As a teenager in Paris, I was used to sexism. I never wore skirts on the metro by fear of men commenting inappropriately on my outfit or making a move on me. I was told by complete strangers that I should marry a wealthy man, and I forced a laugh. I was told that I should be the waitress in family gatherings because that’s what girls do. I was whistled at on the street and just ignored it. I was told at a bartender job by the boss that maybe I should strike more conversations with customers – he meant flirting with them. My opinions were constantly shut down and ignored, because I am a woman, so how should I know? I was told I should wear makeup because that’s what women do. I was being told by advertisers ever since I was a little girl that the only thing I can do is please men, give them children and clean the house. I was born in Paris but had I been born anywhere else; I don’t doubt it would have been the same.
Back then, I was brushing off all these small comments. I let them all go – all these little things belittling me, making me feel worthless. They were normal behavior to me; insignificant. I was not used to anything else, and very often unaware of there being any problem with these incidents. I often wondered if I should start dressing in a more feminine way or if I should learn how to cook or put on makeup. Sexism twists your mind into thinking you’ll never be enough as you are. And I believed it.
Sexism often goes unnoticed, and that’s a major problem. It’s subtle, insidious, and deeply embedded in our societies and culture. It discredits women for how they feel or act and tells them how they should be.
A couple of years ago, I was sat with an ex-boyfriend in a South London coffee shop. He was complaining about his female colleague who often had exaggerated reactions to, apparently, everything. “Of course,” he claimed, that all came down to one thing: “she was on her period.”
”You can’t say stuff like that,” I answered, looking at the woman sat next to me. She had overheard the conversation and was now choking on her food, staring at him. But then I let it go. And I shouldn’t have.
At the age of 22, my perspective on sexism radically changed when I moved to Stockholm and met new people. Sweden is undoubtedly ahead in fighting against sexism compared to most countries, but it wasn’t merely moving to this more progressive country that changed my mind on what sexism was. It was, and is, the people I have encountered here who have made me notice my ignorance. Suddenly, I found myself immersed in a culture where people were talking freely about these issues. They were talking about equality and internalized sexism. They were talking about how it felt to be treated differently because you’re a woman. Male acquaintances were questioning themselves, conscious of their actions and words. We had heated debates on what equality and sexism meant for us and how we could fight it. These people made me notice how women were constantly put down and their opinions shut down – all things I had of course seen before and experienced, but never really given any thought to. There were of course disagreements in the midst of these discussions, but at least we were talking about it.
Six months after I arrived, I was advised to smile more. I was in this small, airless room with this man who was supposed to assess my skills and competencies. Instead, he told me I should smile more. I didn’t know how to react, and I was ashamed that I didn’t know how to respond. When I came out of this small room after an hour, I was angry. This comment which I would have usually ignored and thought of as inoffensive triggered an anger deep inside me. When I asked friends what I should do about it, no one tried to discredit my experience and fury. No one told me I was exaggerating or taking this out of context. I received support. Importantly, I received support from both women and men, and the confirmation that what I had just experienced was inappropriate behavior. Later, I sent the man an email telling him what I thought of his comment. I never got an answer, but I had called it out – and that was an important act in itself.
Since making the move from Paris to Stockholm, I’ve learnt so much about sexism and my attitude towards it. I learnt that if I’m interrupted, I should keep talking. I learnt that I should always support anyone who feels discriminated and never belittle their experience or feelings. I learnt that I can’t tolerate this anymore and neither should anyone else. I refuse to stay silent pretending nothing has happened.
Sexism is a collective issue. And we should always talk about it.
Find more of Virginie’s work here.