In case you were wondering, I am a feminist

I really love the Internet because it has so many things to offer. It’s where I go to read about current events, and find great new music and books, and search for crochet patterns, and look up tasty recipes, and learn new photographic techniques, and browse thought-provoking essays, and just generally lose myself in an amazing array of information. I have had a great deal of happiness from the Internet. But lately it has shown me some very sad things.

There’s been this:

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…and this:

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One of my favourite bloggers, The Everywhereist, recently wrote about a horrific, sexist experience she had while traveling, and earlier this week writer Sara Benincasa penned an inspirational essay after being asked by a male fan why she’d gained weight. Benincasa’s comments prompted comedian Eden Dranger to follow up with some remarks about her own appearance, and her blog post has now also gone viral.

As you might expect, all of the above have resulted in a fair amount of trolling–itself the focus of some recent online attention after Joel Stein wrote a thought-provoking piece about it in TIME. More importantly, the things I mentioned above–which, you’ll notice all involve women–have opened the floodgates to an outpouring of support and love and understanding and acceptance. Much of this involves some form of “I know how you feel because I have been there too”, which I find terribly disturbing but not at all surprising, as I myself happen to be a woman and, yes, have been there too.

A friend of mine shared something earlier that nicely summarises some of the challenges associated with being a modern lady:

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This cartoon focuses on appearances, but you could easily make another one of these that has to do with being career-focused/sporty/forthright/sexual/independent/childless/and so on versus whatever opposites of those traits women are “supposed” to be according to those who judge them. Basically, it is absolutely impossible to be a woman and do it right. This is not to say that it isn’t sometimes difficult to be a man and adhere to all the often-equally-imprisoning standards that society decides are appropriate for males. The problem is that women seem to be policed to a much greater extent, and hounded when they step out of line and find success and enjoyment in simply being themselves (see first photo above).

Sometimes the hounding becomes physical, and/or is targeted at the physical vessels in which we live, and to me that is a barrier that should never be breached. There are few things in this world that are well and truly mine, and even fewer things that I can control. But my body and all that it contains and makes possible–my brain, my personality, my emotions, my womb–is my domain. As far as I am concerned, it is not ever permissible or acceptable for:

  • someone to treat me unfairly or unequally because of the shape that my external shell happens to take
  • someone to make assumptions about me because my body looks the way that it does
  • someone to decide what is right or wrong for me based on the way that I look, or what is the right or wrong way for me to look
  • someone to do something to my body that is against my wishes

Those things should never happen, and yet they all have, on numerous occasions, just as they have for countless other women (and human beings in general–again, I’m focusing on ladies here because I am one and know that reality best, but I’m well aware that a range of people have been, or are, in the same boat at some point or another; it’s equally egregious no matter who suffers these indignities).

I will give you an example from my own life. This is a photo taken of me back in my high school days by a male friend of mine:

Photo Disk 2 342
(uploading photos of myself to the internet before it was cool)

He was a computer nerd and was showing me his brand new web cam, which was pretty snazzy technology at the time. I was wearing a bikini because we’d been in his hot tub with some other friends, who were also there, as were his parents, and the entire situation was completely innocent. The photo wound up online with some other photos of all of us having fun in the summer holidays, as one does when one is a teenager.

The image sat around in cyberspace doing nothing for a good year or two until someone felt the need to point it out to my mom and ask whether she wasn’t scandalised by it. She wasn’t, of course, because she is not a Puritan and knows that a) the human body isn’t anything to be afraid of, and b) you judge someone’s character by means other than photos posted online. However, having to consider this question gave her pause, just as it gave me pause when she asked me about it. For just a moment, it made me feel guilty, and dirty, as though I’d done something wrong. I was ashamed of…of…of what, exactly? Having a body? Wearing a relatively chaste two-piece bathing suit in front of others? Being comfortable enough in my own skin to allow someone to take a photo of me? Being uninhibited enough to allow that photo to be posted online without thinking anything of it?

