Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fix It, Feminism!

I’ve been listening to an interesting discussion of late. Several people have brought up the idea that they feel like the fact they have self esteem issues and that they are also a feminist is somehow inherently contradictory. That feminism should have somehow “fixed” these feelings. That if they are feminist and still hate the size of their ass, that somehow either feminism has failed them, or that they are doing feminism wrong. When I hear the phrase, “being a feminist isn’t helping me to love my body”, I can’t help but wonder who exactly promised them it would? I mean, it might. There is a good chance that it will. But it’s certainly not guaranteed, and I don’t think feminism can be blamed if it doesn’t. If you still feel fat after learning a bunch about feminist theory, you’re not doing “doing it wrong”- you’re a human being. Believe it or not, I don’t think there is anyone, male or female, who has NEVER had a day where they look in the mirror and sigh. Self consciousness, anxiety, these are feelings. Feminist theory is rational thought, a school of philosophy. Rational thought can HELP you change the way you feel, but there is no thought so rational that it can banish deep seated feelings and emotional responses by mere application. Feminism will not fix all your problems. 

Now, I'm not talking about the women of colour, the poor women, the sex workers, the trans women, all underrepresented sections of the female gender who have absolutely and sincerely been fucked over by mainstream feminism. I know mainstream feminism isn’t the answer to your problems, on the whole, as do you. I know you have all, without a doubt, been thrown under the bus by people who should be ashamed that they don't know better, and I will happily listen to you cast rightful blame on feminism for not addressing your problems all you want. Please, complain about all the things mainstream feminism will not do for you, as loud as you can, as long as it takes. But if you’re one of the privileged ones - Caucasian, cisgendered, educated, reasonably well off – then I think you need to sit down for a minute and have a hard look at your expectations of feminism, and yourself.

I keep reading and hearing sentiments like, “I know about the constructs in the media that encourage me to feel fat now! Why do they still affect me?” and honestly, this train of thought baffles me. I think this is possibly because as someone who has been through years of therapy, I’m well aware of just how little rational thought can do to banish irrational emotional responses. I’ve spent endless hours learning how to recognise irrational responses, and accept that they will happen, and learn to minimise their impact. I have experienced firsthand just how completely useless it is to try and tell your feelings they’re wrong, and expect them to go away. Is this starting to sound like kind of a wacky expectation now? Let’s apply this train of thought to some other situations and see if I can highlight how unreasonable it is to expect awareness of feminism to fix the way you feel about yourself.

If you're having a bad day, you can't just think, "Well, it's worse for gay people in Africa right now", and feel better, can you? Unless you are actually sitting in a Sudanese prison on the day in question, this is almost certainly a true, rational observation. But the application of reason doesn't immediately make the feeling go away. This is also why it’s absolutely infuriating when people tell you to “Cheer up! You’ve got nothing to worry about!” when you’re down. If it was as simple as applying the rational observation that you don’t have anything to worry about, we would all be singing and dancing like we’re in a Disney movie all the time.
Speaking of which, Disney movies are an excellent example of how rational awareness is often futile in the face of emotional response. I studied media at a university level – I am perfectly aware of all the storytelling, visual, and audio tricks Disney use in every single film in order to tug at the heartstrings. At this stage, the Disney formula is so complete and perfectly formed that if you know where to look you can clearly see every single string they are using to hook you. But you know what? I still cry like crazy in The Lion King and I think if you don’t you should probably be given the Voight-Kampff test. I nearly broke right the fuck down during Wreck-It Ralph, and I missed great chunks of Brave because I was wiping my glasses. I know, rationally, exactly what they are doing, and why it affects me the way I do – I’ve written essays on this shit, read books full of complex analysis. But I still find myself wiping tears away whenever Simba butts his head on his dead father. If I put effort into it, I could use my awareness of the methodology used to prevent them getting to me. I could use rational thought to teach myself not to respond. But in this instance, I don’t want to. I like crying in movies. When it comes to feminism, the stakes are higher, but the same principle applies. Knowing all the tricks, and seeing the strings, will not always stop things getting to you. You cannot expect a school of philosophy to change the way you feel immediately, and with no effort on your part – you have to deliberately and methodically apply your knowledge, and maybe, eventually, you’ll feel differently. 
I know, this post is kind of a downer. Have a baby lion to break it up.
Feminism can do marvelous things for the way you view the world, or it can do precisely jack squat. It all depends on how you use. As someone who has struggled with mental illness for nearly twenty years now, you should trust me when I say I understand the desperate desire for a quick fix, and the crushing disappointment when you realise it doesn’t exist. I remember complaining to my psych when I first started on medication that the damn pills weren't fixing me anyway, so there was no point in taking them anymore. She laughed, and said that of course the pills weren't fixing me. I got pissed off, and asked what the fuck they were for then. She said simply, "To get you here. Here is where we can fix things." And you know, she was absolutely right. The pills were never going to fix me on their own - but I needed them to give me the clarity and perspective I needed to work out why I was so unhappy, how I could be happier, and the strength to do something about it. 

