I was raised in the Midwest, where outdated gender norms are deeply ingrained. I was taught to be quiet, to defer to men, to be agreeable. In my family, I learned to fly under the radar, to apologize often, and take up as little space as possible. And I'm finally done with all that crap. My New Year's resolution is to start using my voice because while I have long thought that staying quiet kept me safe, I now realize that it's also kept me small. Though finding your voice is difficult, and not always feasible or safe, it is my New Year's resolution to begin doing so in as many contexts as I can.
While we have made some progress over the the past few decades, a study published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly reported that traditional gender biases, like men bring home the bacon and women fry it up, haven't changed that much in the past 30 years. People still want women to be "delicate," and express surprise when men tend to the house. One of these traditional gender biases is the expectation that women should defer to men — which in many cases, means staying silent.
As a child, I learned that tiptoeing my way through life was a way to survive. I regularly witnessed my single mom, who worked in finance, being berated by her male boss for both real and imagined mistakes. And, my mom, no matter how well-intentioned she may have been, reinforced this behavior in her kids. I was often disciplined for disagreeing with male family members, once over a sandwich I didn't want to eat because it was spoiled. However, my mom told me it was disrespectful to challenge my grandfather, who'd bought me the sandwich from a grocery store, even if I was right.
The punishment came only after my grandfather confronted my mom in a fury about my behavior. If this had happened in a different context, or with a female family member, I would not have been grounded for a week for refusing to eat spoiled food. Standing up to the men in my family was just not something you did, and it reinforced the belief that I should stay quiet and agreeable in order to avoid conflict.
Finding your voice is especially difficult if you don't have a support system. Zoe Chance Ph.D. wrote on Psychology Today that the cost of speaking out often outweigh the benefits. I've been sexually harassed numerous times on the job since beginning to work at age 13, and the one thing that has most driven my decision not to speak out about it or report it has been self-preservation. In the past, I have rationalized staying silent because I needed that job, and if I lost it by speaking out — or even worse, got blacklisted by naming someone in my profession who had sexually harassed me — how would I make a living?
For me, and millions of others who don't have the kind of families we can go home to when life goes sideways, the fear of not being able to support ourselves often overrides the desire to seek justice. When one incident occurred with my boss, I came home and told my then-boyfriend what happened. He responded by saying, "Well look what you're wearing. What did you expect?" Despite what I expected, and what I deserved, I continued to work there, I eventually married (and later, divorced) that boyfriend who told me I deserved it, and I kept that boss as a "friend" on social media until very recently. Because, like many women, I blamed myself for being harassed.
I still worry that I will be punished for using my voice; I constantly worry about job security, and how living in Los Angeles — one of the most expensive cities in the world — I'm always just a few paychecks away from being on the street. My anxiety is heightened right now because my roommate and I just got a 60-day notice to vacate our house, and I'm nervous about where we will live. Basically, I'm still afraid, and when I'm scared I put up with things I otherwise wouldn't.
But, I'm starting with baby steps — like leaving a corporate job where overt sexism was accepted and even condoned, so I can write essays like this. I've also been practicing a breathing meditation that encourages a lot of yelling, which has helped me feel a lot less anxious about telling it like it is. Each time I yell I'm able to let go of a little more of my fear, and access a little more of my strength.
The consequences of not speaking up can affect us to our very core. According to a study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, "Emotion suppression may convey risk for earlier death, including death from cancer." I have suspected for some time that staying quiet has contributed to my depression and anxiety. During a recent reading with a medical intuitive, she told me that my throat chakra was seriously blocked. That I was not speaking my truth. That my silence was making me sick, and she was right.
Of course, speaking up isn't always the right choice for everyone, and that's OK. For the reasons outlined above, every woman has the right to decide how and when to use her voice. What's more, using your voice does not necessarily mean revealing your own experiences. It can mean mean saying "no." It can mean speaking up when you witness injustices happening. It can mean reporting bad behavior, and supporting and believing others who report.
And it's not always that easy. When deciding if I should speak up about something, I sometimes wrestle with a moral dilemma. I ask myself, is it worth bringing these feelings to the surface? Is it my place to speak out on someone's behalf? Will my speaking up help the survivor? Sometimes, the answer is no. Until we live in a world where survivors are respected and believed, and perpetrators face consequences for their actions, some stories will never be told.
When you've been raised to be quiet, speaking up is hard as hell. An important first step for me has been having conversations with others close to me. And, while I thought I once stood alone, I've learned that many of my friends and family have also been suffering in silence. So, my New Year's resolution is to start using my voice, and to keep using it until eventually speaking up comes as naturally as breathing.