11 Subtle But Toxic Ways Women Experience Sexism Every Day
by Eva Taylor Grant
Ashley Batz/Bustle

While it’s no secret that inequality still pervades in women’s daily lives, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly how and where inequality becomes an issue for the individual. A lot of instances of everyday sexism are subtle, and can feel like a personal problem if not explored on a larger level. Luckily, experts ranging from psychologists, to sex ed teachers, to documentary filmmakers, have explored things you experience every day, and how they may be toxic to women.

You may not even realize that you’re experiencing these types of toxic messages. "We are so conditioned to many experiences in our everyday lives that harm our self-esteem [and] we attempt to push them away in order to get through the day," psychotherapist Emily Roberts, MA, LPC, tells Bustle. But pushing these things away, unfortunately, won’t make them any less real.

"Honestly, just about anything can be toxic if it occurs in a context of disempowerment or lack of knowledge or self-esteem,” Good Vibrations staff sexologist Carol Queen, PhD tells Bustle. And the world is constantly trying to take away women’s confidence. "For women, very often it comes down to a feeling of the world setting expectations that are unattainable and often counter to their personal beliefs,” Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and Host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. But you can start to feel a little more empowered once you realize what these beatdowns really look like.

Here are 12 things women experience every day that are subtly toxic, according to experts.


Media Messaging

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Sexism in TV ads is still rampant. And although you may be transitioning from a literal television to streaming services, you’re likely still seeing these ads, and absorbing this messaging, in your daily life. This unfair messaging is best explored in the documentary Miss Representation, which looks into the way media impacts young women.

"Every day the media tells women that their value lies in their youth, beauty, and sexuality over their intelligence and agency,” Miss Representation director Jennifer Siebel Newsom tells Bustle. “Whether it’s the advertisements we see every day or the lack of representation in our government — these negative images have far-reaching negative consequences for women’s health and wellbeing.” Newsom and other experts agree that we can fight this by becoming educated on the type of media we consume. "Media literacy means that we ask ourselves who made a piece of media and consider the messages embedded in it. When we can see them clearly, it's harder to simply internalize them," Queen says. It's important to protect yourself out there.


Being Told To Smile

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While street harassment is a rather obvious thing that happens both every day and is toxic to women, the kind of harassment that asks women to smile more is more subtle. "[It’s harmful that] women are expected to walk around with smiles on their faces all the time, no matter how they are feeling inside,” Susan Shumsky, Author of Instant Healing, tells Bustle. “It’s demeaning and infuriating." This sexist concept comes from the idea that women have to be appealing and welcoming at all times, which is totally unfair. While it’s obvious that you don’t need to smile for any reason other than wanting to, it can still be quite painful to hear this consistently.


Hearing The Myth Of The Aggressive Woman In The Workplace

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According to research from the Elephant In The Valley study, 84 percent of women in Silicon Valley have been told they are too aggressive in the workplace. When it comes to how that affects their day-to-day, almost half of respondents also found that they have been asked to do lower-level tasks than their male colleagues (like note-taking, or ordering food, even when it’s not in their job description).

The mythology of the aggressive working woman is incredibly toxic. “We live in a country where 40 percent of Americans think it’s bad for society if women work, and yet another 40 percent of this country has female breadwinners,” founder and CEO of Chairman Mom, Sarah Lacy, tells Bustle. “Women have never been so educated or so empowered and for nearly half the country that is considered alarmingly bad news." It’s also bad for women's’ mental health. "[The ‘aggressive’ woman] may be exhibiting the exact behavior as her male counterpart and yet the behavior is seen as ‘not right’. When she backs off she is seen as weak and indecisive.It is a no win situation, and thus her self-esteem suffers," Dr. Klapow says. So if you feel particularly beaten-down by this trope, you are far from alone.


Being Mom Shamed/Seeing Mom-Shaming

Kylie Jenner has recently been in the news again, this time getting flack for piercing her daughter Stormi’s ears. And while this may seem like just another ridiculous moment in the life of an ultra-famous person, it’s way more common — even for non-celeb moms — than you may think. "88 percent of women have witnessed 'mom shaming' on social media," Lacy says, according to her own research at Chairman Mom on SurveyMonkey. This means that an overwhelming amount of moms experience mom-shaming, and even non-moms absorb these events through online messaging like the discourse over Stormi’s tiny bling.

This sort of toxicity can be really harmful for moms or moms-to-be who already have enough to be concerned about when it comes to things like motherhood in the workplace. Mom-shaming may seem silly, but it really hurts.


Missing Out On Networking Opportunities

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It’s hard to notice what you’re missing out on, but it becomes pretty toxic to constantly miss out on opportunities that others are provided. For women, however, this is commonplace, especially when it comes to networking. According to Elephant In The Valley, 66 percent of respondents felt excluded from key social or networking opportunities because of gender. And while networking is difficult, it’s doubtless important. Luckily, places like The Wing now exist, and women are finding ways to take this matter into their own hands.


