They survey me, but I walk past the first group of men without incident. As I pass the second, one of them chooses to concretize his ownership over the moment by saying to me, “Damn, girl, gotta shave those legs!” The words enter the air and carve out a shared space between the two clusters of men, fusing them into one — right after the statement is made, a member of the other group chimes in with supplemental exclamations of disgusted amazement, which are then mirrored back with laughter. My non-normative hair choices have for a moment engendered a small community, united around the
freedom power to mock an outlier.
I am utterly bored. The man’s unwanted, unsolicited reminder of my having to conform to society’s gendered norms is his display of power, as an enactor of those norms. The norm speaks through these men, conditioned subjects that they are. The power exercised by the street harassers is passive, in that it merely replicates the status quo: a lazy act that is violent but deeply unoriginal.
The voice of power that says “you gotta shave those legs!” is one I lived with for a long time — one that I was fooled into thinking was my own, and one that taught me that more often than not, survival requires not challenging that voice. After years of feeling powerless before this unflinching commandment, I’ve come far in unlearning the damaging messaging of the patriarchy, changing my habits to feel more comfortable in my own skin (although this does come with uncomfortable situations like the one mentioned — but at least that discomfort is not my own doing). However, my current rejection of this internalized external voice is not what I would consider an act of power; rather, it’s an act of agency.
Power is perverse, power is violent, power is analogous to greed. Power depends on the presence of something to subjugate. Agency, to me, looks much more like freedom, and specifically, freedom from power: the ability to make choices independently of, or in spite of, societal, economic, circumstantial pressure. This active freedom requires no dynamic of domination to validate it (even though it necessarily does happen inside our unequal world, as all things do).
Yes, to me, agency looks a lot like freedom, and when agency acts within systems of power bent on inhibiting it, it goes further: it begins to look like resistance.