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Internalized Misogyny

Art Credit: Jemimah Vaughan

Art Credit: Jemimah Vaughan

This is the second part of what I intend to be a three part series discussing sexism and/or misogyny and how they affect our relationships. You can read the first part, “How Society Conspires Against the Feminine” here. Today I want to explore the insidious and cognitively dissonant problem of internalized misogyny, or in other words, when female people learn to hate femininity.

For some of you out there, the concept of internalized misogyny makes no sense. How could it be possible for a person to hate their own gender? But the sad truth is, it’s very common. I used to be a mild misogynist myself, without really being aware of the harm I was doing and the sexism I was unwittingly perpetuating. I know many other female people with similar experiences, and those who struggle with it still. Really this is just a case of the sexist messages of our culture being so successful that even the victims of these messages buy into the hate and go on to perpetuate it. It is the same as a gay person believing all the homophobic bullshit they’ve heard all their life and becoming spiteful and closeted. Or an African American internalizing racist messages from our society, learning to resent their own race or culture. 

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, start by asking yourself, how many times have you heard a woman say the following, or as a woman said these things yourself? 

  • I’m not like other girls
  • I’m one of the good ones/fun ones/cool ones
  • I don’t have many female friends, mostly male friends
  • Girls are catty and petty and cause so much drama
  • Women are boring and dumb
  • I’m just one of the guys
  • Other girls pick on me/tease me

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Why do we say this shit? Why do we throw other women under the proverbial bus and try so hard to differentiate ourselves as somehow “better” than the rest? It’s because when girls say this stuff they are striving to be the “Exceptional Girl”. She’s cool, she’s not catty, she’s “one of the guys”, she’s EXCEPTIONAL GIRL! A superhuman with all the sex appeal of a female and none of the drama and negativity our society dumps on femininity. She is a very common pop-culture trope, often used to reinforce patriarchal ideals. The reality though is that insulting and judging other females as you try to scramble your way to the top will only hurt you in the end. By fighting to be the Exceptional Girl you endorse sexist ideas about women and you reveal your own self-loathing. Because how do you really expect to feel happy and whole if deep down you hate what you are?

Unfortunately these sorts of ideas get reinforced all the time. If I had a dollar for every dude who ever told me “you’re not like other girls, you’re fun/cool/[insert positive attribute]” who meant it as a compliment (and trust me I took those words to heart as compliments) I would have way too many dollars that I would not be proud of now. I look back at my younger, more naive self and wonder, why was I so eager for male approval, especially at the malign of my fellow females? The answer is because all women in our society are conditioned to seek out male validation and to regard other females as competition.  

So obviously when this game has been set up to be every woman for herself, female people start to believe they can’t trust each other. Last time I discussed the sad reality that females are taught to believe their value is something they have to earn from males. If your value comes from men desiring you then why would you fraternize with the enemy (aka other females)? You’re also likely to do and say whatever is necessary to make your competition seem less desirable, in order to succeed in this stupid, zero-sum game where women are pitted against each other. Furthermore, asserting power over another human is much easier if that human is insecure and lacking in strong emotional bonds with other people. Thus the strategy is to undermine female people’s trust in themselves and each other – divide and conquer. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people out there who want to keep women divided so that they are easier to conquer and control. 

Yes, some women are petty, catty, etc, but so are some men, so are some human beings of any kind! We need to learn to appreciate that female people are people first and female second. Every woman out there has as much potential for greatness, villainy and everything in between as her male peers do. Ideally, she will be judged on her actions and character rather than just her sex and/or gender.  

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Part of the reason internalized misogyny persists is because it does have certain appeal and incentives in our patriarchal society. Some of the appeal of being the only female (who has been deemed exceptional, or at least tolerable) in a male social group comes from a boost to the ego that it gives, while some of it comes from laziness. When trying to make friends with people where physical attraction is not the default current pulling you together you have to make more of an effort to be a decent and interesting human being. Thus the reverse, being friends with people who are sexually attracted to you, is easier – you just don’t have to try as hard. 

There is also a more insidious dynamic at play. Due to the widespread objectification of the female form, women learn to objectify other women just as much as men do. So much so in fact that both men and women’s brains perceive “men as people and women as body parts“. This disturbing quirk causes women to draw comparisons and size each other up in our daily lives to the point where it’s almost impossible to turn this process off. It’s unconscious and instantaneous. Most women walk into a room and instantly rank themselves and the other women present according to this unspoken hierarchy of attractiveness, which only intensifies insecurities and the hunger for outside validation. It can feel tremendously fulfilling to earn the friendship and approval of men you’ve been taught to defer to, who have the power to validate you and make you feel special. While on the other hand, it can feel challenging to be friends with the women you’ve been taught to objectify, compete against, and who are a constant potential trigger for your own insecurities.

