4 times I needed feminism before I even knew what it meant
Shortly after my fourteenth birthday, I started labeling myself as a feminist, but looking back, I realize that the concept of feminism was a necessary part of my life long before my teens. I moved around a lot during my adolescence, thanks to my fickle artist of a mother (not that I’m complaining at all), and as a result, have I’ve lived in Monaco, England, Singapore and America as well as the other places mentioned in this essay. The constant traveling led me to compare and contrast cultures and norms fairly early on, even though I didn’t always realize I was doing so.
After my ascent into feminism, I realized that one specific, insidious element seemed to re-occur like an annoying pop-up ad in every single place that I visited: Misogyny. I suppose that I’d always recognized the extreme pressure on girls to be some inflexible image of femininity, though as a young child, I hadn’t known a word for the injustice or even really understood what it was. By sharing my experiences, I hope to show you how regardless of the culture or country, misogyny always appears with the same nasty characteristics and is prominent everywhere. You’re not alone, and you can stay true to yourself, even if the whole world seems to be holding you down sometimes.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2004
I lived in Kuala Lumpur for three years (from ages 3-6), and being as young as I was, didn’t really care about much other than the giant swimming pool in my building and my social life. Looking back, I made many great childhood memories in Malaysia, but there were one or two bad memories, as well. As a four year old, I don’t even think I registered the worst of these as bad, but I do remember feeling very confused.
At four, I loved all my friends unconditionally and never paid much attention to the difference between the tomboys and girly girls. I didn’t discriminate and was simply happy to have people to be around. One day, my best male friend showed up at school with pink varnish on his fingernails (his sister had painted them while he was napping) and his friends reacted instantly with ruthless laughter and teasing. They called him “gay” (as if it were an insult) and “weird” no matter how many times he explained that his sister had done it.
I remember being thoroughly confused, since I knew that some of my more masculine girl friends liked to “cross dress” and weren’t ever even lightly teased. Ultimately, my friend experienced bullying that day, but bullying in its most accepted form… misogyny. I remember that his humiliation only lasted until he’d managed to chip all the polish off, because little kids are fickle and he wanted it to end. A big point to me though is that he ended it. No one was there for him, not even me, because I didn’t understand what was going on or even truly recognize what was being done to him as bullying. Everyone acted like it was normal. I guess it was normal, but I know that’s really sad.
That day, my friend was taught to feel ashamed if any inch of his body was feminine, and though I don’t remember if or how he changed after that event, I know both he and I were exposed to our first example of direct sexism that day. I also realize that from a young age we are taught that it is degrading to be girly and that even some four-year-olds are being shaped into misogynists. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that I was exposed to an injustice so accepted at that young an age and that ultimately nothing has changed. Even nowadays at school, a boy will be teased for getting a “girly” haircut or wearing a pink shirt. This emphasizes my opinion that it is so important to teach little children about modern-day norms that really are not normal because it shapes how they’ll behave and what they’ll think is acceptable in the future.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2011
I moved to Rio in 2010 and stayed only until the end of 2011. During our second and final year in Rio, I faced my second memorable encounter with the almighty M-word, though this time, it was less direct, more immediate and painfully personal compared to the first.
Eleven-year-old me had reached that golden time where I was watching children have strange, wannabe relationships that ended before handholding even took place. My closest friend at the time (a short blonde Norwegian boy) had just dealt with the heartbreak of his girlfriend moving away. A week or two after she’d left, I remember over hearing a very disturbing conversation. A couple of boys were teasing my friend for dating (and I quote) “a hairy monster.” They made him feel ashamed for liking a girl who didn’t shave at eleven years old because of course, hairy legs are totally disgusting (I’m being completely sarcastic).
Overhearing that conversation impacted me forcefully, as I myself am naturally on the hairier side, and it made me feel insecure. I never brought the conversation up with him, nor did he with me. Regardless, we both felt visibly terrible for a couple of days. I remember him spreading rumors shortly after that he’d never liked the girl at all and that just made me feel worse. I wondered whether he’d say the same things about me when I moved away or whether he would even wait for that. Thankfully, he did neither, but my insecurity never left no matter how well he continued to treat me. Later, I even brought up different body hair removal topics with my mom, but she believed I was too young and I was already too disheartened to argue.
Rio was the first place I felt ashamed of my body hair but it definitely wasn’t the last. I continued to feel beaten down for my appearance in the years that followed. I feel like in each school I’ve attended, there have been one or two incidents of people mentioning that I was hairy and that it was weird. Four years later, and my insecurity is just starting to fade. Finally understanding that I don’t have to fit that pre-conceived idea of flawless is a blessing! It’s okay that I’m me! It’s okay that I’m half-Japanese and not the hairless stereotype that I’ve been expected (and in one case blatantly told) to be. I don’t have to be what I’m expected to be and no one else does, either. It seems like such an obvious statement, but when things get personal and words get harsh, it’s easy to forget. So here’s a reminder, girls: You don’t have to change.
