When I was in kindergarten, girls could do absolutely anything!
I would smile wondrously at my mom day in and day out as I heard her chronicle her beliefs and her passions to other women. She always said how much she missed her passion for teaching children.
I couldn’t wait for the day I would get to be a woman, too. I’d be a doctor, a veterinarian, a scientist, an architect, and a famous painter. I’d also know 10 languages minimum, win various accolades in physics, cure cancer, and write several best-seller books. (Maybe, just for fun on top of it all–I’d be a mother too.)
You see yourself as limitless and indestructible. You can make anything happen through dreams and working hard.
Then something subtle yet bizarre happens around age 7 (at least for me).
It shakes your tiny foundation and big dreams. You begin learning gendered rules, attempting to make sense of yourself and the world around you by placing your worth below that of a male.
You then get a confounding influx of hormones on top of the confusion and are left feeling more vulnerable and irritable than ever before. Your feelings sting a little sharper, you start being conscious of your body, and you learn what the word “powerless” means.
The first thing you learn as a girl in middle school is where you stand, both figuratively and metaphorically. It’s a no-brainer among girls: Boys intrinsically hold more social power. There is no reason, it just seemingly is.
Everything suddenly is catered towards men, even at the expense of women. It’s an awful feeling, the gateway to an existential gender crisis. (I can’t interfere–it’s a canon event.)
It’s time to say the word: ‘patriarchy’. It’s something that’s taught to everyone when they are young in our society, regardless of gender identity. The only difference, however, is that one side unequivocally holds power over the other. Because patriarchy is an adult problem, it gets passed onto children through behavioral modeling.
It’s not just treatment at the hands of others. More broadly, it is a set of ideas and limitations you get repeatedly exposed to. After enough repetition of these messages, it’s easy to believe anything that’s being offered to you.
Going back to my journey of indoctrination into the patriarchy, I almost effortlessly began to believe that I was a step below–if not entirely removed–from my male counterparts. I woke up one day and suddenly seemed to doubt myself for the first time.
Feelings of inadequacy of being exactly as you are, an unavoidable symptom of patriarchy, have a way of flooding into every aspect of life. For me, my most harmful beliefs emerged around what I thought I was educationally capable of doing. (Surprise, I thought it wasn’t enough!)
Losing sight of my years of winning the science fair in elementary school, I began to wonder if my brain would be able to keep up with middle school math and science. I wasn’t as technical as the other boys and stuck with what I already knew.
It wasn’t until much later that I knew where these persistent negative beliefs about myself came from. I learned about the patriarchy and women’s rights in high school, but it didn’t change anything–I still fully believed to some extent that men would always be more capable than me.
I wish I could tell you at this point that there was a fixed date that my eyes opened and I began to see patriarchy and how it worked against me and every other woman I knew. Feelings of insubordination are hard to shake, especially when they’ve been built into nearly every facet of life as you know it. You can’t ever truly win a game if it’s rigged.
After a very Barbie summer, these uncomfortable thoughts that I try not to linger on have resurfaced. I did the work and received the same accolades as men around me. But my personal life felt like a disjointed mess as a straight woman catering to cisgender men.
I became aware of my instinctive tendency to place the worth of men above my own, to believe that I was equal enough but never enough at my core. It was a series of “Aha” moments that came together very suddenly and left me downright stupefied, ready to ask questions.
Because of my middle school-born belief that I was inept in all things technical, I stayed away from all subject matter that I thought “belonged” to men. During my time as an undergraduate student, I made sure to stay “in my lane”, never deviating from the things I was sure I could succeed in (which included everything unrelated to STEAM).
I focused on my perceived feminine strengths of empathy, my ability to write, and my ability to connect with others. I kept myself small, comfortable, and unhappy.
Six months after entering the workforce, I turned my focus towards Computer Science. I just had a feeling that I needed to turn in a new direction, knowing fully well I didn’t know what was there for me. I’ve been delightfully surprised throughout the process of my programming education that I can be technical and creative.
Unpacking these old beliefs is a daily struggle for me still.
In moments when I feel inadequate, I close my eyes and try to visualize my five-year-old self. I sit down with her and push her hair behind her ears. I let her talk to me as I hold her hand. I tell her that we are going to be fed a lot of information in our lives, and a lot of it is untrue. She isn't listening too closely, of course.
I let her talk about all fifty of the full-time careers she’s going to have and how she’ll change the world. I let her meet me, now. We are forever the same, an inextricably bound duo resulting from genetics and conditioning.
It’s hard to heal from a lifetime of being made to believe you can never measure up to a man or the false promises of traditional toxic masculinity. It’s even harder to feel worthy in the process of unpacking all these concepts, still living in its imminent presence all the while.
Yet women heal each other and themselves by gaining collective awareness, talking, and refusing to become small in the face of forced contraction. Our biggest, wisest parts are often rooted in our childhood selves. There's much guidance from a time when things seemed perhaps way less complicated.
Maybe we’ve spent a long time practicing what we thought was right, but we still owe it to ourselves at every age to change in ways that allow us to grow and change–that’ll never change.