Why do we objectify calves?

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The first time I noticed my calves, I was 12. I went to a small, Catholic school that nurtured a population of relentless bullies. At 11, these kids loved me. I was class president. I had a lot of friends and a good reputation. And the part of my legs left uncovered by my atrocious, green, plaid skirt went unnoticed.

At 12, however, seemingly overnight, I became horribly picked on. One of my attributes constantly under fire was my pair of chubby, undefined legs. “Cankles,” they would coo at me, as if that word defined my entire existence, solely because I was not athletically built as my classmates were. Of course, still unconfident and immature at 12 years old, I began to feel awkward and overwhelmingly uncomfortable in my own skin. The feeling that my body was not good enough bothered me for years, despite its amazing job of carrying me through every day.

In high school, my female classmates and I were always made to cover our ankles. White socks up to the knees covered my undefined but efficient and wonderfully hard-working legs. If a girl forgot her knee socks, she would be given a detention, without exception. Again, an institution told me that even nonsexual parts of my body were too risqué to be seen by others, that I had to hide my body. I believe that growing up around that attitude creates a strange self-image. I had the reoccurring thought that all of my body was innately sexual and that I had the job of covering it up for the good of my male classmates’ education, and maybe even society as a whole.  These rules teach girls that it is not anyone’s job to restrain him or herself from seeing women as mere sexual objects, but that it is a woman’s job to cover up and not be a temptation. On good days, it felt like a responsibility; on bad days, a burden.

So, again, my calves are getting me in trouble. Not for any of their qualities this time, but really just for being attached to the bottom of a female kneecap.

I am currently studying in Madrid, Spain, which is a pretty boggling societal enigma to me. The culture itself is rather progressive, with condom dispensers in the metros and a budding liberal political movement.

In contrast to this, there are unspoken rules for which clothes are acceptable for women. “Never go out at night without tights,” an upperclassman wrote in my sorority’s Madrid Bible, “[or] they’ll think you’re a whore.” A literal whore, based on nothing more than my calves? I thought it was a joke.

But as the weather warmed up, I saw my classmates wearing dresses and shorts to school. So I too followed this lead, thinking it was okay to not wear jeans in 75 degree weather. Locals were – I can only assume – astonished at the sight of my bare calves. Old women scowled at me on the metro, and men looked me up and down with no tact.

I suppose these looks could be due to dressing differently than the locals in terms of warmth. (Spaniards typically dress in coats and scarves until April or May.) But I have seen none of these overt objectifications directed towards males in shorts. Dressing myself for my own comfort does not warrant these glares or the catcalls.

Maybe you feel it is my fault for not abiding by the rules of the culture I am in, or that these rules are for the greater good. I too have struggled with this mentality due to my conservative upbringing.

Regardless, it raises the question: Why is society sexualizing and objectifying such a mundane part of the female body, even in the 21st century? Why do I not have a right to dress in the way that makes me comfortable, as my male peers do?

I do not tell this story because it is rare or exceptional, but because it is common. Early on, girls are taught that there are strict guidelines for their bodies that define them.

There is an injustice in these guidelines that women rarely realize. We teach them that affirmation comes from society and not from within themselves. We teach them that someone else makes the rules about their bodies.

In reality, my calves, shoulders, ankles, neck and chest are not overtly sexual. They are body parts with everyday functions that have been sexualized by society. There is no reason to feel guilty or ashamed for having them, and the decision to show them or not should be a personal one.