Tokyo, Japan, 2012
I visited Japan twice in 2012. I absolutely love visiting since it reminds me of a different culture that I belong to and because it’s such a unique bright city. I can only say great things about Tokyo in general, but personally, I’ve also made some bad memories there.
Throughout my second visit in 2012, I had the terrifying experience of being stalked three times in two months by three different middle-aged men. I was only twelve-years-old and easily triggered into “panic mode,” making all three times very stressful and unpleasant. To me, the most jarring incident of the three was the final one. A local man had followed me on a train from Tokyo to Yokohama and approached me head on to ask for a picture. Being already stressed and panicked for not being able to enjoy my day trip thanks to this man, I agreed. I remember trying to fix my face in the most subtly unrecognizable way I could as he held the camera up to his face and snapped the picture. As soon as I heard the click, I scurried away knowing that he was upset with the outcome. Thankfully, he didn’t follow me afterwards, but I remained paranoid for the next couple of days that he was near.
Looking back and realizing that there were so many other things I could’ve done, I feel slightly upset that no one educated me on how to handle street harassment early on. That experience left me paranoid that someone might always be following me and only now am I starting to understand the different things I can do if I feel my safety is being threatened.
I think it’s so messed up that a man can feel he has the right to publicly (however subtly) harass a woman. I also think it’s even more wrong when a girl is not even a woman yet and a man still feels as if he “deserves” to get what he wants no matter how violating what he wants is. I mean after all, finding a girl’s face attractive doesn’t give anyone the right to make that girl feel uncomfortable or unsafe. It is never okay to give someone unwanted attention on the streets. It’s street harassment. It’s wrong. It needs to stop.
Jakarta, Indonesia, 2014
I only lived in Indonesia for 8 months, but it was actually the place where I formed most of my more mature opinions and principles. This just so happens to mean that it is also the place where I first declared myself a feminist. I think Indonesia was such a self-defining place for me since it is one of the more dangerous countries I’ve lived in, which meant that I couldn’t leave home as often and had more time to figure myself out.
Of course, not all my time at home was spent cooped up in my own mind, since I did have friends and a Facebook. This meant that other people had a large part in helping me find out what my opinions were, since I had to figure out why I didn’t agree with some things they said and actually had the time to discover what I felt was right. My decision to declare myself a feminist was actually thanks to one of these Facebook conversations where I just couldn’t agree with what the other person (a close guy friend of mine) was saying. It wasn’t a scary or deliberately harmful situation, but the opposing opinion felt so wrong to me that I had to find out if other people felt like I did. Finding out, of course, meant surfing the Internet, which inevitably led to my discovery of feminism.
The defining conversation started out full of humor and simple teasing as our friendship generally was but eventually, the topic turned to children. I remember my friend asking me how many children I wanted, as if I had to at least want one, and me responding with a simple and definite “none.” He proceeded to bombard me with tons of very demeaning questions such as “Then, what will you do all day?” and “You’re a girl, don’t you want to have your own creation in the world?” I answered each question with my honest opinion and repeatedly stated that I didn’t think I would have time for children and all their implications (less time for yourself, responsibility for another person, having to think of someone else first etc.).
My friend eventually stopped questioning me and simply said “You’ll be lonely with only a husband.” I remember sighing before typing back, “I don’t want to get married either, though.” It turned into a full blown argument after that, with me telling him that I know I’m bad at committing and don’t believe in getting all my romantic love from one person forever. He kept saying I’d be lonely and poor (since he somehow also forgot that women are capable of making money just like men do). We were both left angry in the end for multiple different reasons, but I suppose I was mainly upset because he didn’t understand that women could be independent and happy at the same time.
Overall, I don’t blame him for his views on women since I understand that they’re a result of what’s constantly being sold to him through the media. But regardless, I will not accept or understand that I cannot voice my aspirations and wants without being labeled as a “crazy feminist.” It’s angering when I’m ultimately bullied for not bending toward the norm or following inflexible standards. I wish schools would specifically address gender equality when educating children on respect because everyone should be able to lead the lifestyle they want (as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else) without being belittled. Until that ideal norm occurs though, I hope all people who identify as feminists continue to spread knowledge on why the movement is so vital for women’s respect and men’s humanity.
I still often face sexism today, even in the wondrous city of New York, and feel slightly bitter that the same is true for girls around the globe. Whether it takes the form of rape or just a vocal, demeaning opinion, sexism is far from dead in any country, first world or otherwise. But, I’m tired of watching my back, and my clothes, and my mouth; it shouldn’t be this way, and we all know it. Misogyny is something we’ve all seen and dealt with, but it’s something we should all put in the dirt and educate others on because at the end of the day, this isn’t the future women deserve and it most certainly isn’t the present we need, either. Educate and defend girls, and we’ll get there eventually.
Brandy Kuhn is a hopeless fangirl, punk, Buddhist, dancer, traveller, singer, and writer who lives in NYC. She’s travelled all around the world but still dreams of living in a small loft with a spinny chair, red coffee mug and many pets. She would not trade her pink prescription glasses for the world, even though she has to hold her face in fear while riding roller coasters. She worships Tim Burton, Kurt Cobain, and Emma Watson.