In high school, and as long as I can remember, I have been labeled a feminist. Probably not in those words , but capturing the essence of the term or what other people thought this term describes. Which, in high school, was being someone pretty high-strung and slightly annoying, always ready to call others out on sexist stuff (wasn’t too aware of the more subtle forms yet and, I admit, the time I wanted to force the teacher to use the female form instead of the German generic masculinum for the sake of fairness, that might have been a wee bit over the top [Side note: I could never be a teacher. Oh, I would hate these little smartasses]).
In high school, and as long as I can remember, I have been the good girl. Good student, well-mannered, nice middle-class family, that sort of thing. Being the good girl entailed to absolutely not, under no circumstances, being caught doing “girly” things. Because those were shallow. Brain-dead. Hysteric. Beneath me. For my teenage self, those two categories were not mutually exclusive. For my teenage self, talking down on specific types of women for their sheer “femaleness” went perfectly well together with championing women’s rights. You know, I was entertaining grand thoughts about IMPORTANT stuff. Equal wages, equal political representation, that sort of things. They: come on, they were just so ridiculous, so…girly. Ohhh, well.
When I grew up, there was a very clear divide between two groups and you had to decide which group you wanted to belong to: the girly girls (lots of makeup, lots of boy talk, lots of boy action (or at least, lots of talking about the hypothetical action), dislike for all things to do with school to be exhibited as in a shop window at all times) and the brainy girls (active in school, good grades, dislike for all things related to “shallow” stuff such as fashion, boys, physical appearance to be exhibited as in a shop window at all times). This was a decision to be taken, in my head, not only by myself, but one that by association also stretched to other members of my family. Hell, I remember one evening, I must have been around 12/13, when I asked my mum whether she could, in the future, stop wearing lipstick because the other mothers (read: the other mothers of the right sort of people) also didn’t do that. I can’t remember her reaction, but I’m happy to report, the lipstick stayed on.
For a long time, I thought that this divide was mostly in my head. That I could have been both the flamboyant party girl AND the opinion leader, if I wanted. But I don’t think it’s true. I wouldn’t have been taken serious, being one of “them” in addition to being interested in school stuff. I suppose that this is also a cultural issue of my small town German upbringing. I see less such divide in my friends from other countries or even in my friends who grew up in other, bigger places within the same country. However, the issue underlying the choice my teenage self was unknowingly faced with is a universal one: the issue is internalized sexism, the rejection and the devaluation of stuff considered “girly” by societal consensus. A bit as if it were a contagious illness that one could catch and which’s transmission upon oneself one had to dismiss in the strongest possible terms, as to dispel all suspicious that one is infected: ‘Me??? I’m not one of THOSE girls! See, I’m almost one of you! You can take me and my opinions seriously! They are not clouded by my femaleness, they are not diluted by layers of makeup, I don’t have time for all these superficial things, I promise!
One had to, at all times, uphold the good girl appearance, or else one ran uns the risk of becoming vulnerable, a target for the assumption that one cannot actually be taken seriously, being so colorful in the face, being in such a short skirt, being so emotional, being so girly.
I thought about this recently when I read a quote attributed to Ariel Levy:
“Attacking femaleness, deriding ‘girly’ stuff, rolling your eyes at ‘women’s issues’, declaring yourself a ‘tomboy’ who gets along better with men because women are silly or pretty or whatever – these are expressions of internalized sexism. If that’s the way you feel about your own sex, you’ll be doomed to feel inferior no matter what you achieve in life.”
This is scarily true. It doesn’t mean you should not be a tomboy, if that’s who you are. It doesn’t mean you need to start watching “Love, Actually” when Christmas time comes around and subscribe to People magazine if you are not interested. It doesn’t mean that, as a woman, you mustn’t do “manly” stuff or that “real” women have to do x, y, and z, but not a, b and c. There is no such thing as a “real” woman in the first place. Everyone, do whatever the hell you want! But, if you do or don’t do a certain thing just because being “girly” is associated with being shallow, unprofessional, profane, weak, unimportant, then you’re doing it wrong. Then you are being disloyal not only to other women, but first and foremost to yourself.
Yes, as a woman, you have been born into a world that is made for men. They set the standards, they define what is “normal”, you will always the “other”. But it doesn’t, in any way or form, get better for you or for anyone else with a vagina, if you think you can enhance your position by talking down on things traditionally, narrow-mindedly, wrongly associated with being female.And not only is it disloyal: it’s dangerous also. It creates a divide between the “good” and the “bad” girls. Between those who are to be taken seriously and those whose opinions can be easily dismissed. Between the “rational” and the “hysteric”. And, between those who behaved prim and proper and those who “had it coming”. In times, in which the whole world discusses whether binge drinking at a party actually equals consent, in times in which it is actually necessary to stage Slut Walks and hammer it into peoples’ heads that the person responsible for a rape is….(drum roll) the rapist and not (surprise!) the victim, for wearing a short dress, for exercising her right to walk public spaces, for previously having fun, this is hazardous.
We want men to care for women’s rights. Because they are not a sideline issue, they are human rights. We want them to see us as equals, we want them to stop being scared of being associated with femaleness because being associated with femaleness is inherently being associated with weakness. Fair enough. Then maybe we should stop showing that we are so afraid of being associated with this femaleness ourselves, that we have to deliberately distance ourselves from it by means of words or actions. And maybe, just maybe, we should stop being afraid of it altogether. Just a suggestion.