07 May, 2010

Sometimes it's hard being a woman...

Or rather, sometimes it's hard being a woman and a feminist at the same time. Don't get me wrong, obviously being a male feminist obviously brings it's own problems but that's possibly a post one of our lovely male femis would be better placed to write, so let me have my moment.

Anyway, being a woman, and a feminist, I feel like I'm swimming against the tide. Not only against the tide of opinion, but of my own emotions. It's like being constantly caught in the middle; being caught between knowing that the beauty ideal is a sexist myth perpetuated and sustained by the patriarchy and wanting SO badly to live up to that ideal. For me, feminism is a constant source of conflict with myself.

I'm trying hard to articulate this and I'm not sure I'm doing it all that well, so rather than writing this as a fluent post, I want to share with you some of the random some of the internal contradictions that have been troubling me, which will probably explain it better.

For example, I hate our society's simultaneous obsession with youth and fear of ageing. I hate that women are taught to be terrified of growing older, bullied into spending a small fortune on dubious anti-ageing creams which almost certainly have little, if any effect. And I know these twin obsessions are ridiculous, and I rage against them with everyone else, but at the same time, I'm unable to rise above them. For all my smug dismissal of the supposed qualities of anti-wrinkle creams, I still buy them. Last weekend I cried because I'm getting fine lines around my eyes, and as I write this I'm crying because I fucking hate myself for caring when I know I shouldn't, because by being sucked into the beauty myth I'm only helping to perpetuate it.

I hate the whole Bridget Jones thing, how the media would have us believe that if a woman isn't married by the time she's 30 she will be/should be a neurotic mess, desperate to find a man before it's "too late" and I hate that I'm in my twenties and live in a near constant state of panic about the fact that I'm single, that I'm genuinely terrified that I won't find anyone.

I hate myself for knowing that women come in all shapes and sizes, so many shapes and sizes that it's impossible for any one to be "right", and still being unhappy with my body because it's not "right".

I hate that people are so shallow that we value looks over everything else, and elevate people with no talent to the level of royalty because they're beautiful and sometimes I hate my face because it doesn't look like Cheryl Cole's.

I'm not saying I wish I wasn't a feminist, but sometimes the constant contradiction all just feels a bit much. Does anyone else understand?


  1. This about as close of an expression of the thoughts and frustration I am constantly experiencing as I have ever come across. I have friends who I would identify as feminists, or as feminist-friendly, or at least as being "for" women, but sharing these kinds of internal conflicts with them makes them look at me as if I've finally understood what has been wrong about my feminism all along.

  2. Slightly different examples, but the same conflicted outcome. *hugs*

  3. Word. But I think this helps me with understanding feminism. I certainly think that men can be feminists- but while they can empathise, I wonder if they can understand. Because I don't think they understand the pressure of looking young and beautiful in a way that is forced down our throats by the media, and the inadequacy it makes women everywhere feel.

    But unless you're experiencing this, I don't think you can truly understand the effect that images of perfection perpetuated by the media can have on women. And if we weren't able to understand it, and sometimes buy into it, we wouldn't be able to understand what we were fighting against.

  4. Yes, yes, YES! Thank you for this wonderful post. I think most if not all female feminists, and probably more non-feminist-identifying females than you might think, can relate.

    Even before I consciously and vocally identified as a feminist, I harbored a great deal of shame - shame about not conforming, and shame about wanting to conform in the first place.

    I don't even think you have to think poorly of the beauty ideal to feel this -- in general, "women's" pursuits and interests, such as fashion, beauty, etc. are seen as not really challenging or worthwhile, so any serious attention paid to them is seen as frippery. For feminists, this is a triple conflict.

    The main thing to remember is that we ought not blame ourselves. Sure, we all fall victim to caring about and wanting to conform to femininity's norms. I distinctly remember crying a river when I broke up with my boyfriend at the age of 19 - not because I liked him especially well, but because NOW WHO WOULD I MARRY? Clearly ridiculous, but these fears and expectations are internalized at such an early age that it takes superhuman strength to shake them off.

    Kudos for even recognizing, and acknowledging, them in the first place.

  5. "Last weekend I cried because I'm getting fine lines around my eyes, and as I write this I'm crying because I fucking hate myself for caring when I know I shouldn't"

    But who says you shouldn't? You're right in the middle of a huge ideology - society, the media, everyone around you - that's constantly sending you messages about how wrong those little lines are.

    I have wrinkles on my forehead - from thinking and frowning while I study! - and I hate them. I'm becoming obsessed by them, and they're the first thing I see when I look in the mirror.

    The fact is, you're human. Your whole brain is conditioned - and has been since childhood - to function within this ideology. The sexist crap we see, the gender biases our parents told us in good faith, the whole 'that's not for girls' attitude. It's all in there, and it's part of you.

    I guess this is little comfort, but the fact that you struggle but try to stick to feminist principles - against all odds - is a far braver move to me, and worth far more, than if you had no trouble at all. It hurts but you do it anyway - because you know it's right. And you 'fail' but you pick yourself up and try again - over and over. And you talk about it, and you share it with us, because you know it might help you - or someone else - do 'better'. As far as I'm concerned, that makes you a pretty amazing feminist.


  6. Hey - chin up and thanks for writing an awesome blog :-) I've learnt a lot reading it and I really appreciate the time you must spend on it.

    I don't really have any answers I'm afraid (and being a man has its own challenges and contradictions!) but I hope that you feel better soon.

  7. I know how you feel. However I do not pay any attention to the emphasis on looks. Yes I've got lines on my face - I'm 58 FFS - so I'd look pretty odd if I didn't have by now. My hair is going grey - so what? I don't have to look at it - other people do. I actually like my streaky hair and won't do anything to change it.

