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TW: Detailed Descriptions of Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Assault, Brief Mentions of Pedophilia and Disordered Eating


This piece is just a series of things loosely held together by a vague relation to my identity as a woman. There’s a common theme here, though; it’s pain. I’ve felt violated, angry, spiteful, exhausted, guilty, ashamed. I don’t have anything coherent to say on the topic as a whole. This is a ball of hurt I carry with me, a part of the constant calculus I engage in as I attempt to navigate the world. I wish I had some hope to impart, but my general impression is that growing up is just the process of grappling with the same struggles over and over again, each iteration providing more clarity. I don’t think I’ve done it enough times to yet have wisdom, but I’ve certainly done it. So here, in a collection of vignettes, is a list of thoughts. They’re aimless, agonizing, tiring, burdensome, but they’re also things I’ve chosen to carry with me; they’re part of me, however regrettable that may be.


1     My Existence is Performative


I like telling people that I’m a six-foot-tall man in my head. I’m aware it sounds innocuous and rather ridiculous when issuing from the mouth of a 5’ 3” tall girl, particularly if I exclaim it while standing on some elevated surface (usually a table), but it’s true. Or, perhaps true to an extent. I usually say this jokingly, but the joke only extends to the fact that I want it to merit laughter, not because I mean it insincerely. My thoughts on this are really best explained by the following Margaret Atwood quote: 

“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”

I feel eyes on me at all times, especially when I’m alone. I am a victim of the societal panopticon; always feeling watched, always experiencing pressure to be a desirable, inexplicable creature whose every emotion and action is beautiful, whose sadness is haunting and perfect. There is a man on my shoulder who judges my every move, who analyzes the lilt of my voice and the curl of my hair. I’ve chosen to be the man because he is inescapable; if my existence is inherently performative, can I wrestle some power away by, at the very least, assuming the role of an audience member in my own life?

Recently, I dictated to my friend exactly the series of steps required to charm South Asian parents. Dress in a nicely pressed salawar, bring sweets, wear enough makeup (but not too much). Walk in with a smile plastered on, and ensure that your voice is drippingly saccharine at all times. Offer to help cook, or clean. Carry the food to the table, and watch your every move. Eat enough, but not too much. Suppress the desire to verbally devour the uncle who spouts misogyny and racism. Casually slide in your academic achievements, but be sure to focus on the correct ‘type’ of achievement; not too technical, or else you might be perceived as unfeminine or conniving. Ask after everyone’s health, and everyone’s children, and parents. Be unproblematic. Be soft-spoken. Be docile. I did this every weekend for the first 17 years of my life.


2.    Spite, and Anger, and all the Rest


The day after I got into MIT, I was walking on air. I was so happy I woke up the next day and laid in bed for 15 minutes, feeling sparkly. I walked into my AP Art History class, and, seeing as I had told my teacher that I was really anxious about decisions, I strolled over to his desk and experienced the following interaction, which felt frankly reality-bending:


“I got into MIT!”


“Ah, nice. I hope the boy you’ll marry got in, too.”


“… sorry?”


I hadn’t really been able to parse what he had said. I genuinely thought I had misheard him, because of the sheer ridiculousness of his response. 

This, I think, encapsulates much of my experience of being a woman in STEM in my rural Arkansas high school. I was the only girl in my AP Calculus BC class, and I was usually one of a handful in my physics classes, which were taught by blatantly inept men. Most of them spent all of their instruction time either spouting conservative idealogy or poorly concealing insecurity about their own professional failures (I had one instructor who spent the duration of our class bemoaning the fact that he had been denied by NASA because he ‘was too old’). 

I scored 100s on almost every exam I had in my AP science and math classes in high school. I cared deeply about the content of these classes; I saw them as preparatory and instrumental to my future success. But I was almost obsessive. I had to set the curves in my classes. I felt that earning those scores made my presence in these classes unimpeachable; I was valedictorian, and no man who was doing worse than me in his classes had any grounds upon which to act as if I was inept. So I did better than everyone. I was bitter, spiteful, and jealous. The boys in my high school were so unworried; they skated through their classes and knew that, with little to no effort, they could have what they wanted. They didn’t have to worry about being perceived as capable; it was practically already a given. I clung to every point, fueled by my ever-brewing anger at the nonchalant teenage boys who surrounded me. I was perpetually seething during my adolescence. 

