Being feminine in our culture, whether you are a cis-woman, a trans-woman, or an effeminate male-bodied person, can be difficult or even degraded. I am not saying women have the sole share, or even the biggest share, of injustice in modern society. Race and socioeconomic class play a significant part in whether you are privileged or screwed when it comes to the way society treats you and its concept of your value. Add intersectionality to the mix, as I have been educating myself on, and women of color get to experience the double-whammy of sexism and racism.
But sex and gender play a big role in the advantages a person has. Being female or feminine is often seen as a disadvantage and makes you a minority in many spheres of our society. How is it possible that female persons are a minority in so many places (among corporate executives, in the boardroom, on the senate floor, in positions of power in the media, in STEM fields, etc) when on average 51% of the world’s population is female? It is the same reason that such a relatively small percent of the US population controls the majority of its wealth. The answer is power imbalance and systems that benefit from perpetuating that power imbalance.
Society overall does not regard femininity as valuable and I would argue conspires against it in all sorts of ways. As a result, women do not hold as much power in their own lives as they potentially could, and arguably what is more important, they themselves do not feel empowered. This extends beyond persons who were born as women (two X chromosomes), and affects any person perceived as feminine. This is why it is more acceptable in our society to be a tomboy than a… do we even have a term in English for male-bodied people who prefer to dress/act femininely that isn’t offensive and hurtful? I can only think of insulting ones, which goes to show that we value masculinity so much that we respect women who pursue the masculine ideal, while we belittle men who pursue the feminine ideal.
As women we are sent many damaging and disenfranchising messages. Today I am going to talk about just a few of the major ones.
Constantly, in subtle and not so subtle ways, women are told that our value is in our bodies – our bodies are the best and worst thing about us, and most damaging of all, that in the end they don’t really belong to us.
There is a hyper-focus in our society on female bodies and appearance at the neglect of other traits. It is first and foremost about beauty and sex appeal. Through the objectification and commodification of the female form, bodies are not seen as whole human beings, but a collection of potentially pleasing/repulsive body parts used to sell products, please men, or keep women striving for unattainable perfection. We are taught that this is our currency in society, that our value is derived from being beautiful, being sexy, or generally being pleasant for public (usually male) consumption.
Women are trained to be very aware and critical of these things. We are taught to police the appearance and behavior of ourselves and each other. Some of the worst body-shaming I have ever experienced or heard about came from other women.
Worst of all, as society often demonstrates, our bodies seemingly do not even belong to us: they are subject to scrutiny from strangers, harassment in public places, judgement from society, and legally we don’t even get to decide what we do with them in certain very important ways (reproductive rights, etc). I would even go a step further to say that the obsession with what a woman can and can’t do with her body, whether it is slut-shaming her for being a sexual agent rather than sexual object, or caring more about protecting the life of a fetus than a mother, it all comes back around to the idea that a woman’s value, her currency, is in her body (sex, pregnancy, motherhood, beauty, and so on).
Recent campaigns meant to empower women are often still too focused on beauty. Positive messages like “black is beautiful”, or “fat is beautiful” are great and totally true, but what about the idea that a female person’s significance is not rooted in whether or not she is “beautiful” at all. What if it was based on the quality of her character, her achievements, her intelligence, her love, her compassion, her generosity?
Building on the idea that a female person’s value is derived from her “beauty” is the idea that whatever value she has, or could have, is not intrinsic, but is something she has to earn, usually from men. If she is not fulfilling her obligation to be consumable and aesthetically pleasing, or one of her socially acceptable roles as nurturer/care-giver/mother then she is often seen as useless or even worthless. This is one of the reasons why women are constantly encouraged to act accommodating and permissive towards others, putting other’s needs before her own so as to fulfill those assigned roles.
Overall, as female people we are shamed about our bodies, shamed about our sexual expression, shamed about our emotional needs, and generally undermined in almost every way.
The onslaught of messages include:
- Remember to be sexy and beautiful, or at very least pleasing to look at
- Take care of others emotional needs even at the cost of your own (especially men and children)
- You are an object of sexual desire, but control yourself because your sex is a resource that men want access to, and they want to control that access
- If you express your anger or push back you will be dismissed as a bitch or as crazy
But why is it this way? What is the point?
The reason is to create insecurity and instability. If we were secure in ourselves, in our feelings, in our needs, in our sexual expression, in our bodies, and we didn’t feel like we needed external permission or validation, then how could we be manipulated? What would be left to manipulate?
In the context of abusive relationships, one of the main strategies of abusers is to undermine the trust the victim has in their own judgement or feelings. The abuser seeks to create such insecurity, so that their victim will not fight back or stand up to the abuse. It is easier to manipulate someone who does not trust themselves. Take this in the larger context of sexism and you can see it happening to female people all around us all too often. We have a patriarchal society that seeks to keep feminine people captive and in their place by creating insecurity and undermining a person’s trust in their own judgement. Why does the patriarchy seek this? Probably to keep the power in the hands of certain people and I would guess to keep us spending money, which is the physical proxy of power. Female people spend so much money every year striving to be feminine, beautiful, sexy and fuckable. Male people probably spend a comparable amount of money themselves striving to be masculine, not at all feminine, sexy and fuckable. I suspect this is just one source of necessary fuel for our perpetual consumer culture.
So what does this sort of sexism and misogyny have to do with intimacy, you may be asking yourself. Simply put, this sort of loathing, insecurity and dehumanization makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to have healthy intimacy at all.
Being genuinely intimate with another person is very challenging when you are worried and insecure about being perceived as feminine or masculine enough. Body image issues and low self esteem abound in our society for female people, leading to low confidence, and a lack of pleasure in things like sex or physical intimacy. In addition it is hard to have healthy intimacy when a person is taught to actively loath parts of themselves, in this instance the feminine parts. Thus many men suffer alongside women, because the message to hate the feminine parts of themselves has been beaten into them by society all their lives. Also teaching men to see women as sexual objects or that women’s purpose is to be pleasing for male consumption, instills a very limiting view of women. Take it from me, it is hard to be intimate with women if you have been trained to dehumanize them into a sexual object. Furthermore, an important element of intimacy is accessing and expressing one’s emotions, which society teaches men is unacceptable (I intend to write about the effects of sexism on masculinity as well in the near future). Ultimately, issues of gender equality and sexism actually hold a lot of influence over our ability to be intimate with each other in a healthy way. We as individuals, couples, families and society will benefit from being empowered, happy individuals who treat each other as equals.
So what can we do about it?
The first step is to be aware that any of this is going on. The only way female people will stop being manipulated, learn to value themselves, and get society to stop seeing femininity as worthless, is to become aware of the ways femininity is devalued and actively fight against it. It is not an easy fight, but it is an important one. This is why feminism is so significant. Not because it will give female people supremacy in some sort of matriarchy to replace the existing patriarchy, but because it is the means by which the genders/sexes will finally be valued equally.
Tune in next week on Love(r), as I continue to explore the topic of sexism by looking at the sad phenomenon of internalized misogyny.
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