I haven’t always identified with feminism. Although, I’ve never denied it either. I merely didn’t know enough about the term – the movement – to truly grasp what it meant and jump on board. That said, I’ve been building my feminism for a few years, which has been influenced by an abundance of people, all with very different characteristics and standpoints. Be it the thick-skinned prof in my third year stats course proclaiming his feminism on the first day of class shattering the stereotype of who a feminist could be, the retired radical who explained to me that feminism isn’t just about women’s rights but about intersections of gender and race and class and sexual orientation and all kinds of other facets of identity, or the spunky colleague who never gives up, no matter how hard it gets, to stand up against all forms of discrimination: I have had a lot of help in building my feminism.
If you followed my previous blog during 2012, you might remember my post that questioned if I was “allowed” to be a feminist since I fully embraced the social expectations of what it meant to be “female”. During this time, I asked myself whether it was okay to believe in breaking down gender stereotypes if I still wanted to embrace my own ultra-feminine identity. I wanted to make myself look “pretty”. I wanted to wear high heels sometimes. I wanted to fall head-over-heels in love and take care of my partner in ways I could, and be taken care of in ways I needed. I liked shopping. I liked shoes. I loved the color pink. And I enjoyed playing house and cooking for romantic partners, family and friends. This apparent contradiction caused me anxiety for years. I believed in equality, and I believed in the ability to choose your own identity and not be ridiculed because of western society’s hetero-normative standards. Yet, my identity fell in to those standards comfortably. And I wasn’t sure if that was okay or not. Until now. Because yes, I like all that “girly” crap. But I’m also sturdy. I’m motivated. I’ve put myself through university and grad school. I stand up for myself and others. I live with passion. I slowly came to realize, I’m not a walking stereotype just because I appreciate some of the things I grew up being told to appreciate. Just because I appreciate girly stuff, it didn’t mean I was just a girl; it didn’t mean that being a stereotypical “girl” was a bad thing; and it certainly didn’t mean that I couldn’t be a feminist.
That said, lemme tell you: becoming a feminist is hard work. For starters, you have to be prepared for social backlash. Anti-feminists and people who are indifferent to gender justice are challenging to deal with, because you’ll never sway them, and you just have to get over that. This is not to say that feminism is the ultimate truth and I am here trying so save your soul by converting your mind. No. Rather, I’m saying it does not matter what you do or say, as a feminist, you will inevitably live up to someone’s terrible expectations if that’s all they ever expect to see. And learning to live with that can seem next to impossible. Additionally, other feminists can be difficult to converse with too. Like I said in an earlier post, there is no such thing as Feminism, there are feminisms. This means there are several different strains as well as individual interpretations. Every one has their own feminism, and of course those interpretations might clash. But, in my experience, even if your ideas conflict, there’s a deep level of respect that’s maintained and you’re never shut down merely for being a feminist. At the very least, you’ll always be heard.
Feminism is also hard because it takes time and patience. And once you see the patriarch, you see it in all things and you will never unsee it. You can’t watch TV mindlessly, advertisements are horrific displays of grossness, and you overthink every piece of cultural paraphernalia you come across. It’s like being able to see a bizarre dimension that isn’t really talked about, and you’re not sure who else can see it but you get really frustrated by people who can’t. Think of it as the black/blue versus white/gold dress thing.
People lost their minds about this dress, right? Literally no one could understand how someone saw different colours than what they saw. (Ok, except scientists.) Well, this whole illusion perfectly demonstrates what it’s like to be a feminist around other people who deny the relevance of feminism. That boiling inner frustration I know you felt, that UNDENIABLE TRUTH you knew about the dress being white and gold (or black and blue, I AM NOT TAKING SIDES) is how people feel about the patriarchy’s negative influence on our culture. Does it exist? Does it not? (Does it matter?)
And, like all things, there are stages to dealing with the trauma that is becoming a feminist. And TBH, it looks a lot like the stages of grief.
The 5 Stages of Becoming a Feminist:
1. Denial and Isolation
After first being introduced to the idea of patriarchy, there’s an explicit period of denial. The glass hasn’t quite shattered for you yet. You argue that your identity is your own, stereotypes are ultimately meaningless, and it isn’t such a bad thing that men and women are treated differently. They are born differently, like genetically, you know. Excuses come up like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” which claim some kind of biological or inevitable difference between men and women that can’t possibly be related to cultural assumptions perpetuated in mainstream discourse. An image of what a “feminist” is – i.e. a butch lesbian who refuses to make sandwiches or shave her legs? – comes to mind and a person urges that they aren’t willing to give up the things they assume aren’t “feminist” like shaving their legs or wearing skirts or cooking for their partners.
