Since I announced about a month ago that I was going to start writing some actual WORDS here to work out my questions about feminism and to process some of the ideas I’ve been fumbling with, I’ve been meaning to actually sit down and do it. For a while now, I’ve mostly posted my photographs, with the occasional poem or two. Photographs are not as vulnerable as words, not even naked self-portraits. It’s just the body and I don’t really care who would or would not like to fuck it. It’s art and it’s just another way I’m finding of relating to myself – refreshing after the medical/punishing ways I have been trained by diabetes and culture to converse with my body. But I am not this fleshed thing I live in and the body isn’t a cage. I am my thoughts and my ways of seeing, the words and the imagery and something else. As for this first post, an introduction feels appropriate, so I want to write about how I stumbled or crawled or came into feminism, how I began to identify as a feminist after years of being put off by the label. My photographs show how I see the world, not as it is but how I experience it, so this is the sister post to every other thing I have ever created in this space.
I was taught as a child to hate women. I don’t know how it happened. I think it was partially culture, partially the churches and conservative homeschooling groups my mother forced me to attend during my earlier teen years, partially the influence of some people who were close to me. It’s such a sneaky thing – to be female-bodied and to hate women. Or to be male-bodied and hate women, for that matter. Even four years ago, when Hillary Clinton was running against Obama for office, I remember thinking, “I just don’t trust her…” “She feels so abrasive.” “What was that whole thing with her husband?” I didn’t know that I didn’t trust her because culture teaches us not to trust women’s voices, to dismiss them as harpy or abrasive when they do not play their proper feminine roles, to think they are bitchy when they state their opinions and live their lives (as any man would do without thinking) without apology. I knew nothing about her actual politics. I am ashamed of this, but this is my space and I need to be honest.
When I went to church during those years, people were constantly angry with me because I wasn’t performing properly. They thought I was going to give blowjobs to all of their teenage sons. They thought I was on “the wrong path” because I wanted to wear clothing that made me feel attractive — shorts, tank tops, dresses with some shape to them. I asked why everyone assumed god was a man, why there weren’t any female ministers, why letting the gays marry would have anything to do with the “sanctity” of their marriages. I was doing what culture told me to do – I was seeking validation through the attention of men. In these days, when I would walk down Ardmore Boulevard and cars would drive by and honk, I would feel cocky and validated.
I started dating. I got a little older in lurches and pauses. I stopped going to churches because my mother got cancer and mostly lost interest in organized religion. I tried to read The Feminine Mystique when I was fourteen and I became terrified of the glass boxes of loneliness the women Friedan wrote of lived in. As a homeschooled teen with two working parents, I made the Carnegie Library a second home. I completely wigged out my father by bringing Sexual Politics and The Female Eunuch home before I’d even gotten to high school, but I didn’t understand a word of them, I was just intrigued.
I would not be a housewife.
I would not be a mother.
I would not be my mother.
I would not lead of a life of putting myself last, of the quiet desperation and sense of martyrdom and the loss of all energy to pursue personal growth I sensed in the mothers around me. I sensed that they had given up on themselves, personally and professionally and sexually and in so many ways. I was young and judgemental. But I was sensing a problem I didn’t have a vocabulary for yet – that once people become mothers, their motherhood comes before their personhood. I was sensing, already, the pressure from society to marry and have children, I was sensing that without these markers of gender conformity, I would always be talked about as though I was a child.
My mother was confusing to me, and my first barrier to feminism. She called herself a feminist, but her philosophy was and is very different from the one I have grown into now. I always understood her feminism as a hatred of men, as many people understand the movement in general. It was the idea that men are predators and women are prey and are only taken advantage of in a sexual relationship. It was the idea that women want relationships and men want sex so the genders barter these things, one for the other. Sexuality was shameful, and I had been shamed already. Woman would always get the short end of the stick when it came to marriages and sex. I learned that sex is something to be feared. My mother had been through two divorces. She had a good job and was solidly supporting her children on her own. She was and is a wonderful human being. But she was and is confused (in my naive twenty year old opinion) and her contradictions were hard for me to cope with. Looking back, I feel that growing up in such a sex-negative household really scarred me in some ways. I’ve had a lot to work though. She said, “He won’t buy the cow if he gets the milk for free.” So I went to the Silver Ring Thing with friends from the private Christian school I used to attend. I got a ring that I wore around for a while until I lost it in the grass playing football. The ring meant that my body was waiting to be purchased with promises of security and wedding vows and someone who would share their health insurance with my diabetic self. It took me years to become bothered by this, then more years to understand why. I think I was brainwashed.
Another symptom of how our culture relates to women happened: I stopped eating. Not entirely. And not consistently enough to alert doctors, but enough that I felt tired and unstable and obsessive much of the time. Enough to play games with my female friends to see who could go the longest without eating anything – 28 hours, 30, 40… The time you could spend sleeping was golden, like a free pass to not feeling the hunger and not fighting the temptations. We were clichéd song lyrics, “I want to have control. I want a perfect body. I want a perfect soul.” and saying goodbyes with those awful words, “Stay strong.” We hated ourselves but we only had the cultural vocabulary we’d been given to talk about it – thinspiration, fasting, binges (which meant, really, not that we binge ate but that we’d had a normal meal and then punished ourselves for it by starving for days), self control. We kept lists of every calorie consumed and every work-out completed, our worth was in those numbers.