I will give you another example. Here is a photo that I posted on my first ever personal webpage–which, incidentally, I coded from scratch because sometimes girls are computer nerds too:

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(i never anticipated this pose might be considered suggestive or sexy in any way)

It’s another completely innocent shot, taken (I think by my grandmother) during a moment of relaxation before heading out on a day trip somewhere. I used this image in my autobiography section, which included a link to my e-mail address in case anyone wanted to get in touch. For the longest time, I only ever received messages from my high school friends, until one day when there was a delightful missive from a (male) stranger who described all the things he’d like to do to me on that bed. My autobiography clearly indicated that I was in high school, and was underage, but of course that was of no concern to my troll, because these things never are–as Emma Watson could tell you.

I was surprised, but not hugely, because I had long since learned the rules of engagement. I was only eleven years old when I first–knowingly–received sexual attention from a man; he turned to his friend and complimented my ass in a stage whisper while both men grinned lasciviously, and threateningly, at me and the friend I was with. I was scared and, again, ashamed, feeling that somehow this encounter was one that I had brought on myself…by innocently feeding ducks at the zoo. Even at that young age, I had already absorbed this horrible notion we have in our society that the victim–particularly the female victim–is always at least partly responsible for whatever comes her way.

High school was even more educational. There was the time when (male) runners on the track team took bets about whether or not my prom date could seduce me into giving up my virginity on prom night (nope). Then there was the time I refused to perform sexual acts on a boyfriend and so he started a variety of–untrue–pornographic rumours about me. There was endless catcalling when I was out on training runs for cross country. (On an unrelated note, after receiving a call of complaint from some prude, our coach decided it was inappropriate for girls to run in sports bra tops, but totally fine for guys to run shirtless.) It was during high school that I received my first (of many) un-asked-for gropes, as well as my first full-on physical assault–pinned against a wall while someone tried to yank my clothes off.

That last one scared the bejesus out of me and made me fully aware of the perils of being smaller and weaker than approximately half the population. That’s when I enrolled in weightlifting classes with the goal of making life harder for the next–and I knew there would be a next–jerk who tried to take more than I wanted to give. I had no grand illusions that a little extra muscle would suddenly make me rape-proof, but I hoped, at least, that it would give me a fighting chance. What it actually gave me was greater athletic prowess, which was an unexpected but pleasant side effect. This may seem like a tangent, but bear with me–I promise I’ll eventually weave all these strands together into a glorious feminist tapestry.

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(mistress of the indoor track)

I didn’t know it at the time, but being good at sports was something that would come to enrich my life and keep me sane. There is nothing better than feeling your own strength, successfully guiding your muscles through complex coordinated movements, striving to push harder and achieve more and then succeeding through the force of your own willpower and stamina. My chosen arenas–the cross country course, the track, and the field–are particularly wonderful for this, because really it all just boils down to you, the athlete, and what you can do with your body. This eventually made me happy with, and proud of, my physique, but it has been a long, slow journey.

By the time I joined the running teams in college, I’d become acutely aware that my body was not like other bodies. I wasn’t shaped like the lithe long-distance runners and high-jumpers or the powerful throwers or the wiry sprinters. If you drew a Venn diagram of these three groups–the folks I spent most of my time around and knew best–I was somewhere in the overlap of all of them. This is why I eventually found a home in the heptathlon, but until I did, I just felt confused and dissatisfied. I was bigger and denser than nearly all the other runners, who seemingly subsisted solely on salads and carrot sticks and the white parts of hard-boiled eggs. Clothes didn’t fit me; my waist and my hips and my thighs were all the wrong dimensions for each other because of my musculature. I had bulgy biceps and prominent veins. When I tried on outfits in shops, things didn’t hang on me the way they hung on the mannequins. I felt like an unattractive freak.

