Growing into the woman I am today

(Arielle Chen | Daily Trojan)

I used to be the bravest girl on the playground.

Every day in preschool, I played pirates with the boys, dashing between the swings and through the mulch while the rest of my female classmates ran and hid so we couldn’t tag them. But if any boy dared to call a girl slower or start a debate about the superior gender, I fought back and explained over and over again that girls could do anything boys could. 

And for a long time, I believed those words. I took on the same higher-level classes as my male peers and spoke up when I knew the answer to a complicated algebra equation or when I wanted to share my analysis of a metaphor in the latest novel we read in school. 

In my seventh grade English class, when we had to pick a partner for a group activity, three classmates argued over who had to work with me. They saw me as a know-it-all and kiss-up because of how often I participated, and they practically begged my teacher and classmates to save them from having to be in my group. 

When one of them eventually gave up and partnered with me, another girl arrived late to class and joined our group. They made clear from the start that they didn’t want to hear me, and that if I did speak, they would ignore me. 

From then on, when teachers asked a question, I kept my hand glued to my desk. My participation grades dipped through middle school, high school and now college as I shut my mouth in class discussions, opting to write my thoughts instead of speaking them in hopes of becoming more likable. The idea of voicing my opinion and the risk of being noticed and laughed at made me shake with anxiety, so I stayed toward the back, kept my head down and watched everyone around me pull ahead.

For a long time, I saw my male classmates do what I wanted to do. They spoke their minds and argued their opinions. Rather than backlash, they received praise. No one chuckled at their Ivy League dreams as they did mine.

But I didn’t think any of my experiences had to do with my gender identity and the way society views women. After learning about women’s triumphs during the suffrage movement, the sexual revolution and decades of civil rights work in history classes, I saw sexism as antiquitous. Instead, I blamed myself every time someone labeled me annoying or bossy or rude — even if my actions seemed just.

It wasn’t until a freshman seminar during my first semester at USC that I started wondering how my identity affected my perception of myself and others. 

Our professor assigned an essay prompt that seemed simple: Talk about your identity and explain how it has affected your life. My fingers hovered over my keyboard for hours, but every time I started typing, I slammed the backspace key and watched the words disappear. 

It’s difficult to explain the intricacies of the female identity, especially when subtle sexist comments and ideas become so ingrained in our lives that we stop recognizing when someone insults us or talks down to us just for being women. I also realize that I navigate the world with a high level of privilege, and I don’t have to deal with the racist, homophobic and ableist rhetoric and other hateful comments that come up just as casually in mainstream media and everyday interactions.

But as I’ve grown up, the small cracks people made in my self-esteem grew with each time I learned someone saw me as a bitch or a show-off. With every knock on my appearance, every joke about my stern face or harsh tone of voice and every insult toward my intelligence, or lack thereof, those fissures widened. They expanded until there was a canyon-sized gap between the confident girl I had been and the woman I see in the mirror today.

None of these ideas are new. There are female writers, singers, politicians, actors, athletes and artists discussing the gender disparities they’ve faced on larger platforms and to wider audiences. I still hope this column can provide some form of clarity for young women like me who tore themselves apart over sexist insults that were neither based in reality nor meant to help them improve. 

Writing this column is a way for me to further explore what it means to be a woman in 2020 and grapple with both the blatant and subtle sexism that causes women like me to lose ourselves and give up on the dreams we were told we couldn’t achieve. 

Slowly but surely, I’m working to close that gap and grow into a version of myself who would make 9-year-old me proud, and that starts with sharing my thoughts and opinions ever other week in this space. I’ll use this column to share my thoughts and talk with experts about how various policy decisions, media coverage and everyday rhetoric can negatively affect women.

Most importantly for myself, with each edition of this column, I’ll publish my opinions without fear. I’ll continue to do just that until speaking up and saying what I think is no longer an act of courage, but a normal part of each day. 

Andrea Klick is a sophomore writing about women’s identities. Her column, “She is Fierce,” runs every other Monday.