The crowd of parents lined the field cheering for their respective students. I was position four, the last person in the relay, meant to bring it home as quickly as humanly possible. I waited for the ever-scrappy Odelia to make her way across the field and back to me with the baton. The other lanes received their batons, as I stood crouched, shaking my stretched out arm towards Odelia, as if somehow the action of my shaking arm was propelling her toward me at a greater pace. The baton made it to my left hand and I was off. Running as quickly as I have ever ran before. I felt my body cutting through the wind like a great ship slices the curves of a wave. For the first time ever, it felt like other people wanted me to win. My mother had not come to sports day, because she was working, but I could hear the other parents and my fellow students cheering for me, and it was glorious. I turned around at the end of the field and headed back before the other lanes of racers. I was far ahead. I didn’t turn to look, I just kept going and made it to the finish line well ahead of my peers. First place!
I had never thought of myself as sporty, before Johnson Elementary’s (mandatory) Sports Day, I wasn’t interested in anything other than kickball. I didn’t feel like an athletic girl. My mother once cut my hair like Mary Lou Retton, because she was so inspired by her Olympic story. Instead of gymnastics, however, she found me spinning in the front yard like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. I thought my new short blonde hair would turn me into Maria.
I was never discouraged from doing sporty things directly, but there were some attitudes that defined things as either for girls or for boys. For example, I was called a tomboy when I climbed trees, and my Grandmother had an expression that she said once to me when she caught me trying to do the sing whistle part of Jealous Guy, “A whistling gal, and a crowing hen, always come to some bad end.” When I pressed my mother on the meaning of this rhyme, she replied, “It means, don’t try to be something that you’re not.” As I got older, I realized the deeper meaning behind the phrase. It was essentially saying that some things were not an option for me.
I have always been the type of person that doesn’t like to be told that something was beyond my capability. I continued to practice whistling, and while I am nowhere as good as Jealous Guy, I can do the intro to Disney’s Robinhood perfectly. You know… the one with the whistling cartoon rooster? Anyway, the point is, I can whistle, and perhaps, if not stunted early on in my whistling career by one sassy grandmother, I might have been even better. Maybe. This made me think about how much control women actually have over the patriarchy.
Afterall, it is mostly other women who teach young women how to navigate the world. I am not saying that men are not the root of all evil… I am just saying that we have more power than we realize. It is us women who read the magazines that perpetuate our own self-loathing and social conditioning. It is us women who compete with one another for male validation. It is us women who spread diet culture to one another and participate in constructing a social status based on body image.
As a little girl, my male friends liked that I read comic books, it was my female friends that criticized that behavior and made me feel “less girly” for it. Of course, they were only going along with what traditional values they learned from their parents. However my question has always been, how much of the patriarchy is self-inflicted? Fostered by the traditional and outdated perceptions of what is feminine?
When I entered middle school, I entered a world that was tragically simple. Point of views were so narrow they suffocated even the slightest of abstract thought. I desperately wanted to be a part of a group. I thought that I found a place in track and field. Riding the high of my recent elementary sports day victory, I tried out, and earned a place as an alternate. My chance came when the anchor developed food poisoning.
I stood with my toes poised on the white line awaiting the opportunity to prove once and for all that I was a valuable asset to the team. As Cheryl passed me the baton, I took off in a fury of violent anticipation that had built up inside of me like rocket fuel. Third positions were returning opposite of me, one of which was Barbara Millhouse. Barb. Barb was a giant of junior high track and field. She thundered across the field like a freight train. Large and deceptively quick. She glided towards me, rolling in like a storm. The anchor on her team was faster than me, I knew if I didn’t make it to the turn around and start back, I had no chance. I pushed my body forward with all of my strength.
It was then that I realized that Barb appeared to be directly in front of me, barrelling towards me at a terrifying pace! In fact, she had veered into my lane, and we were headed for a head on collision. I kept going, hoping that she would move out of my lane once she recognized her mistake. The panic in her eyes was palpable. We crashed into one another, and my eyes went black. I awoke with my coach crouched over me and a crowd of school faculty’s concerned faces told me that I had been injured. Barb stood off to the left shaking with tears. The race was over, and we both lost.
I think often about my need to prove my worthiness, and my refusal to stop or move out of the way. Barb must have thought the same, she hadn’t realized that she had veered into my lane, and she was just as determined to win. I can look back on my life as a woman now, and see that same sentiment expressed over and over in competition with other women. How many times have I stood in front of what was sure to be mutually assured destruction, and refused to move aside out of my own stubbornness to win? How many times have I insulted another woman, passed judgement on her, or criticized her, out of my own misguided jealousy and desire to be the victor? How much of male dominance is able to flourish because we want to be the one who wins? Sexism is a competition. We compete to be the standard of womanhood, to fit into a box that was made for us by men. To be the one that is the special exception among us all. Every aspect of the patriarchy is a game that we play with one another. What would happen if one day, we just all refused to participate?