Getting Ignored By Coworkers

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Beyond the myth of aggression, women are somehow also susceptible to being simply ignored in the workplace. Elephant In The Valley found that 88 percent of respondents have experienced clients or colleagues addressing questions to male peers that should have been addressed to them, and 84 percent of respondents have experienced colleagues making eye contact with male coworkers and not them.

Of course, this hurts career prospects, but it can also become emotionally toxic as well. "[It hurts when women are] not getting credit, respect, eye-contact at work and in meetings, [or] having ideas stolen,” Lacy says. “It happens so much, you can’t call it out every single time. Eventually you give up. That directly impacts women’s ability to move up, get raises, get rewarded for work they are doing.” It may seem like a little thing when someone speaks over you or doesn’t look you in the eye, but it is often a sign of a much larger societal problem.


Being Considered 'Clean' Or 'Dirty' According To Our STI Status

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While people of all genders suffer from this toxic belief, dealing with STI stigma can be especially painful for women.

“Women’s sexual pasts are often judged differently, and the number of partners they’ve had holds different weight in comparison to their male counterparts,” Sonya Norsworthy, Interim Vice President of Education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America tells Bustle, “... Getting an STD or having a partner with an STD is extremely common, and anyone who ever has vaginal, anal, or oral sex could get an STD. Having an STD is a result of close contact with other people and is not something anyone should be shamed or judged for. Having an STD doesn’t make you any less good, valuable, or worthy of love.” Still, any messaging that says otherwise can be quite painful.


Getting Shamed For Our Periods

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Beyond the unfair pink tax, women are susceptible to loads of other forms of toxicity when it comes to how society views women’s bodies. It’s harmful, even when it seems like a small thing.

"Many patients that I see still experience shame around perfectly normal body processes: periods, vaginal discharge,” Dr. Gillian Dean, Senior Director of Medical Services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, tells Bustle. “I think the larger culture shames women for having periods, yet menstruation is a normal part of life. Too many girls in the U.S. and around the world receive only vague messages and incomplete information about menstruation.” Engaging in media and education like the kinds Planned Parenthood provides, rather than absorbing toxic messaging around completely natural bodily processes, can help people with periods feel much more secure in their bodies.


Absorbing Abortion Stigma

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Regardless of whether or not you’ve had an abortion, going through daily life hearing negative messaging around women who do seek to terminate their pregnancy can be quite toxic.

"There’s ... tremendous stigma toward people who decide to have an abortion, and people may not realize that the things they say about abortion may contribute to abortion stigma,” Dr. Dean says. “If someone tells you that they’re considering having an abortion or have had an abortion, listen to them and remind them that you support them no matter what. Nearly one in four women in America will have an abortion, and every individual's personal decision about their pregnancy should be respected and valued.” Every comment disparaging another woman for ending a pregnancy, or gossiping about the possibility, can contribute to harmful stereotyping. And constantly absorbing all this can be really difficult to hear.


Being Expected To Have Orgasms From Intercourse

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Everyone’s seen a woman in a movie inexplicably have an orgasm from one or two thrusts during sex. Not everyone, however, necessarily understands why that’s so toxic to women. "So many young women (especially) that I speak to believe that intercourse is the ‘normal’ way to orgasm,” Queen says. “It is not. Maybe only a quarter of women orgasm this way. When they don't respond the way they think they're supposed to, they see themselves as defective in some way.” Nobody should be blamed if they think intercourse will lead to orgasm, since sex ed is lacking for everyone, but it’s important to unpack nonetheless. All the media that tells young women this is true is actually harming public sexual wellness.


Hearing The Myth Of "Having It All"

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In sociology and gender studies, there’s a concept called the “double burden” that explains how modern women are expected to perform both paid work in the office, and unpaid work at home as mothers. In real life, this expecation can be incredibly tiring and confusing.

"Women are often expected to both be caring, supportive responsible and independent parents and wives and partners, but at the same time, not be so independent and assertive that their male colleagues feel threatened,” Dr. Klapow says. This kind of constant pressure to balance unfair expectations and an impossible lifestyle affects women quite adversely. You are not alone if this messaging has gotten to you.

While fighting all these types of everyday toxicity is important, it’s also important to just break it down, and realize why you may feel so beat down sometimes as a woman. And even if you don’t know how to end this forms of inequality on a systematic level, you can make conscious decisions to combat these toxic beliefs in your daily life as well. Whether this means skipping one movie and seeing another opening weekend, or only buying from brands you find ethical, there are ways to build yourself back up while society keeps trying to push you down. And if that doesn’t feel possible, you can always just make an ugly face at the next man who tells you to smile.