Reconciling with the F word

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The first time I marched for Women’s rights I was about 12 years old.

As thousands of us crossed the bridge between Ottawa and Hull, I remember looking back and feeling exhilarated, powerful and proud; I was part of something real, important and tangible.

With a once hippy dad and a bold, feminist mom, I had everything I needed to become a strong and proud feminist. But somehow, along the way, something went wrong. For years, the mere word gripped me with irritation and a sense of mild disgust. Feminism felt outdated, crass and obnoxious, like something North American women did simply to make themselves seem interesting or get attention. Come to think of it, the sentiment wasn’t too different to that often expressed towards vegans these days. Why do they always have to bring it up? How are they so damn righteous? How is it they find a way of sneaking their passé political stances into every fucking conversation? Why do they always have to be so heavy and angry?

After over a decade of rolling my eyes, pushing back aggressively against my mother’s deeply-help beliefs and avoiding the term like some kind of filthy curse; I’m in the process of making peace with the feminist in me. But it’s a process, and an uncomfortable one at that. It’s forcing me to acknowledge things about myself I’m not too proud of; judgments and assumptions of mine that haven’t been questioned in far too long. In fact, I still hesitate a few seconds when people ask me if I’m a feminist, I still follow it up quickly with a shade of nuance or explanation — I still can’t let the word and label stand on its own without feeling the need to explain that I’m not one of those feminist.

So in an effort to better understand where the reluctance is coming from, I’ve been trying to identify the thoughts, impressions and anxieties being triggered every time I hear the word. As a disclaimer, I want to make it clear that I know that these thought patterns are warped and unhealthy, I know they’re self-destructive and hurtful to the cause. Hence my working so hard to fight and redefine them. As a woman surrounded by feisty and self-acknowledged feminists, it feels quite scary and vulnerable to put these slightly antiquated and socially regressive thoughts out there. So please, be kind.

Feminism isn’t attractive.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted people to find me attractive. I’ve starved, sobbed and silenced myself to get there. As a young teenager, I started to believe my looks weren’t going to get me the results I wanted, so instead, I opted for what I thought was a subversive one-of-the-guys attitude and a sharp self-deprecating sense of humour. I stopped bullies in their tracks by insulting myself before they had a chance to. I avoided freaking guys out by pretending I didn’t care and I quieted my thoughts and needs in order to seem fun, low-maintenance and confidently sexy.

And you know what? It worked.

Feminism didn’t fit well into that equation. How was I going to keep up the facade if I started calling people out on what they thought were casual jokes? They would think I was heavy, angry and humourless. How was I going to seem light and fun while aggressively trying to topple the patriarchy? How was I going to be desired with unshaven legs and visible acne?

No. That wouldn’t do. I was cool, smiley and laid-back; I was the chick who surrounded herself with dudes because “women are so emotional, over-analytical, manipulative and dramatic. At least with guys, you know where you stand. Right? Women pretend to be nice and sweet to each-other’s faces, then turn around and talk shit about you.” Just as I thought feminists were using the cause to seem interesting or unique, I used my rejection of it to prove I was different, to let people know I wouldn’t be any trouble.

I think I crushed my mother’s heart a bit every time I spilled out those lines of self-hate and blasé rhetoric. Where was I even getting these ideas? I had grown up with an incredible group of loyal, uncomplicated and communicative girls whom I still call my best friends to this day. I had seen and experienced countless examples of supportive and tremendously respectful female friendships and relationships…where was this all coming from?

It’s fair to say that you’ve had a pretty privileged upbringing and education when you have the luxury of choosing counter-feminism as the cause around which to build your teenage rebellion. But at that point, getting male approval and attention was the priority, and being a loud, obnoxious feminist seemed like no way of getting guys to notice me. I won’t lie, I still very much struggle with that today.

Feminism isn’t enough.

Ok, so I’m a feminist. But am I enough of a feminist? Am I the right kind of feminist? And what good is owning that title really doing for the women who need it most?

Despite my fear of the title, I think I’ve been a feminist since day one. I’ve embodied — at least externally — a world where women get to be brave, ambitious, outspoken and imperfect. I’ve tried my best to empower my nieces to be confident and outspoken, and consistently tried to balance out the constant compliments they get on their looks with heartfelt praise for their imagination, their daring and their stunning personalities. I’ve coached and coaxed myself and other women around me to ask for raises, to stick up for themselves, to take professional risks and manage their anxieties around other people’s expectations. So can I now slap the word feminist onto myself and call it a day?

Something tells me it’s a bit more complicated than that. That I still have to earn my stripes.

