By Nikki H. Huang
A few weeks ago, readers, I got myself in a somewhat dangerous situation.
It’s a long story, but to put it shortly: I boarded the wrong train. I ended up stranded late at night in an unstaffed train station in a suburb notorious for crack addicts. In the hour I spent there, I was followed around by a pair of strange men who were clearly not even waiting for a train at all. The sheer terror I felt upon realizing that two of them had tailed me around the train station— up and down floors, striking up a conversation with me, inching closer as time passed—is something I’ll never forget. I had no idea what was going to happen.
The next train back to Penn Station was not coming for an hour, my phone had 10 percent of battery, I had no food or water on me. All the worst scenarios raced through my head as I paced up around the station, exhaustedly hauling my too-heavy luggage from one level of the station to the next, and back down again. The things I thought of made me sick to my stomach, and rightfully so, all the worst possible situations I imagined were based on real stories of real suffering, endured by real women.
I knew that I had to stay on my feet and try to lose the two men tailing me. Eventually, I was able to get an Uber to drive me safely back to Midtown. It arrived just as my phone was down to its last drop of battery. I spent the entire drive back feeling as if I’d just barely gotten away with my life, and like I’d been just moments away from being seriously harmed.
As glad as I am that I made it out of this ordeal alive and somewhat well, the sheer vulnerability and terror I felt upon realizing I was being followed will forever be etched on my mind. I’ve never felt my body simultaneously run so hot and so cold.
And so I’ve come to learn that there is an element of the female experience men will never truly grasp, no matter how hard they try. Living alone for two months now has taught me a harsh truth about the world. Being female, as wonderful and powerful as it is, comes with a set of disadvantages I know many women have just had no choice but to accept as reality. In that unstaffed train station in the peripheries of New York City, in the dark, with multiple men following, catcalling, and approaching me, I felt the full weight of what it meant to be a young woman, alone in a man’s world.
As I continue to experience a more independent life here in the US, I find myself thinking often about all the dangerous situations I have either found myself in or found myself making sure I prevent: Most of them have to do with the fact that I’m a young girl, on my own. In many ways, the inequalities between the sexes seem more pronounced in the US than in the Philippines.
To the girls who read my column: I know many of you are as old or only slightly older than I am. I know some of you are younger and are looking up to girls like me, watching carefully as we discover life and navigate our way around today’s social world. There are a few things I want to tell you. You may not like what you are about to read.
If you are born a woman, you will not be able to move about the world with the same freedom with which men, especially straight men, are afforded. You will have to watch your back, your heart, and your body in a way they will never have to.
Girls, the male gaze will weigh on you. You will never know what it is like to move about the world knowing you are the more advantaged sex. Instead, you will grow up to learn how to dress, act, talk, and walk defensively, because you (and your femininity) are a target.
You will be expected to know how to not be so attractive that you make yourself a target, but also taught to be attractive enough that you are worthy of male attention. You will experience both favorable and unfavorable treatments based on how you look. You will be seen in your capacity to satisfy a man’s desires, sometimes nothing more. This is changing, but it is still a reality that exists today.
When you leave your place of residence alone, you think of many things: What time of day is it? Do I have enough time to walk back before it gets too dark? Is my outfit too revealing? Are my shoes fit enough that I can run away from someone if need be? Do I have my keys and my pepper spray?
Living and moving around alone in the US has taught me that women grow up in a world being conditioned to prevent rape from happening to themselves, taught to be aware of the threat of sexual harassment at every turn. Sexual misdemeanor is treated as an objective reality that all women must face and prepare themselves for.
What is beautiful in a woman is the security that allows her to encourage other women to feel just as good about themselves.
It is a strange reality, walking down the street and knowing people are undressing you with their eyes. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. The way your heart sinks to the bottom of your stomach when you are catcalled, the way your throat tightens each time you are commuting alone and a man you do not know makes verbal or physical advances. These feelings, more often than not, will grow to become your norm as a woman in modern society.
The physical vulnerability you feel when you walk around alone is the cross you are to carry, having been born a woman. You will constantly find yourself anxious to have a man around you for safety, and the fact that you need the company of one to feel safer will probably frustrate you, as it should.
The hurt you will weather because your heart is naturally predisposed to loving, caring, and nurturing is something you will have to hold on to your entire life. You will be hurt, gossiped about, bullied, taken advantage of, betrayed, and broken more times than you deserve. But each time you will pick yourself back up stronger, and it’s going to be okay.
You will be expected to give way more than you receive, and you need to make sure you don’t let this expectation run you to the ground. Be selfish. It is noble to live for others, yes, but also don’t forget to live for yourself.
But still, being born female also means that you are growing up in a world where, at every corner, you are going to be taught resilience. You will grow up to be so strong, because you will come of age in a society where you will have to fight harder to stay safe, be successful, find love that respects who you are. The extra caution you will learn to have as you navigate people and places will become your greatest strength.
Your intuition is something you should trust, as a woman, because it will teach you things about the world other people will never have the privilege to learn, things that no one else will ever teach you.
You will and should learn, also, to embrace the beauty of your femininity. Don’t suppress it. Own it, bask in it, wield your feminine power in a world where women are still conditioned to be subservient and giving.
Perhaps this is the most important part: Please remember that it is absolutely and always within your power to be a good woman. Half of the unfortunate culture we live in is borne out of competition between women, often to win the favor of men, where girls seek to tear each other down.
Just two nights ago, I sat at a dinner where I made a passing comment that I found a girl in one of my classes absolutely beautiful. My male seatmate was so shocked. He said, “I am so surprised that you said something nice about another girl. It is so rare here.” And my heart sank.
When you think about being a good woman, do not just think about being good for a man. Think about being the type of woman who brings other women up with her. You will not break a glass ceiling alone. Being a girl who looks to undermine others is perhaps more detrimental to the cause of feminism because though you know what it is like to struggle in a man’s world, you make living in a woman’s world perhaps even more painful. Remember: What is beautiful in a woman is the security that allows her to encourage other women to feel just as good about themselves.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that life is absolutely not a competition, because it is biologically designed to be so. But make it such that you live your life as a collaboratively competitive person. This is something I work on every day.
From woman to woman, I believe in you. I believe in myself, too. I believe in us, and the idea that this world can be just as much a woman’s’ as it is already a man’s.
Let’s help it get there.