The struggle to be taken seriously in the age of subtle sexism

Blake Dodge of Beaufort is a student-athlete at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Blake Dodge of Beaufort is a student-athlete at UNC-Chapel Hill.

I identify as female. I am apparently a conventionally attractive student-athlete at UNC-Chapel Hill. I grew into my ears a few years back. I have lighter eyes and darker skin, and with the exception of a bit of an eyebrow discrepancy, my face is generally symmetrical.

Writing this now, I feel my stomach drop. In a culture that regularly exploits sexuality, it’s ironically unacceptable when women openly acknowledge it themselves. But hear me. The following is a string of subtle and routine occurrences that make me feel less human and should take their rightful place among the larger narrative of sexism in contemporary America.

When I wake up at 6 in the morning for practice, I put on spandex that will ride up and allow my legs to chafe. I know this is because I don’t have a thigh gap like most of the distance runners on my cross-country team. I eat an easily-digestible carb and make a note of the calorie count.

After “a good early-morning chafe,” as I call it, I change into dry workout clothes, this time being careful not to wear too much “Carolina gear.” I do this so as not to give my professors and peers another reason to discount me.

I head to a study space. I sit with a classmate – a good friend of mine since freshman year. He identifies as male. Another male-identifying friend approaches. They engage in a “bro dap”: a sort of masculine greeting ritual. The newcomer, my friend, acknowledges me second with a nod of his head: “What’s up, Blake?”

I check my email. My student government group co-director, who identifies as male, has taken it upon himself to send a mass email to our organization and relevant tangential members to schedule a meeting. I am CCed along with four others. They are not co-directors. The body of the email bounces between “I” pronouns to set an agenda for the first meeting of year. It concludes with his signature. The first reply thanks him for “getting this started.”

I go to class. We are discussing Islam in modern society. I chime in. A neighbor, who identifies as male, leans over from across the aisle: “You can’t be pretty and smart.” He thinks he’s giving me a compliment. There is an awkward pause as he waits for me to meekly deny my sexuality. I do not comply. He turns away. I’m not sure he actually listened to anything I said.

I call home. I tell my dad I’m starting a nonprofit that redistributes collegiate athletic shoes. “Is that so?” he asks with a confused inflection. “Isn’t that a bit much?”

He means well.

I head to the gym to cross-train. I mount a sweaty elliptical. I’ve forgotten my headphones and can’t manage to tune out all the curious pairs of eyes: some looking at my butt (big for a white girl, I know), some looking at my chest (small, given my butt), and some daring to meet my own. I cannot help but feel a sting of guilt because I know I just sent them daggers.

I go to afternoon practice. I attend a slew of meetings. I go to the Union because my house of bone-tired runners hasn’t had time to schedule a wifi appointment. I work into the night. I have to walk home with a friend who identifies as male because it’s dark out. He pokes fun at me for a relationship of sorts I had last year. I don’t know how he knows. I hope he’s not flirting. I hope I’m not flirting.

I take a shower followed by inventory: an admittedly pathetic and self-deprecating ritual in which every female partakes. Neck: good. Lower stomach: could use some work. Face: breaking out again. Thigh gap: still not a thing.

I go to bed and think about my projects and my callings. Law school. Public service. Economic injustice. Songwriting. Halifax County schools. Filmmaking. Where did I put that SD card? Writing.

I fight others every single day to be taken seriously. But at night, I fight off my own insecurity that I cannot make a difference because of how others perceive me. Sometimes, I do this in vain.

I have the utmost empathy for my male peers. But for every “pretty and smart” comment I get (and for the ones that aren’t even that flattering), for every patronizing inflection and for every inadvertent power grab at my expense, you add a grain of sand to the increasingly heavy load we women carry. You perpetuate sexism in environments where it absolutely cannot belong.

I’m sorry if I’m wrong.

Blake Dodge of Beaufort is a sociology and economics major at UNC-Chapel Hill.