Content Warning: This piece contains mention of rape.
When we name gold ‘gold’, we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing into it our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity and so on, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the immediate reality of gold (Slavoj Žižek 2010).
In high school, my favourite teacher asked us to write a poem titled ‘What Being a Woman Feels Like to Me’. The majority of us went around the circle one by one and read-aloud about being scared, about the fear—they were all almost identical. All the girls could relate to a poem about being scared. At 16-years-old, this was our reality. The everyday actions that came with walking down the street, of living in a body that we were not told to enjoy, the idea of performing womanhood incorrectly. In a way, we were all talking about the rules that were never laid out to us, but the ones we had to learn anyway.
As soon as the box is checked ‘girl’, there are a number of predetermined ideas about what your life is going to look like. There is a list of what you should spend your time doing, what you will be good and bad at, the type of person you should be attracted to. This action, of holding women to an idea of what they should be, ignores the possibility of what a woman might become if we give her the chance to choose. When we speak on what a woman is, we think of the stereotypes: ‘girl things’ like dresses, make-up, babies, or choosing to reject the stereotype and as a result being called a tomboy, or bossy, or bitch.
We often only voice the violence that affects women on a daily basis at the end of the conversation. The violence that comes with being a woman is not an unknown idea. It’s not new and I am not the first to talk about it. There is the grand scale issue of physical violence against women, statistically being done by men, especially in Australia. I also know that women of colour and transwomen are affected daily by even more pressure, prejudice and violence than I am. But there is also another type of violence that is not so physical, it’s underneath, the second-guessing and calculation we go over and over in our heads. It’s the way we have to change our behaviour just to be in this world. This type of violence has wrapped itself around my brain, deciding my actions for years.
Having to constantly judge yourself by others’ standards—fretting over what you should be doing or looking like—is an everyday occurring issue. To decide if you are going to give in or choose today to be the day that you wear whatever you want without thinking of the consequences. When my sister asks me if her dress is too short before she goes out dancing, I don’t want to say yes, but I think of all the lingering fingers that have scraped my skin dry and I hand her the jeans—overheating is a much safer risk. I wish I could protect her innocence, but I know she is not that much younger than me and I imagine she already knows the answer—that is why she is asking the question in the first place.
When I was a teenager, I lived in Bali, Indonesia— a country that is still very much rooted in its dated ideas of how women and men should behave. Growing up as a teenager, going out on the weekend is not an unusual thing to do and spending those specific teenage years in Bali meant that it was not necessarily the safest thing to do. Sometimes just walking down the street was dangerous, not only because of the street dogs at my ankles but because of the men, whistling and shouting in a language I did not understand. At nighttime it was even more terrifying. I couldn’t see where these calls were coming from, just the shadows on the side of the road, the shrubbery, and shop front stoops that held my nightmares. My fear was not unique, and neither were the thoughts I would have before going out.
It would start just after 8 pm, surrounded by two or three other girls, staring at ourselves in the mirror, making decisions. I had a standard of femininity to uphold, so I started my make-up even though I knew it was going to melt off in a couple of hours. My shirt, jeans and boots were all been carefully chosen, not because it’s what I wanted, but because it was the safest. The last time I wore a dress, I spent the night holding down the fabric in my balled-up fists after a man walking past stuck his hand up and grabbed what wasn’t his. Looking back on this memory, I know that even when completely covering my body, people still feel as if they can touch me. What am I supposed to believe? Often while getting ready, my friends and I discussed this—we talked about how our bodies do not belong to anyone else, not our parents or partners, but what was I supposed to believe when I didn’t even feel as though my body belonged to me? I did not feel as though I had a choice in what I wore, or how I was seen by everyone else.
I had three phrases saved on my translation app on my phone.
‘No thank you.’
‘I don’t want it.’
I protected myself by being polite. Pretty please—being polite is pretty and being pretty is polite. I practiced those three phrases, repeating them like a mantra in my head until it stuck like sand—the type that doesn’t wash off, itching behind my eyes. I dreamt in ‘sorry, no thank you, I don’t want it’. It slept beneath my tongue and I wished I could wear it like perfume behind my ears. I wished it smelt like blood, like dirt. I wished it smelt like I was brave. I repeated the mantra in my head to tune out my nightmares of friends crying to me in bathroom stalls.
Sharing these experiences of mutual trauma, I wonder: if we didn’t have these shared experiences of terror and fear that bond us together, would we be so close? Possibly. I can assume that this experience is a sure thing that brings us closer together. The year that four of my friends told me they had been raped was the closest I had ever been to them. I have made friends with girls who I do not know the name of but I do know the story of the first time they were assaulted.
Sometimes I think I can see the exhaustion of the girls around me in the resistance between their breaths, a certain head nod and quickening of their heartbeat when getting into the taxi. It’s something we all have to hold, the constant effort of surviving.
I have written too many times about the violence that has been inflicted on me and my friends by men on the streets, in bars, in schools, grocery stores, the beach, taxis, while driving a motorbike, in our own homes. This list does not include all the places and already it is too long. So, I do not want to give any more space to list the ways that women have been violated. We already know it; it is not a silent thing anymore. When we were given dreams in boxes and checked ‘girl’ and then named woman, this was not one of them. To not be able to count the places you have felt unsafe on one hand. I do not want to write about this anymore. For now, I remind myself, remind my body, that I deserved all the good parts of being a teenage girl—that there were good parts, and that I can remember them.
Žižek, S 2010, Violence, Profile Books, London, UK.