I think I thought if I got small enough or pretty enough or fragile-looking enough someone would want to take care of me, someone would notice and worry – which is what I had been conditioned to want. I thought that it didn’t matter what you accomplished if you were not beautiful, no one would care.
I dated the neighbor boy, then the other neighbor boy, then a loser who slept with my entire lunch table during my two-week stint in public school, then a nice guy who didn’t have a clue. We treated each other badly because we didn’t understand that we both hated women. I fell in love with a boy who left me for the war in the middle east. I came to college. I participated in hook-up culture. I tried to cope with, tried to ignore, tried to make sense of an experience I had with sexual assault.
I took my first gender studies class because the professor was the one assigned to my freshman floor (something they do at my university to help the freshman become better integrated into the school). She invited me over for dinner. The year before, someone had tried to tell me, “gender is a social construction.” I think I might have told them they were nuts. I didn’t want my gender questioned. I had always simply been a girl. I was supposed to attract the attention of men, they were supposed to want to fuck me or take care of me (depending on the situation, or probably both if I was really good). You didn’t want to be a prude or a slut but there wasn’t another option, there never was.
In that first class, which was called Sexuality, Courtship and Marriage in US History, we were told on the first day, “Marriage is an institution that turns men into husbands and women into wives.” I finally learned the vocabulary that would allow me to talk about why I felt so uncomfortable with my sister’s marriage, why I could not see being a wife or a mother for fear of turning into a “wife” character (frumpy and martyred and tied down) or my own mother, how bruised I still was from the lack of control I’d had over my body, how I didn’t want to trade my identity, my personhood, for motherhood. I loved the class. We learned about how sexism and racism and classism are all so intrinsically connected, how arguments that say what is and isn’t “natural” are just another way of controlling the country’s citizens via population, how words like “bitch” and victim-blaming and slut-shaming are used to punish and control women’s sexuality, to silence us. We studied the hypocrisy in our history in an attempt to understand the hypocrisy of our present.
I had only taken the one WGSS course but I declared a major in the department that summer. My parents were confused. They worried that I would waste all of my student loans and not be able to find a job at the end of it all. I told my mother I was a lesbian, just to see how she’d react. I told her I wasn’t really a lesbian. I wanted to be bi-sexual, I liked the philosophy of it, so I experimented. I vowed that I wouldn’t get married until the gays could do it too. The institution felt so fucked up to, I was overwhelmed, I didn’t know how to date while feminist. Even the word scarred most men away. I stopped participating in hook-up culture. I finally stopped hating my body, practicing the art of stopping the self-hating thoughts as they started. I understood that my urge to appear small and non-threatening was the result of twenty-years spent in a patriarchal society that hated and feared my sexuality.
I took more WGSS classes in the fall, then in the spring. I learned about the second-wave feminists who had said, “the personal is political.” I learned why I had craved catcalls when I was younger and why street harassment now upset me more than almost anything. I learned that it had nothing to do with sexuality or flattery, it was a way men asserted their social dominance over women in public spaces, it was a way of intimidating women, of displaying power and masculinity (which is a beautiful thing, but in this case it was something else), it was a way of putting us in our place — an object to be sexualized and used by them, not quite a person. Women are harassed for going out in public alone (or with other women, without the validation of a male escort). It happens no matter what I am wearing or how I am conducting myself that day. It isn’t about me or the way I look, it’s about control and power games.
I began reading feminist blogs, mostly Bitch Media and Feministing. I kept up with all of the conservative backlash against the pro-choice movement that has been happening in the past few years. I learned about lesbian separatism and sometimes craved it. The world is hard to live in while feminist. I had discouraging talks with several male friends who just couldn’t get it, my own father told me that the sexual harassment I’d experienced at the gas station that day, which had been verbal but very nearly became physical, was just a man exercising his freedom of speech. I became the woman who would call out friends who used the word “bitch,” or slut-shamed. I risked being disliked and thought of as harpy. I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Now where are we? I’m not sure. I still read feminist blogs as a part of my everyday, I’m still confused about how to date in ways that don’t feel archaic and underpinned with sexist assumptions, I have things to say and I’m deciding, and finally, to say them. I don’t know how I feel about my future – I want to make art, I want to have a child, I don’t want to have a child, I want a husband, I want to be free. I want to take photographs that challenge our ideas about sexuality and gender, I want to write poems that say things so frankly they have to be heard.
Feminism didn’t happen to me suddenly. It didn’t come from the bitterness of a break-up or from the frustration and depersonalization of hook-up culture. It didn’t come from the scary realization a month ago that I might be pregnant and need an abortion and that they are expensive and invasive and that the man I had loved, who had since left me, wasn’t going to have to deal with it in the same way I was, or in any way at all if he didn’t want to. (For the record, I am not pregnant, but as a women who enjoys sex, it is a concern and something to consider.) It didn’t come from my experience with sexual assault. Feminism came to me when I realized there was a vocabulary out there to talk about all of these feelings I had been having for years, all of the things that had made me uncomfortable and angry. It turned out that many of these things had been sexism, I had just been brainwashed out of recognizing it for what it was.
Kait Mauro is a twenty year old undergraduate at Washington University in Saint Louis where she studies Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Writing. She is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She blogs her creative work (poetry and photography), and recently feminist writings, over at Don’t Flinch. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.