As I settled down to watch President Biden’s first State of the Union address, I was struck by the powerful image of two strong women seated confidently behind the president.

Never before in the history of the United States had the words, “Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President” been spoken. I felt a frog rising in my throat but swallowed to suppress it.

I am so hopeful that this image serves as an open door for so many young women and girls who have (hopefully) internalized it.

The next moment, a thought entered my mind: “These two ladies are so smart and so fortunate to have made it this far.” Fortunate. Wait. What?!

Was I, an unapologetic self-professed feminist, doubting the ability of Vice President Harris and Speaker Pelosi to get as far as they did? Where did such a defeating thought emanate from? Was I biased against my own gender?

There is, indeed, a word for my problem.

Internalized sexism is a type of bias by women that the stereotypes and myths about women that are delivered to everyone in a sexist society are true on some level. We normalize the cultural beliefs that demean the value of women and start to apply these prejudices to ourselves and other women.

As I briefly reflected on my own narrative history looking for an explanation, a particular memory popped in my head like a technicolor film.

The dastarkhan is a Farsi word that refers to the traditional space where food is eaten. The term is used throughout the Middle East and Asia, referring to a tablecloth spread on the ground where food is served and eaten by many Indian Muslims.

Although its cultural significance extends beyond that, it is an honored symbol of togetherness and harmony.

We would take a family vacation every summer at my aunt’s home in Chicago. It was a busy week, full of family dinners and visiting. As a nine-year old girl, I was expected to take up the least amount of space possible. I was not alone – all of us girls/women had to abide by this unspoken rule.

When it was dinner time, it was the women’s job to serve. We would quickly take out all the plates and hot dishes like a Tyson’s assembly line. The men and boys reclined on the sofa or played outside.

When it was time to eat, we were expected to sit quietly on one end of the dastarkhan and eat with our heads lowered, only to raise them to pass a dish or ask for seconds – and our voices were supposed to be soft and gentle.

I would get dismayed looks if I spoke too much or questioned anything – so, as a first-generation American child yearning for approval, I easily acquiesced.

This was not an isolated incident but a pattern of behavior and an unspoken expectation of the women in my family.

Requiring women to adjust and mold ourselves to exist in a small cubby-hole is highly effective.

When I made myself smaller physically, I started to feel smaller. When I controlled the volume of my voice because the men didn’t approve of loud girls, I started to lose my confidence – and become comfortable with smallness.

It took my body 30-plus years to feel comfortable taking up space, to raise my voice when needed, to use my words to set boundaries – and yet, I have a ways to go.

I have to still unlearn the expectations my culture has of women. I want to rejoice in the power of our vice president and speaker without ending my emotional moment with a question mark of surprise at their competence.

When I learned the phrase “taking up space” as an adult, I instantly understood it on an immediate, visceral level. In order to succeed, we must take up space.

Being aware of my own internalized bias has made me realize this more than ever.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for International Women’s Day (March 8). The other articles published to date are:

Imagination is Our Medicine | Aurelia Pratt

Admitting Implicit Biases Is the First Step to ‘Break the Bias’ | Maddie Grimes

Why Do Human Views of Women Differ from the Divine? | Sahar Alsahlani

Adding Women’s Voices Today to a Timeless Story | Rachel Ain

Say Her Name – Remembering Women Outside the History Books | Chris Smith

Why I Didn’t Celebrate International Women’s Day Growing Up | Lina Toth

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