony here is that despite my success with helping others, I had internalized sexism and my domestic life was a testimony to that.
Fast forward 20 years
I am making a video and as I get ready for a day of filming I can’t seem to get myself to prepare. I look at myself and laugh. My attire looks like a deliberate attempt to look frumpy. My pants are stained and awkwardly fitting. Why would I do that? I can’t get myself to even shower before filming and I realize I no longer want to be seen as a body.
What it means to be a woman is in part defined by the messages we receive from a culture comprised of sexist assumptions.
Many of these seemingly harmless or benevolent assumptions run behind the scenes in the thought world of many women. Assumptions become beliefs and actions coming from these distorted beliefs about gender only serve to reinforce misinformation. We must first accept that we are all part of a problem that is much bigger than external sexist stereotypes and recognize our own role and participation in reinforcing harmful belief systems.
Internalized sexism keeps women small and puts all women at greater risk of violence.
Those who’ve come to believe/internalize myths about their own gender act upon those beliefs as if true. One such belief is that a women’s value is based on her appeal as an object of sexual gratification. This belief separates herself from her true self and that of other people. She may engage in ‘dumbing down’ her intellect and overemphasizing her physical appeal. As I write this, I kid you not, a jingle comes across my consciousness.
“She can bring home the bacon. Shake it up in a pan and never let you forget you’re a man, cuz you’re a wo-man. Enjoli!”
A commercial with so much distorted influence. I haven’t watched television in many years. From glimpses of bits of popular culture, I’ve seen enough to know it’s time for a change.
It’s important not to blame yourself or other women for these internalizations, but to recognize what falsehoods have been affecting one’s thought processes and subsequent actions. Sexist assumptions about women are part of our mainstream culture and refusing to go along or accept them as truths are like saying “no” to the popular table.
Ultimately, changes made will help both genders to live more authentically and women to be more empowered to be all that they are intended to be.