TACO BELL AND GLOSSY HEELS BY RIYA BINDLISH

*disclaimer- I originally wrote this for a Lang assignment but thought it would be interesting to share with the debate community:)

“To do great things, today’s woman needs above forgetfulness of self; but to forget oneself, one must first be solidly sure that one has already found oneself. Newly arrived in the world of men, barely supported by them, the woman is still much too busy looking for herself.” Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)

Click clack click clack.

Two glossy black heels hit the sidewalk with a ring that fills the ears of those around me with abrasion, but radiates nothing but power and independence in mine.

Blazer sleeves cuffed?

Check.

Hair straightened?

Of course.

It’s 11 pm and I’m walking on the outskirts of Arizona State University lit up by nothing other than moonlight and the luminescent flare of the giant purple Taco Bell sign across the street. 

I was thirteen when I first started doing Public Forum debate. A thirst for knowledge, a desire for a glimpse into the world around me, a longing to engage with others fueled my motivation to dive headfirst into debate, whether it be investigating the implementation of the carbon tax in the United States to lengthening my showers to fit in one last summary speech redo.

But I gained something else, something beyond intellect and argumentation. 

Identity- the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.

And I can see is the skepticism on the faces of those reading this post. An exaggeration, some will call it. A bit of a stretch, others will deem it. Because how can facts and figures empower someone? How can you base your identity on an extracurricular?

It wasn’t the research I found or the arguments I cut. 

It was the concept of debate as a whole. 

See, everytime I register for a tournament, I am essentially signing up for an opportunity to:

  1.  Discuss a topic determined by the National Speech and Debate Association.
  2. Argue a stance decided by a coin flip.
  3. Give speeches constrained by time limits.
  4. Abide by dress codes dictated by societal norms. 

To do all of the above, I am granted a platform to voice these arguments and a judge to listen and vote for a team. 

It is this very platform that supposedly gave me a voice. And in the debate space it definitely did. The words I said, rhetoric I used, evidence I cited all had the ability to make or break a round. And so the importance of my words in those moments contributed to my sense of self expression and identity. But I want you to read the four bullets above again and ask yourself: is that a platform to find a voice?

That was something I should have asked myself then. There really is no question that can be answered with a simple yes or no, so my answer is maybe, but mostly no. Yes, I have the ability to choose what arguments I make. I have the choice to utilize different forms of rhetoric to persuade an audience to vote for me. 

But not being able to discuss a topic you are passionate about detracts from its value to individuality. When I walk into a competition, I can’t discuss my obsession with The Awakening or my fascination with orange peels. No, those parts of me turn off and I focus on the topic at hand. Limiting a speech to two to four minutes simply isn’t enough time to voice your thoughts and personality. Even as I meagerly attempt to create arguments about gender equality, or other issues important to me, everything feels so forced and for the sake of a ballot.  

This is by no means to say that debate doesn’t have value; it has been incredibly important in shaping my intellectual curiosity, persuasive ability, and research skills.

But this mustn’t be mistaken for identity

Yet, that is exactly what I was doing. When people asked what I liked doing, I responded with “debate.” Within my family friend group, I was known as “the debater,” so I adopted the title for myself. What does that even mean? But being “the debater” seemed to satisfy everyone else, so I didn’t bother exploring. 

Passion? Pffst, what’s that?

Interests? Uhh, debate?

 And as a result I stopped looking for things that mattered to me besides school, I prevented myself from exploring things that genuinely interested me. I remained content with a mere mirage of what it meant to be Riya Bindlish.

That was simply the first layer of the onion. 

Being a female debater came with its own rules. If you go back to my list again, item four is “abiding by dress codes dictated by societal norms.” Seeing how much importance I was giving to the activity, I decided it was pertinent to look the part. 

I have a routine every time I get ready for a tournament. Set an alarm for 6:30 am, shower, wear a nicely pressed dress or skirt, straighten the bird’s nest living on my head, and wear the tallest heels in my house.  

The more primped and ready I was, the more power and confidence I had when engaging in a debate round. I have the option of wearing dress pants and flats, but three-inch heels were empowering as I strutted up to the podium to speak. The vigor and intensity with which I spoke were rooted in the portrayal of my femininity.  

I had given my identity a little more pizazz by giving her some gender stereotypes to adhere to. 

Click clack click clack.

My partner and I have just finished our last round at the Arizona State Invitational. Pride and stress overwhelm us as we move on to elimination rounds tomorrow. The plan is to grab a burrito and go back to the hotel room and prep. 

As we push the button to cross the street, a car speeds to the corner and squeals to a stop practically on top of the curb we are standing on. 

The men in the car glance at us.

The men in the car whistle.

The men tell us to come on a ride with them.

The men start shouting words that are incoherent, or maybe my ears simply block them out.

A blotch of red makes its way up the back of my neck to my cheeks and brings down my crumbling facade of an identity. It strips me of my heels, unravels my straightened hair to its unruly curls, rips my blazer and usurps my voice. If it ever existed in the first place. 

Brimming with anger, I stand there in silent humiliation and lowered eyes. More than the catcalling, it was the realization that my platform had been snatched from me right in front of me that terrified me. Who was I to call myself a female activist, a girl who voices her opinions, and defends herself when I couldn’t seize the situation to utter a firm “stop”? 

I was so used to being given a forum to voice my thoughts. But a voice given to you under rules isn’t self-expression. A platform given to you under regulation isn’t a base to build an identity. Nothing can be given to you. Society doesn’t call on raised hands, it buries them. If you want to have a voice, you have to fight for it. You earn it. YOU make the rules.

You don’t cede that voice to those who try and take it away. Instead, you make it louder. 

It is that voice that is your identity that no argument, nor speech can ever create.

People enjoy the idea of self-awareness and cling to every means of assurance.When there is none, the mind creates one. Mine was debate, and you probably have your own version. It is terrifying to start over and not know who I am, yet I know my voice is still out in the world somewhere. Waves of frustration wash over me as I play what seems like a never ending game of hide-and-seek to find it, but it is better than not playing at all; after all, to achieve greatness, one must look past themselves, but to look past themselves, one must know themselves.

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