How Lip Gloss Pushed Me Past Victimhood

An inside look at the manifestations of toxic masculinity in the life of a Stuyvesant student.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In my experience navigating academic settings as a girl, there is one scenario that perfectly encapsulates both the culture and consequences of toxic masculinity: the dreaded group project. Far too many times have I been assigned a group of all males; my fate is often written before I even begin the assignment. The unspoken rule is that I will do the work, under the assumption that my femininity means I will be meek enough to acquiesce to my group members’ implied demands. And I do, not because I am subservient to males, but because it’s simply easier to do the work myself than to beg my partners to contribute. Time and time again, I have been left to do the assignment on my own, waiting in vain for a text back in the unused group chat that I created.

But toxic masculinity pervades far more classroom situations than just group projects. At the beginning of the school year, a few of my female friends and I went to a teacher’s office hours to discuss our classroom participation. However, our conversation quickly evolved into a broader discussion of our interactions with male students. We discussed a certain type of male student that our teacher had encountered in both her academic and professional careers: overconfident and often brusque in speech and mannerisms. Most detrimentally, he prioritizes speaking over listening, thus causing his female counterparts to fall into a pattern of resigned nonparticipation in the classroom. My friends and I smiled and nodded in agreement as she spoke, each of us recalling classmates who fit that description. Though our teacher acknowledged her frustration with this behavior, she also urged us to take responsibility for our role in facilitating the stereotypes. As she explained, it is dangerous to fall into passivity and compliance. Most strikingly, she commented that we are not—and cannot be—girls falling victim to life in a man’s world. Our conversation ended with a promise to our teacher to hold strong to our femininity. The five of us took an oath to create active change against this abrasive display of toxic masculinity in our classroom and beyond. I felt a strong sense of pride when, a few weeks later during a class debate, a male classmate complained to our teacher that I was “too scary to argue with.” She beamed at me and reminded me that it was a compliment.

My teacher’s discussion of the dangers of victimhood reminded me of an early experience I had with toxic masculinity which was unfortunately during a time when I could not counter such stereotypes. I suffered through a brief period of playing competitive chess in elementary school, but despite my incredible distaste for the game, I found myself winning a good number of matches. However, in one of my first tournaments, I was berated by a group of older, tougher, third-grade boys. They approached me to make the bold claim that as a girl, I did not belong in the world of grade school chess. I wish I could say that following their interjection I persisted and became a grandmaster chess player, proving those dumb boys wrong, but I didn’t. In fact, I went home that night, cried to my mom, and quit chess for good. To this day, I regret giving in to their early-onset misogyny so easily. Consequently, I am now hyper-aware of toxic masculinity, constantly doing my best to prevent its pervasive effects as exemplified by my failed chess career. 

In my attempts to avenge my younger self, I found myself taking steps to embody the toughness that I needed all those years ago. In middle school, I often shied away from more stereotypically “feminine” clothing and mannerisms in an attempt to be taken more seriously in my academic endeavors. But, as I came to realize, these efforts were counterintuitive. When I stopped suppressing myself in an attempt to gain respect, I found power in my femininity. This is not to say that it is necessary to lean into those gendered stereotypes or be hyper-feminine, but more so that diluting your personality reduces your confidence, and in effect, reduces your ability to combat challenges to your potential like toxic masculinity. 

Earlier this year, as I stepped into a classroom to take the AMC, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that the classroom of 35 students was almost exclusively male. Clad in my favorite pink top and dangly hoop earrings, I remember reapplying my lip gloss before beginning my exam. Though I felt all eyes on me, I smiled to myself, imagining the pride that little Millie would have felt at my unabashed confidence.

I urge all readers to be similarly conscious of such behaviors in their lives. This doesn’t mean that you should go around accusing people of misogyny left and right. Though, if you are a man, you should reflect on how your actions are subconsciously influenced by internalized gender roles. If you’re a woman, hold fast to your power in the face of conflict. Remember that prejudice and stereotypes feed off silence and nonconfrontation, and use that information to sustain your confidence. Do not tolerate attempts to silence or undermine you; hold your own in the group project, speak up in class, enter that competition, and wear that dress (if you want to, that is). I leave you with a piece of advice I wish someone had told me sooner: lean into your identity. That is what truly combats the culture of toxic masculinity.