Written by Dotty Winters

Voices

A broken collarbone… made me a feminist

In the first in a new series, Standard Issue writers explore when they knew they were feminist. Dotty Winters’ childhood accident had a profound effect.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

I was doing it. I was finally doing it! I was on the top bars of the school climbing equipment, swinging bar to bar. My arms felt strong; my legs dangled and kicked in comfortable, practical shorts. I was almost literally on top of the world. I was more than halfway, just a few more swings… elation, then panic, a missed grip, a slow-motion fall.

I heard the crack inside myself. I knew something was broken. There was no pain to begin with, just shock. My collarbone had snapped.

The next thing I remember was standing in the doctor’s surgery. There was a teacher there too. The doctor confirmed that it was broken. He was talking about me, not to me, as he bundled my arm into a foam sling.

“In cases like these, we have a choice. We could send her to the hospital, they can align the bone and set it properly so it heals flat, or we can just put it in a sling. The bone will heal overlapped. It will always leave a bump, but it will heal a little stronger. Will that matter with this one?”

My teacher shook her head: “Oh no, it won’t matter. This one won’t be worrying about her appearance. If it had been her sister that would be different.”

My sister was (is) beautiful. She is slim, blonde and smiles easily. She is every type of conventionally attractive that society asks us to look for. This was the moment I became a feminist. This was the day I realised that as a female child there were binary choices, each with a penalty. Life for girls is a series of ‘OR’s; ‘AND’s are reserved for boys. I was nine years old.

This is how it felt.

“Even as the world moves forward, some people start with fewer choices than others. Some of us play on the London Underground; some of us are restricted to Glasgow’s effective but simple system with only two choices: clockwise or anti clockwise.”

A nine-year-old boy stands at the edge of an Ordnance Survey map: hills, valleys, rivers and churches with steeples lie before his feet. He can head off in any direction he chooses. He can loop round, or double back. He can choose to tumble into a ditch and then climb a hill or a tree. He can change his mind and make his own route. He can venture where the sea monsters lie, or stick to the paths and the shiny offices. Or, he can tackle sea monsters for a bit, then skip over to the motorway.

A nine-year-old girl stands at the edge of a tube map. Each choice cuts off other routes. When you choose which line to travel on (or it is chosen for you by circumstance) it takes a lot to move onto another line, and even if you do, you may be trapped in that loop for ever. Each choice has consequence and each has a cost. Beauty or strength. Madonna or whore. Thin or graceful. Books or parties. Mother or career.

Even as the world moves forward, some people start with fewer choices than others. Some of us play on the London Underground; some of us are restricted to Glasgow’s effective but simple system with only two choices: clockwise or anticlockwise. It’s important to say that I now see more and more boys in the UK who are on the tube map, as society obscures the hills and valleys on their maps. Strong or weak. Emotional or logical. Sporty or gay. Fight or flight.

Feminism is for everyone who plays in a game where the rules are set by the patriarchy (a system based on an outdated view of what gender is and means), where logical fallacies and binary systems define your map. We need to recognise that a whole range of accidents of birth define how many underground lines are on your map: being poor, being non-white, being trans, being disabled, being a boy, being a girl. Feminism is the fight to reclaim our maps.

Now it feels like as I stood there, in the doctors surgery, hearing other people set my life out, making the choice that as I wasn’t (to them) beautiful, I would need to be strong (and defining people who they consider to be beautiful as having less use for strength), something big happened in my head.

I felt the crack inside myself. I knew something was broken. There was no pain to begin with, just shock. My deeply ingrained sense that I lived in a world where I could be whatever or whoever I wanted to be had snapped.

And, like the bone, that crack healed stronger, but leaving a mark that will always be there.

@DottyWinters

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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.