I think a lot about being an angry, messy woman. I was confrontational and arrogant because I had space to be. I was better than these boys, if only because I cared. This summer, I watched Fleabag, a British comedy that follows a problematic, nymphomaniacal, reckless woman. An inelegant, imperfect, angry woman. The amount of vindication I felt, being able to root for her, was strangely freeing. I wonder if I was truly rooting for myself in high school. 


3.    Love


I can’t think about being in love without feeling violated anymore. I remember standing in front of the mirror of my freshman dorm room, realizing that my chest was covered in sallow welts, half-healed bruises left by my partner. I was bitten, thrown, groped, all without being asked. I remember barely suppressing my trepidation as he, in the first week of our relationship, reached over and began touching me intimately after his roommate had walked into the room. I couldn’t say anything, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. I was struggling to reconcile the feelings of elation and desolation; I had the boy I wanted, and that felt good, but he hurt me almost daily. Beyond being continually verbally degraded, in the words of a friend, “he did whatever he wanted to [me], and even if that sometimes made [me] feel good, it seems like he didn’t really care.”

I really, really wanted him to be happy. To be happy with me, to be a good girlfriend, to satisfy him. So I let him do what he wanted; when he held me down by the neck and forced me to answer questions, I tried my hardest to contain my panic, attempting to keep my breathing even. Mostly I just remember the pressure mounting on my throat. I was so vulnerable, and all I could think was that I wanted it to stop, to pause, to be allowed to breathe. I raked at his fingers, hoping for some respite, but his hand didn’t budge.

I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. He asked for consent an hour after everything had happened, and everything in me rebelled as I simply avoided the question. He had scared me, badly.

He liked making pedophilia jokes.  “How can I get charges for this?” was an idle thought he’d often voice while I lay in various states of undress in his bed. “You’re so little.” “You’re mine.” “I can see the fear in your eyes.” “I’m a six-foot-four man kissing an underage girl. Sounds like a pedophile to me.” I erased as much of this as I could, focusing on how handsome, or charismatic, or funny he was. He wasn’t really any of these things, but I maneuvered my way around it because I wanted him so badly. The fact that these comments filled me with dread was an overreaction. Fear and romance occupy the same spot in my mind, now. I was desirable because I was little, feminine, exploitable. I was his, because I was a girl. He ate me alive, from the inside out.


4.    Ambition 


I did my eighth-grade history project on the Feminine Mystique, a seminal work in Western Second Wave Feminism. Betty Friedan describes the ideal woman, who is able to juggle family life and a career, and achieves the heights of success in both. Friedan’s proposal always felt bitterly divorced from reality. It felt liberating to forsake a personal life, and when I was younger, I often loudly proclaimed that I would never get married or have children.

I have dreams of a little girl, and it feels like a betrayal of my professional sanctity. I worry that I’m failing myself by wanting a family. But I do.


5.    Beauty


The girl in the mirror is just that – clearly a girl. There’s no ambiguity here. I have traditional femininity in spades. I wear a skirt at least once a week, and have a collection of sundresses. Eyeliner, and long hair. Earrings, a pearl necklace perennially on my neck. 

My femininity is inescapable; I hate the curve of my legs, the swell of my hips. I can’t get around them. I look in the mirror and wish I had a sharp jawline and a flat chest. Yet… I curl my hair, apply my makeup, and tie a ribbon in my hair. I look in the mirror, and I don’t change anything.

One of the few memories I still have from my childhood is crying on the edge of the bathtub after having weighed myself. Too heavy, compared to the thin, beautiful white girls in their shimmering cheer outfits. I can’t eat alone in public. Hunger is private; I’ll never learn to swallow my shame. 


6.    Exhaustion and Guilt


I am deeply tired. I have little else to say.