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(me at peak muscle, weighing in at around 160 lbs)

None of this was helped by my boobs. I can’t forget about those, because the world won’t let me. I remember standing up in high school once to give a presentation in front of the class, and one of the guys called out, “The turkey’s ready to come out of the oven!”–referring, of course, to my nipples, because I was cold and they were mimicking a thermometer that pops up when a roast is done. Another witty phrase I heard all the time was, “Your headlights are on!”

Those were the days when my breasts were only just getting started. They kept growing and growing throughout college, to the point that I couldn’t run unless I was wearing two sports bras, and I kept having to get rid of perfectly ordinary tops that suddenly began to look pornographic. It was a major pain–sometimes literally–and brought a lot of attention that I really didn’t want. Staring. Commenting. “Accidental” brushing up against. One of my (male) coaches talked about my boobs once, and also the “junk in my trunk”, and also my menstrual cycle, as though any of these things was a topic that had any bearing on my abilities (because, unlike Fu Yuanhui, I am not and was never going to be an Olympic athlete, so analysing the potential impacts of these things on my performance–especially given the tone and terminology my coach used–was wholly unnecessary).

His remarks felt horribly inappropriate, but he’s hardly the only one to feel perfectly natural talking about my assets. Men, women, friends, strangers; over the years, many have commented on the size and shape of my bits and pieces, as though I were an animal up for auction, as though it were somehow relevant. Sometimes people even thought they were complimenting me, but, collectively, they were making me feel that I was nothing but a piece of meat.

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(a bendy piece of meat)

So there I was, wanting desperately to just be an interesting, multilayered person who was valued for her intellect and talent and generosity of spirit, someone who was comfortable being herself. Instead I felt horrifically awkward in my own body and frightened of the ways in which that body made people interact with me. It didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, what I wore or didn’t wear, what personality and achievements and actions went along with that body. It all seemed so fraught and impossible.

Sitting here over a decade later, I’d like to say that I have learned that, in fact, it is not fraught and impossible, but I haven’t. It actually is fraught and impossible. That’s why all this recent stuff online has disturbed me and sent me off on many a meandering contemplation. I’ve worked hard to find myself a relatively safe space and am lucky to be surrounded by relatively safe people; as a result, I’ve been able to minimise the extent to which I suffer from the sorts of events and situations that plagued me in the past. Do I still get catcalled, and groped, and followed in the street, and talked down to, and ogled? Of course; it just happens less. I think this has allowed me to feel that we were making progress as a society, but I suspect it just means that I’ve been insulated.

Being a woman–especially, god forbid, a woman of colour or a lesbian woman or a trans woman or an ambiguously gendered woman or whatever extra twist you want to add–is complicated and difficult. We can achieve the same things as men, or even do better than men, and still not receive the same level of respect and attention:

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We can engage in activities associated with intellect, diplomacy, business acumen, eloquence, and other cerebral skills, but still our looks are dragged into the equation as though they impact the ability of our brains to function:

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(note: i in no way support carly fiorina, but i also don’t think her appearance would have impacted her ability to function as president)

Even if we are physically beautiful and graceful and poised and elegant, it’s often deemed insufficient or inappropriate somehow–often relative to some other feminine ideal held up on high:

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(seriously, WTF is this and why does it exist in the 21st century?)

In 30 seconds of poking around online, you will find memes that will make you want to leave the Internet forever, and they’re all about looks–women who are too fat or too skinny, with eyebrows too thin and drawn on, wearing clothes not appropriate for the body type, engaged in activities inappropriate to body type, and so on, and so on. Why? What bearing do those things have on a person’s worth or legitimacy? And why are there so many more of them for women than for men?

One last personal anecdote. When I was a senior in high school, I went to a photo studio to get my senior portrait taken. I was asked to bring a few different outfits and a couple props. Here are two of the resulting photos:

senior photo 1

senior photo 2

While taking the first of those photos, the photographer said that I looked nice in that outfit and that he hoped I was enjoying it as much as I could then, since I wouldn’t be able to wear those trousers when I was older–the implication being that I’d pop out a few kids, since that’s what women do, and get pudgy around the middle, since that’s also what women do. You can tell from the expression on my face that I was not loving the conversation. At no point during the second photo did we discuss the fact that I brought the guitar because I play it–just as I play several other instruments, sing, write music, and perform onstage. I guess those talents are irrelevant next to my ability to show off a decent figure.