There is no quick fix to make feelings go away – not feminism, not pills, not new shoes, not cutting off your hair, not anything. Your self esteem issues, your feelings about your body, are possibly a lot milder than mine. You might not need medication, or therapy, or any intervention that serious. But you still need to actively use the things you know to teach yourself to feel a different way. No quick fixes - just gradual, slow, hard work, for a long time. I’m sorry if you’ve been mislead. But blaming the tool for not doing your work for you won’t get you anywhere.

To me, feminism is like my psych meds. It's a tool - a philosophical tool, a way of thinking and of viewing the world around you. It won't magically make you more comfortable with the size of your ass, any more than my pills magically made me hate myself less. Feminism can show you the constructs and external influences that encourage you to hate the size of your ass, just as the pills lifted me out of my depression enough to figure out why I was so sad – but you have to take it from there, just like I did. You have to teach yourself to resist or deflect those influences. You have to look at your ass in the mirror, and teach yourself to be okay with it, however big or small it is. Feminism can give you the clarity to see how external forces influence your internal world, and the way you view yourself. It allows you to see how media depictions of women all around you cast hooks into your mind, and start pulling out parts of you so you’ll buy things to fill the holes with. But it can’t deflect those hooks – you have to do that yourself. Feminism can give you the context, show you that you are far from the only woman who feels this way, and that it’s something a lot of us share; just as talking to other people about medication made me realise just how many other depressed people there are out there. Lots of us have needed pills at some stage, and even more of us hate our fat asses. You’re not alone, and getting involved in feminism can teach you that. We can work together to get to a point where the size of our ass doesn’t make any difference to us anymore. But feminism can’t make you share, or take part. You have to come join in, talk and actively apply the things that you know to change anything – especially your own mind.

You might well be asking a very reasonable question at this stage. “It’s all very well to tell us to use our knowledge, Cassie,” you might be saying to yourself, “But how exactly do we do that?” I wish I had a good answer to this one. You see, I’m one of those feminists who still hates my fat ass, no matter how much I learn, and read about feminism. But I’m working on it. Every now and then I will look at myself in a cute dress and say, “Heh. That’s nice.” I can’t tell you what will work for you – maybe you’re an affirmations person, and telling yourself you’re pretty once a day will make you believe it. Maybe taking photos of yourself and pinning them up so you get used to the way your body actually looks, rather than how it looks in your head, would help you. Maybe just dancing naked around the lounge room will make you more comfortable – I don’t know. Even if I did have a concrete answer for how this sort of thing should be done, it probably wouldn’t work for you. But the part of feminism that can help the most with this is solidarity – talk to other women. Ask them how they feel about their bodies. Understand that you're not alone, you're not a failure, and it's not just you. Ask other women what makes them feel better, what makes them feel worse. Share your feelings, and get new ideas. Feminism won’t fix it, but maybe if we work together we can.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant post! I loved every single sentence. I too am someone who understands what tricks are used to produce a certain response in me, but I still let myself have the response. I'll probably never look in the mirror and love my fat ass, but said fat ass (or, you know, any other fat parts) isn't going to be enough to keep me from living life. The best body image therapy I've had over the years is from reading blogs and books written by other women who struggle with the issues, and although what works for them typically doesn't work for me, it's a journey that we're taking together and that feeling of being united and having companionship, of not being alone, has really improved my view of myself.


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