Why do we still teach women to be scared and helpless?
We need to stop teaching girls to be afraid of the world
by Meg Davies
There is something I need to get off my chest: I am fed up of being scared.
It’s a situation I’m sure you are familiar with. It’s a Friday night and a group of you go for a few drinks after work. The night slowly comes to an end and as you’re ordering Ubers and looking up tube lines, you remember that one of the girls lives miles away and in completely the opposite direction. It’s cool, she says, I know the tube journey like the back of my hand. Reluctantly, you let her go and recite the first rule of the girls-on-a-night-out-gospel: “Ring me when you get home to let me know you’re safe!”
For the 40 minutes it takes for her to get home, you frequently check your phone for texts and sometimes even stay on the line chatting until you know she is back. You think about whether she was wearing anything revealing, if she had enough battery on her phone, if the area is “safe” or not, if she had drunk too many cocktails. The mental checklist is endless.
To some reading this, it might seem such worry is a ridiculous waste of time. However, there’s no denying the fact that women are taught this fear from a young age. Nobody is born with it. We are taught to plan ahead, to prevent danger, to let people know we’re safe, and to always expect the worst. It’s ingrained in us that the world is a bad place, filled with cruel people. The question of nature vs nurture might be a complicated one but when it comes to the fears of the average woman, nine times out of 10, they exist because of what we have been told.
It’s easy to say that we live in a developed society in which women are free to live independent lives. The reality, however, is somewhat different. We might be able to do everything in theory, but that doesn’t mean that we do it carefree. We’re told that we’re strong, independent women who can take on the world while simultaneously we’re warned that being on your own at night is dangerous. Something doesn’t quite add up.
After speaking to multiple women, it dawned on me that we had all been given the same advice. Like primary school rhymes that we memorised as children, the words of those that care about us are drilled into our psyches and influence us, even as grown women. I was told stories of how girls walk home in the dark with keys clenched between their fingers in case they are followed, of how they cross the road when it’s dark and a man is walking towards them, how they carry jackets to cover themselves if they are being stared at. Some were even given pepper spray before going to university.
It might seem dramatic but it is a common reality for women.
It goes without saying that it’s essential for both men and women to put their security first, but the fact that these actions are normalised is 2016 is ridiculous. To have to screenshot the registration of your taxi and send it to your groupchat out of fear is not something women should have to accept as being part of their lives. Sadly, it is. We all know that the chances of us getting attacked, robbed, or raped are pretty slim but that doesn’t quash the fear.
What makes it all even sadder is that by teaching girls to fear, we’re teaching them to feel vulnerable and therein lies the difference between being sensible and being scared. What is more, this mentality carries over into every single other aspect of our lives as grown women.
There is no hiding that despite a woman’s excellent education, she is probably going to earn less. She’s also less likely to raise her voice about it. We accept that there’s very little we can do about it. Women who are raped have what they were wearing noted in the media. It’s not hard to see why victims are often riddled with doubts as to whether it was their fault. Physically speaking, the trends might suggest that weightlifting is becoming more and more popular for women but for far too long skinnier, less muscular frames have been championed as the most attractive. The plots of children’s cartoons and books are traditionally based around women who need to be saved. We spend our whole lives being told that losing your virginity hurts. And yes, while it does for a lot of people, others have no pain. Why, then, do we teach girls from the word ‘go’ that sex is something to fear? I could go on.
So, how do we get better? We teach girls to be unafraid of the space they occupy in the world. We teach them that while they should be streetwise and aware, they should never have to miss out on an opportunity because of fear. We teach them that they shouldn’t have to get on the tube late at night and position themselves by other women or “nice looking families”, as one of my friends told me she did. We teach girls to look out for each other. We teach boys to look out for them too. We teach them you don’t need to get married to be financially and physically secure in this world. We make it clear that when malice does occur in society, the blame does not lie at the door of the victim.
Quite simply, it all boils down to the fact that we’re sick of being the damsels in distress. We’re sick of removing ourselves from situations out of worry that the worst will happen. I can’t speak for all women, naturally, but I’m confident that I can speak on behalf of more women than you’d think.
Being scared is exhausting. It is draining. Worrying gives you wrinkles, you lose sleep, you waste time. Quite frankly, we’ve got better things to do than be terrified all the time.