“Women to varying degrees internalize this outsider view and begin to self-objectify by treating themselves as an object to be looked at and evaluated on the basis of appearance. Self-objectification manifests in a greater emphasis placed on one’s appearance attributes (rather than competence-based attributes) and in how frequently a woman watches her appearance and experiences her body according to how it looks (McKinley & Hyde, 1996; Noll & Fredrickson, 1998). Objectification theory also posits a mediation model that may explain how self-objectification leads to women’s mental health risks via negative psychological outcomes.” – Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research, Szymanski et al, 2011

So by now I hope it is clear that not only does internalized misogyny exist, it is pervasive and damaging to the intimacy a female person has with herself, as well as her ability to have healthy intimacy with other people (male or female). As I have written previously, it is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to truly have healthy intimacy with someone you have been taught to dehumanize into a sexual object. And as the research shows, not only are men doing this to women, but women are devaluing and dehumanizing themselves. If we are going to love ourselves, love others, be satisfied with our lives, get in touch with what we truly want and then fight for it, this sort of systemic and toxic loathing of femininity needs to stop.

So what can we do to alleviate our own internalized misogyny and possibly prevent it from developing in the first place?

First you can start by recognizing that women don’t have to be your greatest enemies, they can be your greatest allies. Because what are you really competing for anyways? The attention and validation of men? Girl, take it from me, it’s okay to want it, but by no means do you need it. It’s grossly overvalued and not actually going to make you happy or satisfied with yourself. Because true satisfaction is not something other people can give you. It’s something you build for yourself. When you build a relationship with yourself that contains true love and intimacy, you won’t need other people to define and reassure your value. A million men can tell a woman she is gorgeous, but that by itself isn’t going to make her feel any less insecure. And knocking down other women through teasing, criticizing, bullying, slut-shaming, gender-policing, and generally not supporting each other will only hurt you in the end. Hating other women leads to hating yourself, or vice versa, having the feminine things about yourself be ridiculed or scrutinized leads to resenting other women.

Internalized misogyny is a damaging cycle we definitely need to break. And we break it through loving ourselves (including our femininity), appreciating the femininity in others (including men), and by striving to see female people as PEOPLE. 

Tune in next time on Love(r), as I continue to explore the topic of sexism by discussing how sexism hurts menfolk too.

Lovingly yours,

Clara


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  • Leave a comment below!
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How Society Conspires Against the Feminine

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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. 

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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?     

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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.

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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.

Lovingly yours,

Clara


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  • Leave a comment below!
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Jealousy – Facing Some of Our Worst Relationship Fears

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As a polyamorous person, one of the questions I get asked the most is: how do I handle the jealousy? Time and time again I have heard people say they could never be in a non-monogamous relationship (even if it seems intriguing) because they would get too jealous. Non-monogamy is not for everyone, nor is monogamy somehow “worse” or “less evolved” than polyamory. My modus operandi is not to convert everyone to polyamory, it’s to help people have healthy intimacy in their relationships of all types (monogamous, platonic, relationship to self, etc). However, limiting one’s self in this way doesn’t make sense to me. It is frustrating to see people express a desire to explore alternative relationship structures, only to dismiss it pessimistically as something that will never work solely because they are afraid of jealousy and the potential discomfort that comes with it.

I am here to let you all in on a couple secrets:

1) Everyone experiences jealousy – yes, everyone – yes, even me

2) Jealousy is not as terrifying as it’s made out to be

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It is true that we are part of a culture that encourages us all to feel possessive towards our romantic partners and to feel jealous when our relationship is under a perceived threat. This behavior is seen as normal and expected. Popular song lyrics, poems, tropes on TV shows, etc involving jealousy are commonplace. Trying to make one’s partner jealous is seen as a way to prove they indeed care (or don’t), and as a way to fulfill one’s desire to be noticed and wanted. Desire and jealousy have become knotted together in our cultural consciousness to such an extent that it is normalized.

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How do you know for sure your romantic interest reciprocates your desire, especially if they won’t admit how they feel? Make them jealous. How do you get your significant other to stop neglecting you and notice you? Make them jealous. How are you supposed to respond when your partner is interacting with someone they could potentially be attracted to? Be jealous. In popular movies like Moulin Rouge the main conflict (arguably the only conflict) and source of tension in the story is jealousy and possessiveness.

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How has this dynamic come to be seen as normal, accepted and in some cases even celebrated? It’s not romantic. It’s disturbing at worst, and wildly immature at best.

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Ewwwwwwwww!!!

Possessiveness is problematic and toxic. You can’t own a person. No matter what, each of us are autonomous beings free to make choices, free to be in relationships and free to leave them. Your boyfriend/girlfriend/significant-other/wife/husband/spouse does not belong to you, nor you to them. Seeking to possess others will never create a secure relationship with healthy intimacy. People in a relationship need to be free to express themselves (within the boundaries of whatever agreements/compromises have been created for that relationship) and free from the control or manipulation of others. People need to be free to leave relationships to ensure that it is choice and not obligation keeping them committed to it. Intimacy cannot be demanded, it can only be invited.