    I don't remove any body hair - again if people don't like it it's my body. But it is difficult to stand against the tide and we all have to make our own peace with it.

    Stick to what feels comfortable for you and keep a copy of Natasha Walter's Living Dolls beside you to dip into and to remind you how hollow the emphasis on youth and beauty really is.

  8. Thanks guys. Glad I'm not the only one who feels this way. I do beat myself up for working in fashion, constantly, and more so lately, thinking I've brought all this on myself. You've made me realise it was probably inevitable I would feel this way anyway, although just going to work on the days I work in that arena possibly wouldn't be such a gargantuan struggle against the self.

  9. Not to mention, it is difficult not to conform, when we know how prevalent the discrimination is! We may hate it, and try and change it, but at the end of it nobody wants to be discriminated against, and there is no shame in trying to avoid it.

    Being a feminist is added pressure in some ways. Most people regard feminism as an 'ugly woman's' platform to rail against men that have rejected them. So I often want to appear more attractive in order to help change peoples ideas of feminism. Then I get angry with myself because it is this obsession with female beauty that is so damaging is what feminism is trying to fight!

    Feminism = exhausting.

  10. Think the most difficult things I have to contend with are sceptism at being a male who identifies myself as a feminist, accusations of and fear of 'nice guy' syndrome, and the old chestnut of masculinity...

  11. The career I'm going into requires some degree of conformity and it takes an unusual amount of fortitude to weather the criticisms of others (nevertheless achievable, Mike Mansfield being one example). Heck, I KNOW I'm probably going to have to do some schmoozing etc in order to get somewhere, but that's OK. What you're going through here is simply you being human. Just because you have a belief in an ideology doesn't mean you have to be the stoic feminist superwoman or whatever ridiculous image cooked up by our disparagers. Heck, if it's of any use, every time I see a bus go by with whichever footballer's decided to pose in his undies, I look at myself and think, "Shit, I need to lose weight". I probably do, but the point stands, that it's perfectly human to believe in an ideology and yet still have anxieties created by societal norms. In short, what everybody else has said. And yes, perpetual singledom is beginning to get me down too.

  12. It sucks, and the only way I've found to manage is to adapt the motto "If you've got it, flaunt it". It was really difficult for me when I got stretch marks at the tender age of 19. I thought that I'd make the choice forever to have a child instead of wearing belly-revealing clothes. Then one day I asked myself, "so what if someone sees my stretch marks? What's the worst that could happen?" So I started showing them off, and a friend took one look and said "your belly looks so cool, almost like lace; can I touch it?" That right there changed everything for me. Who knew stretch marks could be beautiful?

  13. People who say "just do what feels comfortable to you" as a way of getting around these dilemmas dserve a smack. The whole point is that *nothing* feels comfortable.

    The one thing I can say in consolation is that the fact that nothing feels comfortable is not a result of being a feminist: it's the base condition of performative femininity. The fact that there is no "right" way to be, no perfect body or properly balanced career/family life scenario, that whtever women do they are opening themselves to criticism: all that stuff is a feature, not a bug.

    Feminism does present us with different dilemmas than we might have were we not feminists, but they are not bigger or more numerous - just slightly different. And on the bright side, feminism offers up some tools to reconcile these problems, or at least analyse the understand them, which no amount of reading Cosmo could provide.

  14. Chin up, perfectionist femis! None of us can help internalising patriarchy to some extent. It's hard enough being a feminist - hell, it's hard enough being a *woman* - without hating yourself for not living up to some enormously high ideal that you've set for yourself.
    Not to mention, V, that the desire to find a partner to love and love you is nothing to do with chicklit and a perfectly normal human emotion. You are allowed to be feminist and also human.

  15. I think your post just shows that you are human. I think many people feel pulled in two like you do. Like you, the prejudice against an ageing woman makes me angry. But I also hope I don't age too badly because I see how much more respect young women get at work compared to their middle-aged female colleagues.

    One problem I find is that I don't feel comfortable with the pressures from society, but I also don't feel comfortable with the pressures from feminists. E.g. I do rather like clothes! Not because I am trying to look like a supermodel, but because I like to express myself through the way I dress and I love sewing. But, I have occasionally gotten grief from some feminists I know who think I shouldn't pay any atention to such things.

  16. Clicked on your link over at sian and crooked rib. I feel for you. This stuff is a mindfield! I admire you. Thank you for sharing this post.

  17. I think most of us readers can recognize what you are talking about. And I think the power of feminism is that it gives us a perspective that allows to lift these contradictions _above_ the individual and see them as inherent in the society we live in. It is not you, even though we are made to believe so, it's the world that's full of contradictions. And thus the way to work these contradictions is to change the world, not to change the self.

  18. Yep. I totally get it. Some days I'm defiant and comfortable in my skin, others I'm a wreck because I can't find a bra small enough for my pathetic boobs, or because I'm too pale or not pretty enough - and I hate myself even more because I know the things I'm a wreck over are utterly pathetic. We know the beauty myth for what it is, but it's still hard to cope with being bombarded by it every. single. day.

  19. Yup, me too. I've always said I'll cherish my grey hairs and wrinkles when I get them, but am now realising how hard it is to do that as they start to appear more and more. And it's other women of a similar age who look concerned and say, "you need to dye your hair", thinking they're giving helpful advice.

    I'm still desperately trying to learn to love my outward signs of 'wisdom' and 'maturity' but I do feel the day I'll start dyeing my hair getting closer - how pathetic. Not yet though. I just resent it too much.

    So glad to read others feeling similar things to me! Thanks.


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