Every since childhood, I, like many girls and women, struggled with poor body image, self-loathing, perfectionism, jealousy toward other women, fear for my safety, and other everyday effects of misogyny and sexism. However, it took me until college to view these personal troubles as relevant to larger societal problems. For years, I blamed myself. But now, I view this self-blame as the result of society's failure to acknowledge how misogyny creeps into our daily lives in ways that have nothing to do with us.
During the consciousness-raising period of my life that began around age 18, I grew familiar with the feminist saying that "the personal is political," meaning that widespread problems like sexism and racism affect our private lives and mental health. After this insight set in, I saw my own life in a new light. I realized that the people concerned that I was enjoying my newfound sexual freedom in college were actually slut-shaming me — criticizing me for failing to adhere to the feminine ideal of purity. I observed that the food restriction I'd engaged in during my teen years was a psychological mechanism to make my body feel less prone to sexual objectification and make myself look less imposing. I learned that the anxiety I experienced around my science courses, despite getting straight A's and winning my high school's chemistry award, was more common among women than men.
Understanding that the problems I was facing were not unique made me feel less alone and less crazy. It also made me angry about all the messed-up messages that had contributed to them. If you've been experiencing any of these effects of sexism, please know that society is the culprit, not you, and that challenging cultural power imbalances is an important step toward healing.
Subtle cues from the media and the people around us teach us that, because of our gender, race, class, ability status, weight, physical appearance, and a slew of other factors, we don't deserve love from ourselves or others. We learn that we are crazy to love our bodies if we're not a particular shape and wrong to love our skin if it isn't a particular shade. Nobody is exempt from these messages. The advertising industry has taught us all that something is wrong with us or at least could be improved upon, and the American prizing of hard work at all costs has taught us that our worth can be measured by our productivity. So, we hate ourselves, and we hate others for possessing the traits we envy.
The most radical, rebellious thing we can do in the face of these toxic messages, then, is to love ourselves. That might seem like an abstract, nebulous concept, but to me it entails several concrete actions, like taking good care of my body and my living space, surrounding myself with loving people, thinking positive thoughts, and engaging in activities that make me happy. Self-love is a basic human right that should not be granted based on one's adherence to cultural ideals.
2. Dieting And Disordered Eating
Want to know something messed up? The first memory I have of food withholding was at age 5. My friend and I were pretending to be princesses, and when I asked to get a snack, she said, "You can't. Princesses don't eat." My classmates and I started comparing our weights at age 6; I was disappointed in myself for being bigger than my closest friend. Two years later, we were already calling each other fat as an insult. At age 12, my dad started telling me to stop eating so much because I wouldn't be thin forever. Given all the messages we have received about our worth being tied into one specific vision of beauty, it's no wonder that women struggle so frequently with body image.
I realized later on that all sorts of misogynistic and fatphobic ideas played into my own body image struggles and disordered eating. Men also face body image pressures, but the reasons behind women's are often rooted in misogyny. First of all, we are taught that our appearance is the most important thing about us, so if it deviates from the one type seen constantly in the media, we feel worthless. And, confusingly, we are also taught that possessing a conventionally attractive body draws in sexual harassment and assault. Thirdly, we are taught that being fat or even average-size is an indication that we're lazy and lacking in willpower.
For these reasons and more, 91 percent of college women have dieted, over half of teenage girls have engaged in unhealthy weight-loss behaviors, and up to 30 million people in the United States have eating disorders, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. 23 percent of American women dieted at some point during 2012, according to data from the market research company the NPD Group, and two-thirds of British women dieted during 2013, according to a survey by retail analyst Mintel.
Like any type of self-love, loving our bodies is a radical act of rebellion, and we deserve it whether we fit a societal ideal or not.
3. Feeling Unsafe
Most women understand the feeling of going out at night worried they won't come back or will come back in a damaged state. Well-meaning elders warn us that our gender makes us more vulnerable, which is partially true: nine out of 10 rape victims in 2009 were women, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). However, the National Violence Against Women Survey found that men are more likely to experience other types of physical assault. Yet it's women people terrorize. Furthermore, four out of five rapists know their victims, according to RAINN, which deals another blow to the alarmist "never walk alone at night!" advice that Ever Mainard describes receiving in this comedy routine:
Mainard also voices a thought common among women who do end up walking alone at night: "Here's my rape!" Rape is so prevalent that we're taught it's just a part of life, so when we're in a sketchy situation that matches the stereotype of rape (like walking alone at night), we think we've arrived at that inevitable moment when we get raped. This mentality makes us constantly vigilant, picking up the pace when we spot someone behind us on the street and taking out our keys blocks before we get home so we have a weapon in case someone attacks us. The prevalence of sexual assault in our society and the paranoia instilled in us about it diminish our mental well being and leave less space in our minds to think.
4. Feeling Afraid To Speak Up
I've always been hesitant to give my opinion in class, work, and social conversations, afraid I didn't have enough information or an important enough perspective. I started challenging this feeling once I learned it was more common among women. Women are taught to avoid being an imposition on others and to put others before ourselves, which often means holding back if we want something or have an opinion others may disagree with. Perhaps this is why research published in Harvard Business Review has found that women are less likely to negotiate for money. According to another study published in Administrative Science Quarterly, people give male executives higher ratings and female executives lower ratings for speaking up in meetings. Yet another study, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, demonstrated that both men and women interrupt women more than men. It's no wonder women are less likely to speak up when they're penalized for it.
Learning about the phenomenon of "mansplaining," in which men explain things to women that they already know due to preconceived notions about women's lack of intelligence or knowledge, has also made me wary of the assumption that I don't have anything meaningful to say. When I make this assumption, I try to remind myself that a man with exactly the same amount of knowledge as me may feel more confident. Hence the saying invented by writer Sarah Hagi, "Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man." It's important for women to consider their own opinions worthwhile, or else men who are more confident end up dominating conversations.
5. Feeling Ashamed For Being "Slutty"
A (so-called) friend in college once told me I had "led him on" simply by coming to his room. And, like many teenage girls, I had my mom stop me in the kitchen to say "You're not wearing that" before a night out. But slut-shaming goes beyond what we hear from the people around us. We also see police and the media blame women for their own sexual assaults due to what they were wearing or their behavior. Indeed, one study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that 62 percent of rape victims blame themselves. This attitude is encouraged when we try to police women's behavior under the pretense that they are provoking sexual assault.
Another type of slut-shaming occurs when we make women feel bad about their sex lives. I've had people tell me I was taken advantage of after sexual encounters my partner and I were equally enthusiastic about. This reflects the popular wisdom that men always want sex, women only want sex in the context of a relationship, women thus control the sexual market, and women must use this power to keep men's sex drives in check, or else we'll just be a society of beasts who do nothing but go around screwing one another. This belief system makes women feel guilty for having sex drives, especially sex drives stronger than their partners', and afraid to ask for what they want in bed.
As with other types of sexism, the first step toward combatting this mentality is recognizing that it stems from false, problematic views about women — and then finding other people who don't buy into it, either. We're not alone in the misogyny we face, but we're also not alone in wanting to fix it. This desire to be part of the solution, not the problem, is a powerful force that can heal us and bring us together.