“There is a difference between loyalty and bondage. There is a difference between faithfulness and fearfulness. There is a difference between being devoted and being dominated. The difference is called freedom, and it is all the difference in the world.” – Bryant McGill

This doesn’t mean we are free to do whatever we please, regardless of how it makes our partners feel, and they need to learn to just deal with it. It just means that it should be communication and negotiation dictating what you and your partners do/don’t do in your relationships, not control and possession. What we can do is negotiate agreements that work for everyone in the relationship, have faith in each other to uphold these agreements, forgive one another when we make mistakes, and ultimately build trust and intimacy through mutual integrity. I believe part of that integrity is facing our jealousy when it happens, working through it and supporting our partners to do the same.

Jealousy is often perceived as something evil, ugly or unbearably painful that will ultimately rot even good relationships unless prevented. This can lead people to go to great lengths to police their own behaviors, their own feelings and even those of their partners in order to avoid something unavoidable. This policing in turn can limit freedom, trigger arguments, cause resentment and erode trust. But the truth is you’ll never be able to completely avoid feeling jealous, it will happen from time to time no matter what. Everyone experiences jealousy. EVERYONE. Even people who have been in polyamorous or open relationships for a long time. Even people in long-term, committed, monogamous relationships can and will experience jealousy now and again. We are all complex, and at times insecure, creatures, so it is bound to happen. Instead of limiting ourselves and trying to control our partners, why not face the fear, conquer the jealousy and relinquish our expectation of possession?

If there is trust and open communication then any jealousy can be overcome. It may mean facing some deep fears and insecurities though. You might have to come face to face with your biggest insecurity and then admit it to another person as well as take responsibilty for all the yucky feelings it dredges up. This is a process even strictly monogamous couples trying to build secure intimacy have to go through.

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You see jealousy is the smoke, not the fire. It’s signaling something important, but it is not the issue itself. Jealousy usually informs us what our deepest fears or biggest insecurities are. For me, I often am comfortable with whatever fun stuff my partners are doing as long as I am included in some way. Many of my most jealous moments have been triggered from feeling “left out”, whether or not that was an irrational take on the situation. Usually a little reassurance and some attention is all it takes to process the insecurity and move on from it. This used to be a much more challenging and emotional process for me to work through, but it gets easier with practice. Now I handle a lot of the maintenance myself, but it took patience and compassion from my partners and especially myself.

Check in with yourself in those emotionally charged moments – what could your mind be trying to tell you, or protect you from? What is the painful fire (the fear) that is creating the smoke (the experience of jealousy)?

It might be:

  • Fear of abandonment
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Comparing oneself to others
  • Lack of trust or open communication
  • A violation of an agreement
  • A trigger point from a previous bad experience

Now sometimes jealousy isn’t triggered by your own fears or issues. Sometimes that fire in your belly is a sense of injustice, perhaps feeling hurt because a partner violated one of your agreements. Feeling hurt in this way is not something to ignore.

If you can create emotional space and validate your own feelings it will help a great deal. You will learn you can overcome this experience. Write it out. Talk it out with a friend you feel emotionally safe with. Take some time to process how you feel on your own before sharing it with your partner. Be honest with yourself and try not to interfere with your truth. Often we feel embarrassed that we are jealous, or ashamed, believing we should not be feeling the way we do, but it really is valid no matter what. Take responsibility for your feelings, they are yours. They might have been triggered by something your partner did, but they are not your partner’s fault. Ask for the support you need, you deserve it.

“When we tell our partners that we feel jealous, we are making ourselves vulnerable in a very profound way. When our partners respond with respect, listen to us, validate our feelings, support and reassure us, we feel better taken care of than we would have if no difficulty had arisen in the first place. So we strongly recommend that you and your partners give each other the profoundly bonding experience of sharing your vulnerabilities. We are all human, we are all vulnerable, and we all need validation.”
― Dossie Easton, The ethical slut : a practical guide to polyamory, open relationships & other adventures

Once when I was feeling jealous and deeply insecure I spent time journaling to get clear on exactly what I was afraid of. Afterwards I saw how detached from reality my fears were and that conclusion in itself was comforting. Then I reached out to my partner calmly and asked that when they had the time and energy if they could please reassure me of my significance in their life. This lead to receiving a text message full of all the loving, comforting, reassuring and specific examples of my significance that I could want. When we are jealous it can be difficult or feel embarrassing, but asking for the attention/reassurance we need is not selfish or unreasonable. And when we are the partner being asked to do the reassuring we should keep in mind how important this is to fostering trust and intimacy.

In the end jealousy is not as destructive and frightening as we are all led to believe. It is normal, nothing shameful, and something we can each work through. In fact, working through it will lead to a better knowledge of yourself, greater self confidence, deeper trust with your partners and healthier intimacy with them too.

If you are interested in more resources and perspectives regarding jealousy, The Ethical Slut has an exhaustive chapter about dealing with jealousy, you can also review the basics with Laci Green or check out this insightful piece on the experience of jealousy and how to process it written for The Stranger by Mistress Matisse.

Remember, you’re not in this alone!

Lovingly yours,

Clara


Love(r) wants to hear from you! Here’s how:

  • Leave a comment below!
  • Email – theintimacyblog@gmail.com
  • Twitter – @TheIntimacyBlog

 

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