My first distinct memory of thinking about what the word "feminist" meant
is from the 11th grade, when my eccentric, hippy-dippy English teacher identified herself as such. I immediately scoffed at this, mentally moving her up six more rungs on the crazy teacher scale. I thought to myself, "I'm not some protesting, man-hating, bra-burning weirdo. I'm not a feminist. No way."
I know, I know
. I want to smack my teen self in the face just as much as you do. But in fairness to 16-year-old me,
I can't totally be blamed for viewing feminism
in this way. I grew up in a fairly conservative family and attended Catholic school from kindergarten on. When I was a kid, all of my ideas about feminism
and what it meant didn't come from feminist activists; they came from the ways in which feminism was portrayed in the media, and then how my parents responded to those portrayals. The "feminist" in a movie or TV show was always someone that no one took seriously, that people told to "calm down" or just rolled their eyes at. They were uptight. They didn't have a sense of humor. They were into overreacting. In my world — like a lot of people's — feminism just wasn't something that was talked about,
aside from being associated with the above-mentioned, so-called "weirdos."
TV is usually a bad place to pick up ideas about any particular group of people, of course — but at the time, it was kind of my only option, because I didn't actually know anyone in real life who identified as a feminist. Especially at school, where feminism was not something any of my friends or I wanted to be associated with. What did we know about feminists, back then? We knew that they were weird and we knew that they were uncool — two things we were definitely not interested in being perceived as.
And unfortunately, the perception of others meant a lot to us at the time. Looking back, I'm appalled at how much of my energy was spent gossiping about the girls in my class, evaluating what they chose to wear, do, and say. This, in turn, made me constantly paranoid that other people were also judging me (which they probably were). At the time, I didn't realize how damaging this ultimately ended up being; this vicious cycle of picking others apart and letting yourself get picked apart wreaked havoc on my self-esteem. I thought being a feminist would make me more vulnerable to this kind of thing (though now I know, of course, that feminism is about fighting exactly this sort of thing).
So when did the tide turn for me? When did I realize that feminism wasn't just an excuse for weirdos to complain, but actually an important way of thinking? It didn't happen all at once, I can tell you that. A few years ago, when I was in college and a few years past my girl-shaming high school prime, some bloggers I followed on Tumblr began challenging certain Disney movies and the ideals that they taught young girls. I thought that this criticism was silly; after all, I had grown up watching these movies, but I never expected Prince Charming to save me. I didn't dream of my wedding day like "other girls" (a phrase which today makes my skin crawl, but one I used commonly at the time).
But I was completely unaware of all the ways in which these movies (and other forms of media) did in fact influence me; ways that were so subtle and sneaky I didn't even realize it was happening. When forced to consider this feminism thing again, I was still only engaging with it on a surface level.
But eventually, I began to turn towards feminism in earnest — which almost certainly had to do with the kind of people I chose to surround myself with as a young adult. I became heavily involved in the theater community at my college and built friendships with amazing, open-minded people. And honestly, it also had a lot to do with the internet. Tumblr might be known as a place for absurd humor and endless memes, but it's also an incredible melding of ideas and thoughtful observations.
My years as a Tumblr user also truly opened my mind to new ways of thinking and introduced me to a community of incredible feminists. I began to realize that, even though I didn't see myself as someone actively oppressed by Disney princesses, those writers critiquing them had a point. No, I didn't spend my childhood envisioning my future wedding, but I did grow up assuming that I would eventually get married. I didn't feel like I had to look like a Disney princess all the time, but I did feel like if I was over a certain weight, I wouldn't be seen as attractive. For my entire life, everything around me was telling me that girls are supposed look a certain way, act a certain way, be a certain way. I felt the expectations, of course, but I just didn't actively notice them. It's hard to notice something that is so ingrained in you from the moment you're born into the world as a female — which is one of the many reasons that feminism, which urges us to pay attention to these expectations, is so important.
Now, I'm at a point where I'm starting to question these expectations. It can be pretty rattling to challenge so many of the things I've grown accustomed to over the years, but it's also extremely liberating.
Today, I think of myself as a feminist. But I still understand where women's negative ideas about feminism come from. Because I've been judgmental of other women's choices, not because they were doing anything worthy of judgement, but because I saw a piece of myself reflected in them, and the world around me was telling me that it wasn't a good enough piece. And no matter what kind of upbringing you had, I'm almost certain that you have had a similar experience.
Being and identifying as a feminist has changed my life in so many ways. To put it simply, I feel freer. I know that expectations of me as a woman still exist, but now I also know how to say "f*ck that" and carry on. I am healthier and happier because now I feed my body based on what it needs, rather than a delusional aspiration to be a size 2. I am more confident because I am able to recognize when I'm being treated poorly and I speak up about it. None of this would be possible without my feminism.
That's why I'd like to tell any woman who thinks she doesn't "need" feminism
this: just because you have never experienced outward aggression or discrimination from men, doesn't mean you haven't experienced sexism. The fact that you have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by gentle, kind, and respectful men in your life does not negate all of the ways in which you have been inevitably influenced by the sexist culture we live in. And it certainly does not mean that there aren't other women out there who haven't been as fortunate as you. Those women need feminism, and girl, so do you. So does everyone.
Images: Giphy (4)