Report from the Field: Some Day You Will Ache Like I Ache– What Sexualized Language Means to Me
Recently my grandmother writes on Facebook under a picture of my, at the time, fourteen-year-old sister: “sexy.” A few days later I see my now seventeen-year-old sister, nine years my junior, in an H&M plaid mini-skirt that barely covers her ass. “That’s way too short,” I say and, then, in nearly the same breath, “I think I had one that short when I was your age.” “Yeah,” she retorts, “you’re one to talk.”
It’s 6:45 pm on a Thursday and she’s working on an essay in the school library on how Abigail Adams wasn’t the prototypical feminist everyone thought she was, while wearing the plaid skirt that really looks more like washcloth than garment. She explains to me the complexity of Adams’s position both in history and as a feminist figure, referring to documents such as the March 1776 letter Adams writes to her husband stating, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could” and a critical essay “Political Dialogue and the Spring of Abigail’s Discontent” while pulling at the hem of her skirt like a stray thought.
I’m not sure what to tell my little sister about feminism in a world where even her own family sexualizes her before she’s legally an adult, an unconscious comment meant endearingly, but harmful, nevertheless. The University of Austin Texas publishes an article, “Sexualized Body Image Has a Negative Effect on Young Adolescent Girls” a month before I write this, which states, “10- to 15-year-old girls with higher levels of ‘internalized sexualization’ – a belief that it is important to be sexually attractive – earned lower grades in school and scored lower on standardized tests of academic achievement than their peers.” My high-honors sister in a non-suggestive pose (did her fourteen year old self who rode horses, read Harry Potter, and watched Alfred Hitchcock movies even know how to be suggestive?) and her body fully covered, still elicited the kind of comment that a woman hears in bars, on the bus, in the metro, in classrooms, and on the streets, as the afternoon I was running in old gym shorts and an oversized t-shirt and was startled to a stop by a truck full of men whistling and yelling at me, stunned that even in a moment when I was not aware of my body, except for its athleticism, that I was forced to be aware of how my body was viewed by these strangers and made to feel unsafe in that public space. They yelled at me, not to me – there was no expectation (or desire) for an actual response.
When I come in the door of my house that same afternoon and see my partner, I’m almost in tears with the frustration of being made to feel I can only inhabit the public space as a sexual object, albeit one that belongs to the male gaze. “But aren’t you somewhat flattered?” my partner asks innocuously. I try to find the words to explain the reversal of the situation to him. The connotations of the reversal have no clout.
Discussing the implications of this role reversal with one of my closest girlfriends in DC, our nation’s capital, she finds the words for me. “Although a woman could make rude advances toward a man,” she says, “they would not hold the same historic implications that are intrinsic to the act of men making those types of advances toward a woman. Women were societally oppressed for centuries and were considered property not so long ago. I think men feel comfortable making advances due to a residual feeling of entitlement that unfortunately is not yet antiquated, nor widely recognized.” I take a breath and tug on my skirt. My friend smiles and squeezes my hand. A view of the Washington Monument stops me like punctuation in a sentence.
Weeks later, I’m sitting in a meeting with colleagues wondering how to make this gender inequality tangible to my male friends, my lover, and my family. While I’m thinking, a white male colleague in his 60’s explains an activity we will all try with our advisees to help raise awareness of diversity in our school. When he sits down another white male colleague in his 30’s stands up and talks about how “disappointed” he is in his female students that they didn’t write about female heroines in a creative writing piece for his class. The issue is topical and his attempts to help girls see female protagonists as projections of themselves is in earnest, but I can’t help but wonder what solution this colleague can really suggest or pose. My problem in his voice hits a false note.
The irony that two Caucasian men have just used half our meeting time to emphasize diversity is not lost on me.
As a grown woman, where are my female heroes in this meeting for me to write about? Where is my heroine? Where is a reflection of myself?
The women I often see in public spaces are either invisible, as at this particular meeting where none of our female faculty members participate, or the sexualized version of my sister that my grandmother playfully labeled. While I wait for birth control at the local CVS, I face a wall of magazine covers, airbrushed celebrities with their shirts unbuttoned, not for my viewing pleasure, but for that all-encompassing male gaze.
The irony that men do not read these magazines is not lost on me.
Our bodies are public domain, not just for one’s viewing pleasure (the Cosmopolitan cover, me running on the sidewalk), but also for public discourse. Todd Akin tells us our bodies are incapable of getting pregnant if we suffer a “legitimate rape.” Our bodies, Akin expounds, “shut the whole thing down.” Jay-Z croons to his Bey that he’s Ike to her Tina Turner and a million girls “adore a Facist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you.” 
Remember the ladies.
In spite of this male gaze, in spite of the public spaces where we are, at times, still made to feel unsafe, there are many heroines popping up in the public discourse who are worth emulating: real, complex, full-bodied, brilliant, engaged, and funny women. Graphic novelist and “Dykes to Watch Out For” cartoonist Alison Bechdel wins a MacArthur Grant this Fall. Harper’s publishes Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Cassandra Among the Creeps” in October during an autumn when conversation about sexual assault runs rampant. Riot Grrl Kathleen Hanna’s band The Julie Ruin goes on tour. VIDA publishes Hafizah Geter’s essay “On Grief,” a reflection and meditation on the power of language and its currency when describing and dealing with gender and race. Lena Dunham kick-starts her book tour for her memoir Not that Kind of Girl in conjunction with Planned Parenthood just in time for midterm elections. Early in the spring, Lupita Nyong’o delivers a heartfelt speech on beauty at ESSENCE’s Black Women in Hollywood event. Emma Watson resurrects and validates the word “feminist” in her UN Speech (despite Time Magazines recent suggestion to ban it).
I’m still not sure what to tell my sister about feminism as she is on the brink of her eighteenth birthday, now less than a year away from college where she’ll become a part of an environment where date rape, violence against women, and misogyny still painfully prevail. The wolf whistle on the street, the copped feel at a party, the sexually suggestive comment, will play an overt and subtle role no matter what situation she’s in. She’ll be told she’s sexy, by friends, by men, by family. She’ll be ogled. She’ll get lost in the wilderness of that sexualized landscape. And she’ll develop her own allies, her own rhetoric, her own autonomy to claw her way out of those woods. There’s more to any woman than just a body or a suggestive skirt. There’s more to her.
And it’s that evening in the library, when my sister is deep in thought about her research paper, asking me about two conflicting sources and their connection to her thesis statement, that I realize this is my heroine right here: this intellect, this curiosity, this zeal for the right word in the right place, this kid, my sister, this reflection of myself. She was here all along, still figuring it all out, in dialogue alongside me – bemused, brilliant, and beautiful.
Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 1992. Web. 13 Nov. 2014. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178960>.
“Sexualized Body Image Has Negative Effect on Young Adolescent Girls.” Www.utexas.edu. N.p., 29 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <http://www.utexas.edu/news/2014/10/29/body-image-adolescent girls/>.
 Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy.” 1962.
Hannah Bonner’s poems have appeared in Oyster Boy Review, The Cellar Door, Asheville Poetry Review, The Freeman, and The North Carolina Literary Review. She has two poems forthcoming in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VII: North Carolina and a book review of Robert Pinsky’s Singing School forthcoming in The Asheville Poetry Review.