I wish that I could wind up this essay with a resolution of some sort, but it’s not that kind of a piece; I don’t have the answer to this problem. Well, actually, I do–we should all be kind and treat each other with respect and realise that all humans are equal regardless of our various cultural and physical differences–but I don’t know how to make that happen. Humans have been struggling with these issues since the dawn of civilisation and I could probably write a whole book on the biological underpinnings of this but it’s outside the scope of this piece. I would like to say that we’ve made progress on these issues since, say, my mother’s era, but women still don’t earn as much as men even when we do the same jobs, we’re still fighting for rights to make decisions for our own uteri–not to mention dying because men are preventing access to appropriate facilities–and we’ve got armed policemen telling us what we can and can’t wear, as if they know what’s best for us.

So why have I written over 3,000 words just to reiterate that, yes, women have it rough? For two reasons, really. The first is that I’m sick of this debate over what feminism is and whether it’s needed and who is/isn’t a feminist and whether “feminism” isn’t just a nice way of saying “man-hating”. If only we sank as much time and effort into issues that impact women and their bodies–such as female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, arranged marriages of children, access to birth control, maternity leave, and, while we’re at it, legitimate prison sentences for people who attack women.

The second reason, which is more important, is that there is power in sharing. It’s not until you hear someone else’s opinions and experiences that you realise you aren’t alone. I have wasted time envying friends for being taller or thinner, having prettier hair or a better complexion, rocking a six-pack or a J-Lo booty, and meanwhile they wished  for my curves or my muscles or my earlobes or my who-knows-what. While I was obsessing over my own pet insecurities and thinking that everyone else was totally perfect, they were doing the same thing, and none of us realised that actually we all have something to be proud of because we are all gorgeous in our own ways–not just how we look, but, more importantly, how we act, what we achieve, and who we are fundamentally.

As the responses to the Everywhereist and Sara Benincasa posts show, we not only deal with the same sorts of raging insecurities about our bodies, but also the same susceptibility to attack–both physical and emotional. We ladies are resilient creatures, leaving our homes and navigating the world each day knowing what is lurking out there. We harden ourselves to the comments and the threats and the actions, and we learn rules about where we can go and when we can go there and how we can act so as to minimise the likelihood of unwanted attention or attack.

We become so used to these protective habits that it’s all too easy to forget how insane it is that we should have to cultivate these behaviours in the first place. You think it’s just you, or just that one guy, or just your town, or just your country, or just your culture, but pretty soon you hear enough of these stories from all sorts of women in all sorts of places, and suddenly you realise: This is a real thing. This thing is a problem, and it needs to be fixed, and it needs to be fixed now.

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(surround yourself with good people who inspire you to do good things)

The amazing thing about the Internet is that even though it’s highlighted some real ugliness this week, it’s also underscored the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of other people who agree that we can be better. These people are willing to provide support and encouragement and assistance in order to tackle this problem. Many of these crusaders are men, who can benefit in a variety of ways when women are treated more equally. (Incidentally, gender equality also improves education and the economy and even the environment, and leads to social changes that improve life for other disadvantaged groups as well. Yay!)

None of us knows how many days we’ve got on this earth or which one will be our last. Why waste precious time agonising over unimportant details and being cruel to others? Let us all stop being so hard on ourselves and on each other. Let us stop worrying about what we look like, and pay more attention to what we achieve and who we are. Let us look for and praise the incredible kindnesses that humans are capable of in our best moments, and then engage in more of those. Let us all be the sort of people that we would like to encounter in our own lives. It’s a miracle, really, that each of us exists at all, and that those of us who exist now happen to be doing so at the same time in the same place. Why not celebrate that miracle with a bit of kindness for our fellow man–or woman?