05/31/2013 10:26 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2013

The Right to Be a Woman

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I never really understood why feminism existed. In my earlier years, that was because I was considerably ignorant on the subject. I grasped the fact that women have never been socially, economically, politically, or anything-ly equal to men, but I just didn't understand why that was true. We're all just people; I couldn't wrap my head around why anatomical differences have engendered so many contentions and inequities. I still can't, although now I am more educated on the subject.

I went to a very progressive middle and elementary school, an environment in which we had weekly lectures and activities about racial equality and LGBTQ rights (this was before the umbrella term trans* was created), but I don't recall ever discussing women's issues. When I began reading Rookie Mag -- where nearly everyone on the staff is either a self-proclaimed feminist, a women's rights supporter, or something in between -- was around when I started to understand what feminism actually means. I had always dismissed it as some sort of extreme movement that involved misandry, bra burning, and public protests, like the time Eric and Donna go to a feminist demonstration in an episode of That '70s Show. That was about the extent of my knowledge.

I had never bothered to further enlighten myself because we are taught that feminism is something negative, and the subject was so foreign to me that I didn't even want to get involved. As I entered deeper into the trenches of my adolescence, I went around thinking that if someone looked at me lecherously or made an unwelcome sexual comment that it was my fault. I had led them on, in some way. So I stopped wearing V-neck T-shirts and never thought about it. Even at my equal-rights-for-everybody-even-though-we-only-talk-about-certain-groups-of-people-because-they're-minorities-and-women-aren't school we were taught, "Don't get raped," never "Don't rape." That never seemed out of place to me. It's extremely stifling and maddening to live in a world that objectifies women to such a degree that we don't even notice it anymore; that's how large a part of our society it has become. Or, I guess, always has been, for millennia. I only recently realized that as a teenage girl I was being affected by misogyny, disrespect, and degradation just by simply existing.

The fashion industry is one of the main propellants of the rigid concepts of femininity and womanhood that are held so highly in our culture. For decades, even centuries, women have been expected to either be a perfect combination of elegance, sexual appeal, and vulnerability, or urged to act more like men. Even with revolutionary members of the media popping up everywhere -- Lena Dunham, Tavi Gevinson, Miranda July -- women are only being more forcibly squished into these molds. We all already know that the supermodel-skinny standards are a major part of what's dragging us, meaning females, down. That topic deserves an entire article in and of itself, but it's not all that the fashion world is contributing to this huge dilemma. It's the clothing itself. It's a topic that I've written about before, without really knowing what I was saying. Taking a tip from the boys, menswear for women, things of that ilk. That concept has taken a turn for the worst.

While reading the Man Repeller a few months ago, Leandra Medine mentioned that in order to embody "swag," one must look like a male sixth grader: messy cropped hair, boyish clothing, baseball caps, the whole deal. I admire and respect Leandra immensely, but I felt that she had almost betrayed her fellow ladies in this post through words like: "achieving 'cool' is wholly about how well a girl can emulate a prepubescent boy." My immediate response to her story was a big, bolded, upper-cased WHY? I understand that this could potentially be misconstrued as me being ridiculously sensitive, but hear me out. Here's what I'm seeing. Looking cool now entails dressing like guys. That would be fine, if the same had ever been true for the opposite sex. When has it ever been considered trendy for a man to wear a dress, or heels, or another garment of clothing generally associated with women? Approximately never, except for in the 17th century, when almost everybody in the aristocracy wore heels. And Marc Jacobs's pink polo dress that he wore to the opening of his museum exhibition in Paris last year doesn't count. Marc Jacobs is not a valid representation of the general male population.

I don't personally feel the need to wear anything characteristically feminine in order to feel good about myself or how I am presenting myself to the world. That probably stems from the fact that I grew up completely unaware of how these injustices applied to me. Do my androgynous tendencies -- short hair, near exclusion of pink in my wardrobe, very little makeup, unshaved legs -- imply that I am actively aspiring to look like a teenage boy? Not in the least bit. I like my loose jeans as much as I like my shift dresses. I cut my hair short because I hate feeling weighted down by masses of dead cells on my head. I don't wear pink because it makes me feel like a sickly amalgamation of an infant and cotton candy. I don't wear a lot of makeup, if any at all, partly because I hate having to worry about taking it off at night, partly because I prefer to present myself in my most natural form. I stopped shaving my legs because I have much better things to be doing with my time. I dress the way I want to because I like the way my clothing looks.

