By Catherine Zhang
Roxane Gay’s anthology, Not That Bad, details short essays recounting stories of how she was violated in her youth in the experience of growing up a girl. Hauntingly enough, a theme of appreciation is specifically woven throughout her essay, “The Ways We Are Taught to Be a Girl”. One particular instant is marked by her appreciation to “being ‘chosen’ by such a cute guy” because she was a “chubby, plain girl!” Gay, as a result, hits the nail on the head on unpacking the quintessential belief in the art of growing up a girl: you are lucky to have the attention of a male. By putting men and the male gaze on a pedestal, our society end up also putting their attention on a pedestal. We justify their attention, either wanted or unwanted, by knocking down ourselves. There is an innate belief that we should be “thankful” to be violated emotionally and physically by a male because who else would take the time to love our body?
When our society put down girls for not being skinny enough, or not being curvy enough, or not looking a certain way, we are not just taking away her confidence but also taking away her own ability to love herself. As a result, she is forced to compensate by attempting to find love for her body in the unwanted acts of men. Ultimately, the second hidden belief of growing up a girl is revealed: the beauty of your body is not determined by yourself, but by the metric of male attention. Gay sets the scene for each “lesson” by highlighting her own perception of her body, and too often she remarks that it is “plain, chubby” or perhaps she has “no breasts, no pubes” and is awfully “embarrassed about it.” She then sets herself in a position to only gain satisfaction about her figure through how she is fondled, trapping her in a disgusting cycle of craving and yet, also being repulsed by the acts of men. The end result? A game system.
At the end of each lesson is the number of points she gains from it. The higher the number, the harder the lesson. In one particular lesson, she poetically describes a guy grinding on her as a game with a score to be won. Much like a game, the experience of getting your autonomy violated feels like a prize to be won in the journey of growing up a girl. These experiences are described as “rebellious” and “mature” and are almost praised despite the gross feeling that they leave you with after. Even in real-life games like “Truth or Dare” or “Red Light, Green Light”, the female body is often something to be conquered throughout the game through acts of touching breasts, kissing, groping, etc. which are encouraged by its participants. With this, the third and final belief in this art is told: your body is simply a prize to be won.
Yet, Gay expresses the sentiment that this art of the girl experience can and must change. Male attention is not a prize for girls to win and female autonomy is not a prize for boys to win. Gay ends her stories with a powerful call to action, that it is indeed our duty to change the rules of the game.