Being a woman: Evolving notions of femininity

By Chelsea Ellingsen

Lucy Salago Illustration image source: berlin-artparasites

Lucy Salago Illustration image source: berlin-artparasites

Our contributor Chelsea gives a raw and honest insight into her experiences growing up as a woman. Chelsea is from California but has been based in Uganda for the last three years. 

When I was younger I associated femininity and being female with strength, magic, with limitless possibility. It was Amelia Earhart, glitter, unicorns, Hermione saving Harry’s ass every time. I could DO anything. I could BE anything. It’s what my literary heroines did, it’s what my teachers and coaches taught. It’s what my peers and I believed.

Image source:

At 15, sweetly ensconced in my safe, suburban Southern Californian upbringing, I scoffed at the notion of feminism. Who needs that?

Being an A-cup and a shy wallflower, boys in class ignored me. Sexual harassment and objectification didn’t filter into my adolescence.

Halfway through college, my naiveté and trust began to collide with cold, hard experience.

Throughout my twenties I endured staccato bursts of male violence across three continents– all from complete strangers or men I had just met. After refusing to give a stranger fellatio on a dark street in Maryland I was insulted, humiliated, and strangled, but my screams enabled my escape.

I lost my shoe and the belief that men were benign.

My earlier definition of femininity evaporated into whimsical girlhood fantasy.

Confronted with the sharp edge of reality, the idea of femininity corroded into fragility and vulnerability.

Artwork by Ana Teresa Barboza image source: berlin-artparasites

Artwork by Ana Teresa Barboza image source: berlin-artparasites

Not having grown up with the tools or awareness to properly tackle cruel, entitled masculinity when it bared raw, red, and angry in my face, I tended to be passive when my boundaries were broken.

Afterwards, the shock would dissipate into a quiet rage that fueled vengeful, fitful dreams. Where did men get the idea that their wants and desires trump my own? Why did they work so hard to actively silence, cajole, and coerce me? Why was my “NO” never enough?

Image source: berlin-artparasites #ThingsIllTeachMyDaughter

Image source: berlin-artparasites #ThingsIllTeachMyDaughter

This year I found myself caught in a convoluted cycle of abuse.

He didn’t push any of my triggers. He completely disarmed me with his charm and false empathy. Early on, in a bid towards closeness, I shared my harshest moments I’ve experienced with misogyny. Through my grief I unwittingly revealed my pressure points.

He stowed away these painful shards of memory, sadistically throwing them at me like poisoned darts in the middle of nine-hour arguments he would start, debilitating me and sending me into unending waves of panic attacks that he would then deride me for.

To go from being blind in love to having your insides scraped out and openly mocked is excruciating.

Abuse mars your confidence. It destroys all sense of judgment. Abuse robs you of your ability to reflect on the building discontent. The ability to make sound choices dissolves into vertigo.

'Unravel' sculpture by Regardt van der Meulen, image source:

‘Unravel’ sculpture by Regardt van der Meulen, image source:

Love, pain, fear — coalesce into a twisted, sticky mass. The only sane course of action is to leave, yet this resolve is met with paralysis and the sheer terror of being alone. You retreat inward, stop reaching out, become addicted to the destructive dynamic, but the turbulence keeps increasing as time goes on.

To witness your partner’s delight at instilling fear and dominance over you is terrorizing. My partner sought power by repeatedly degrading me. Realizing that he gained validation through victimizing me was a turning point.

Having clawed my way out of his toxic grip I’ve salvaged most of the relationships he did his best to tear apart and now I’m here, dismantling his tangled web of putrid lies one by one.

I struggle with how to distill these hard-won insights to my future daughter or to my baby cousins who are just about to enter the shaky precipice of early adulthood.

I want to scream when I see my friends caught up in similar states of quicksand, unable to get out.

Artwork by Simone Haack, image source: berlin art-parasites

Artwork by Simone Haack, image source: berlin-artparasites

Intervening is a delicate proposition. Too harsh and she’ll shun you for judging her. Too blasé and she’ll be unprepared for the looming crisis. Ultimately, you need to craft your message so it empowers and emboldens her to leave. Telling her she has chosen this or dishing out tired tropes like ‘you get the love you deserve’ will only serve to further push her self-doubt into free fall.

How do I reconcile my fractured definitions of femininity into one that is integrated and whole? How do I reconcile the pieces so they affirm the resilience and grace that reside in each of us?

I continue to search for a masculinity that honors my trust and vulnerability and that recognizes the overlapping axes of oppression that work against many disenfranchised populations. Traumas are not weapons to use against us. Trauma is a part of our story, but it does not define us.

We cannot and will not be afraid to walk the streets at night, and we cannot be silenced. Survivors need to share our stories, to heal, to gain courage and to support others in coming forward, as well as illuminate the endemic violence that so many are unfortunately blind to.


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