One of the greatest misconceptions about people interested in fashion and clothing is that they care too much about their appearance. It takes a significant amount of indifference towards other people and their judgements to walk outside into a world where everyone feels entitled to share their opinions on every subject, whether they be valuable or completely uncalled for. That translates directly into the issue about women's rights. People make comments, assumptions, and evaluations on women's semblance all the time, thinking we crave their approval, that we strive for their acceptance. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Some women definitely seek that sort of confirmation, but that often is a result of insecurity or lack of self-confidence. That isn't to say that ladies that choose to ignore others' criticisms on their looks are not insecure, nor is it to say that women who attire themselves in a more sexualized manner are doing so for the benefit of those around them. This may somewhat of a mantra for feminists, and hopefully eventually for every person: we are not trying to look a certain way for you, whoever you may be. I don't know who gave the general populace the power to decide who is a "slut," or at least looks like one, and who is not, but they should feel pretty crappy right about now because they are painfully fallacious. I don't think that word should even exist; I don't believe that promiscuity is so terrible as long as no one is hurt, either emotionally or physically, in the process. A woman has a right to use her body how she wants just as much as a man does. I've always wondered why nearly every rape story I've heard or read about involves a male rapist. What it is about penises that makes men think they can just stick them everywhere? I have a supposition that it has less to do with biology and more to do with social hierarchy. It boils down to the fact that women are simply not considered equal to men.

When we ask ourselves where this inequality stems from, it's easy to say that way back in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Eras the men were the ones that hunted and the women tended to the children. The latter's fatal infirmity was their inherent femaleness: the menstruation and subsequent complications, the decreased ability to maintain dense muscle mass, et cetera. Men saw themselves as superior because they could go out and spear a buffalo for the whole clan and not have to worry about doubling over in pain from cramps or what have you. Sure, women have their weaknesses, but men don't? They absolutely do. The number one argument that I feel neutralizes everything is that women can have babies, and men can't. In theory, that should give us immense power, but it doesn't. Instead, guys just went ahead and took the liberty of impregnating women without their consent. I know it's completely inarticulate, but my instinctual response to that is: what the hell. I've never been pregnant before but I have taken freshman biology and I know plenty of people that have bore children, and it sounds like having a small person growing inside of you doesn't feel so fantastic. Forcing that on someone who has not asked for it is one of the most heinous crimes I can think of. Perhaps that's one reason why we don't see a lot of female rapists: we're at a higher risk of suffering the consequences of having non-assented sex both physically and socially.

As a high school student and teenager, my future is like a massive, daunting, multi-colored cloud that looms ahead of me at all times. I have high hopes for that cloud. I want to be able to pursue a career in something I enjoy and not have to be concerned about whether my male occupationally equivalent colleague is getting more perks or has a higher salary purely because of my physical constitution. People's intellectual capabilities are purely a result of how much work they put into cultivating their garden, to cite Voltaire. In other words, my brain and all it can do and create is a product of my own labor, not genetic chance.

I often think back to the time in my life when I had no idea what sort of unjustified prejudice I was in danger of facing because of my chromosomal makeup. I was ignorant and had been brainwashed by the patriarchal society we live in that, as a female, it was my duty to protect myself from harm but to simultaneously exude femininity. That only works if you're the only person you're ever around. There's no way to control what other people perceive as suggestive or girly (not that the two are synonymous in any way), thus it is impossible to satisfy everybody's personal requirements. If that's the case, then I don't see why I should bother trying to live up to the world's expectations for me as a woman. I would much rather strive to please others on the basis of what is expected of me as a human being. That's what we all are. Male, female, non-cisgender, somewhere in between, we are all just people. What baffles me is why we can't treat each other as equally as the universe intended us to be. If we were supposed to have hierarchal distinctions within our race, some of us would be born with five extra retractable limbs and X-ray vision. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I highly doubt that anyone possesses those abilities.

Feminism is not about hatred or anger or misandry. It is not negative. Feminists are not intrinsically evil, nor are they lesbian by default, nor do they wish to purge the Earth of all non-women. "Male feminists" shouldn't have to be a term that distinguishes men that promote equity from those that don't. All of this is about equality and freedom and love. It isn't up to us to decide our anatomical structure, but we can most definitely choose to act in particular ways despite our natural differences. The power rests entirely in our hands to change, if not reverse, the undeniable misogyny of the world we live in. Once people can stop defining each other by their gender, appearance, ethnicity, or any other uncontrollable quality of ours, and begin to appraise one another based on the substance of our thoughts and merit of our deeds, we'll be on the right track.