Do I still get to call myself a feminist if I’ve consciously flattered and charmed male egos to get contracts or approval? How about if I’ve daydreamed about cleaning up after a man and serving him breakfast in bed? Am I still deserving of the title if I’ve heard women be hollered at and haven’t piped up to their defense? What if I’ve enjoyed or sought out crass male attention; if I happen to have a penchant for slightly degrading or aggressive sex? Am I the right kind of feminist if I still find myself judging other women based on what they wear or their salacious behaviour around others? Do I lose my title for occasionally seeing powerful and ambitious women as bitchy or cold? How about those times I’ve felt superior and more enlightened than women staying at home with their 2.5 children in suburbia — surely that gets me booted out of the club?

As I’ve tried navigating this newfound identity of mine, feminism has often felt like just another thing I will never do fully well. A title filled with contradictions and opportunities for others to trip me up and point out how hypocritical and inconsistent I truly am. And when I hear women speak proudly about instances where they’ve put themselves on the line to correct misogynistic behaviour or to protect others who couldn’t hold their own; I’m intimidated, I feel undeserving and meek. I know that’s something I need to work through myself, but it nonetheless adds a layer of complexity, insecurity and helplessness to an identity already fraught with confusion and vulnerability.

Life provides me with tons of opportunities to feel shitty, sub-par and undeserving… do I really have to attach those feelings to my feminine identity now?

Feminism is exhausting.

A few months ago, one of my closest friends told me a story about going on a second or third date with a guy who spent the whole evening speaking solely about himself without asking her a single question. As the date ended, she told him they needed to go for one last drink; she had things she needed to put on the table. She then told him point-blank that he’d been completely self-involved, how unattractive it was that he hadn’t bothered to show any interest in her thoughts. BAM. He actually responded quite well, thanking her for stopping him in his tracks, apologizing for monopolizing the conversation, admitting he’d been nervously trying to fill the silence and asking for another chance before launching into a series of thoughtful questions.

I was in awe.

Was that even something you could say to someone? Was it not easier to simply coast through a tedious evening, cut it as short as possible and never see the guy again? The answer is yes; it would have been easier. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as constructive or helpful to him, to her or to society.

All of a sudden, a flip had been switched on. I’d find myself with male friends, family or romantic interests and suddenly notice they hadn’t truly engaged with me in nearly an hour. I’d be in meetings and realize the men in the room were completely dominating the conversation and speaking over the few women who’d made it to the table. I’d walk by billboards and ads that abruptly hit me as grotesque and insulting. It was infuriating, it was dumbfounding and quite frankly — it was exhausting. More often than I care to admit, I wished I’d kept on being blissfully unaware or intellectually distanced from that gap; I wished I could turn it off. But it was too late, the damage was done, the need for feminism and honest conversations about these issues was becoming painfully clear.

But as with any level of heightened awareness and sensitivity, there comes an increase in the level of emotional intelligence, consistency and energy it takes to navigate the world around us. By constantly noticing small micro-aggressions, insidiously sexist language and blatant disrespect towards women, I was repeatedly being asked to step up, to break the pattern and to question people on their behaviour and thought processes. With that came guilt for all of the times I chose not to take a stance, for all of the battles I didn’t have the energy to pick.

This rings especially true when it comes to long-standing relationships, where our patterns, boundaries and expectations have become so ingrained that I was able to blissfully disconnect from being overly active in evaluating a person’s words or actions. How was I going to navigate explaining to a long-time friend that I found it shitty when he called grown women “girls” after years of never bringing it up? How was I going to point out that his questions were nearly always about sex or the men in my life, and rarely about my own professional ambition or projects? How was I going to go talk to clients about increasing my rate to that of my male counterparts after months of working together without saying a thing? I didn’t think I could pull it off, and I’m still not sure I can. I can almost hear their responses.

“Ohhhh Sarah’s a feminist now, is she?”

“Come on Sarah, it was a joke. Lighten up.”

“Where is this coming from? Don’t tell me I’m going to have to mince my word and go all PC every time we hang out now. Not you too”

That’ll be when the real battle will begin. When I’m going to have to hold my guns, defend my position, explain that I’m not joking and open up about a gradual emotional process I’ve been undergoing that they couldn’t really care less about. It’ll be awkward and uncomfortable, it’ll put a damper on a casual evening out for drinks and I’m going to have to fight every fiber in my body not to be overwhelmed with guilt or embarrassment at having kicked up such a fuss. I’m exhausted and nervous just thinking about it.

So there you have it, my scary and mixed feelings about owning the word feminist. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to my ever-so-patient mother for all of those years of lady-hate, confusion and broken hearts.

How about you? Do you have any contradictory or tricky feelings about calling yourself a feminist?

This is a full length version of a shorter piece written for Béatrice Média.

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