Yet, over time, the realization kicks in: A lot of feminists shave their legs. (And a lot don’t.) A lot of feminists are stay at home moms. (And a lot aren’t.) A lot of feminists are men. (And a lot are androgynous and/or gay.) And then, something happens in your life, and the glass shatters. Women make how much less money in the same jobs as men? Men could legally rape their wives until the 80s? Sexual assault is occurring how frequently and going unrecognized? Girls are repeatedly being kicked out of school and suspended because their clothing are distracting boys’ learning? BEYONCE SAID SHE’S A WHAT? And smash goes the glass beneath you as you free fall into a rabbit hole. And your life will never be the same again.
You stay in this wonderland of a place, alone. In isolation, you think about how your whole life has been a lie. You think how you’ve been treated, how your friends have been treated, how women are treated in the media… And you don’t want any part of any of it anymore. You stay in your office, your bedroom, the corner table at the bar, and you just examine how truly different your world looks now that you see this strange new dimension. If you’re like me, you sit and tear apart your own identity some more. Being ultra-feminine, white, straight, educated… I immensely benefit from our culture’s social norms. How can I be a feminist while still being “me” without being a hypocrite? How can I speak out about racism and homophobia when I don’t have a clue what that type of discrimination feels like? How am I possibly going to be a good feminist when I don’t even know who I am or who I should be any more?
And then you get pissed.
You just spent your entire life mindlessly. Why has no one said anything about this before? Why didn’t I listen? And all you want to do is talk about it. Dissect it. Figure it out. And then spill all your guts on the table and be like
So that, eventually, other people can see what you see too. HOW GREAT THAT WOULD BE! Yet, they don’t. And that’s okay, you guess, but then you become the weird gabby gab who keeps talking about ALL OF THE feminisms and ALL OF THE patriarchy ALL OF THE time. Your friends just want you to chill and let people have their own opinions. And you really, really want to let them do that. But you can’t always let it go, because sometimes their opinions are super sexist or racist or full of hate. And you can’t stand to be around it any more. And it feels like parts of your whole world are burning up all around you. But you can’t let up this little tick in the back of your mind that says “Don’t give up, this is important”. So you post feminist stuff on social media, you argue about the meaning of Nicki Minaj songs anyway, and you probably lose a few followers on Instagram. I’ll be honest, you cry a lot. You feel defeated. You feel empty. But then, out of nowhere, “Flawless” comes on the radio and the part where Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about what it means to be female empowers your damn mind and it gives you goosebumps and you know everything is going to be okay.
The next phase is a longing for ignorance. This must be especially true if you are straight, white, middle/upper class, able-bodied, and cisgendered. If only I could go back in time and unsee what I’ve seen, unlearn what I’ve learned. Because ignorance truly is bliss. And it’s also much easier to be ignorant when you benefit from the system in place, because you don’t really have to recognize the advantages to think otherwise. To drop some examples from Standpoint Theory, the CEO of a company has no reason to understand the job or experience of a janitor. It does not benefit them or the company. But, it is absolutely to the janitor’s advantage to understand the role of the CEO if they ever wants to move their way up the corporate ladder. This is the same for social power. A man has no real need to understand women’s experiences because we don’t live in a matriarchal society. Yet, a woman is expected to understand the male perspective and participate in a more “masculine” persona (i.e. unemotional, childless, etc.) if she wants to play the game and get ahead in her career. In similar form, women who do not identify with feminism probably benefit from patriarchy in their own way. Because some women enjoy the esteem that comes from being/acting weaker or incapable to build men’s egos and earn their affection. Similarly, some women value their beauty above anything else and are delighted by daily cat-calling or receiving discounts or “special attention” for their appearance. I’ll admit it, I’ve been guilty of all these things. And I don’t think this is terrible, nor do I think it’s beneficial. I merely understand why cisgendered heterosexual women don’t shout from the rooftops that they are a feminist, because there’s a fear that they will drop a few points in desirability to others, including but not limited to future romantic partners and employers. Yet, my empathy doesn’t mean it’s not also frustrating when people deny the system in place that’s trying to make the world more inclusive for them too.
The next phase is depression. Because everything I just said is incredibly debilitating. You’ve been lied to your whole life, everyone around you seems to ridicule what you have to say, you potentially lose friends and romantic partners and employment opportunities. And that shit is bananas. And depressing.
Again, hang in there. You’re not alone.
Over time, (I can only imagine because I’m not here yet), a gentle wave of acceptance and peace flows within you. You begin to let go of the small acts of sexism that maybe don’t have to be reacted to so vigilantly. You begin to trust in your own vision and not let other’s opinions tear you apart. You become more confident in your body and your knowledge and your mind, and your insecurities over the “f-word” don’t seep into everyday conversations. You can let things go, while still being strong and grounded in your opinions. You develop better ways to communicate these ideas as to not make others feel guilty or wrong. This period of acceptance doesn’t mean you are or should always be an “exceptional feminist” because that distinction does not exist in a standardized way. You merely accept who you are, what you believe, and it no longer eats at you.
At least I hope so.