Yes, March 8th is International Women’s Day, and to celebrate/acknowledge it, I’d like to talk about just how life has changed for me as a woman, and with women over the years.
All my life, I felt like I wasn’t “girlie” enough. When I was small it was because I was poor and didn’t have the pretty clothes and things that other girls had, and because I was repeatedly told I was fat. I felt like being a girl was a competition, and because I couldn’t compete, I wasn’t “girlie”. Then along came puberty and I really did become fat. Add hairy and spotty into the equation, that made me feel like I had even less of a right to girlhood. As I passed through my teens and into adulthood, I still believed that because I didn’t fit what the media, my family, and men in general told me a woman should be, I still didn’t feel like I belonged to womanhood.
My response to that was to internalise misogyny. I started to tell myself that “I’m not like other girls” and consequently I couldn’t be friends with women or girls. I surrounded myself with male friends, denounced anything that read as “feminine”, shaved my head and wore big clunky boots and a lot of flannel. I thought if I couldn’t “compete” with women, I didn’t want to be like one.
You see that’s what misogyny is. It’s the myth of “femininity”. The myth that womanhood fits one narrow band of features and behaviours, and that womanhood is a competition between the female of our species to appeal to male of our species, and only those that “win” the attention of men are allowed to consider themselves “feminine”. Femininity is measured by how pleasing a woman is to men – by her appearance, her voice, her behaviour and her sexual availability.
Not to mention that fat women are so othered by society in so many ways that rob them of the things that are supposed to mark femininity – society sets the standards of femininity and then denies them to fat women. When you cannot buy the clothes that are considered acceptable, when you are not seen represented by marketing and the media, when you are treated as sub-human, you cannot participate in society as a peer. When you are led to believe that life is a competition, and that you are not a peer of the population in general, you tend to opt out.
There is no wonder that so many fat women (as well as other marginalised women) internalise the misogyny that is continually poured on us.
But for me, somewhere about the same time as fat liberation, I found feminism. I started to question the way women are treated in our culture, and I started to see just how girls and women are forced into competition with each other to prove this thing called “femininity”, to prove their worthiness as human beings. I learned to value myself not only as a woman, but as a fat woman. I learned that girlhood and womanhood are far more diverse than society leads us to believe, and that there are no hard and fast rules about what makes a woman a woman.
I also began to see just how badly many of the men in my life, those who I believed were my friends, were treating me. I began to recognise just how many of them dismissed my opinion, ridiculed my feelings, refused to respect my physical boundaries and generally just treated me with disrespect. I finally put an end to the friendship with the man who was supposed to be my best friend, but had been repeatedly sexually assaulting me for the entire span of our 15 year friendship – assault which I had been groomed to believe was my fault and that I deserved it, and that I was silly for feeling uncomfortable and upset about. I began to expect better of the men in my life. Which meant that many of the ones I already had in my life either left or had to be removed, but it meant that there was room in my life for good men (y’all know who you are fellas) who treat me with respect. The men I have in my life these days are amazing, and I’m honoured to know them.
Another factor that changed for me on discovering feminism and fat activism is that I’ve enjoyed participating in things that are coded as “feminine”, where I did not before. I wear dresses. I love anything pink. I enjoy having my nails done and growing my hair long so that I can pin flowers and bows in it. These things are not any indicator of womanhood, but are things usually denied to women who are seen as unacceptable. It’s nice to have the option to participate in things that are seen as traditionally feminine.
That doesn’t mean you have to perform “femininity” to be a woman, after all “femininity” is a social construct. What it means is that you give yourself permission to enjoy those things that are coded as feminine regardless of whether you fit society’s narrow definitions of womanhood.
I’ve realised that how others judge me is not indicative of my womanhood. My womanhood is my identity, not for others to bestow upon me if they deem me worthy.
However the greatest benefit of feminism and fat activism for me has been the discovery that now that I don’t feel in any way competitive towards other women, I’ve discovered I really like women. I’ve made far more women friends and they in turn have enriched my life in more ways than I can express. I enjoy the company of other women immensely and found that we have more in common than we have in difference.
So this is for you, all of the women in my life, all of the women who read my blog and all of the women who have been convinced by others that they’re not good enough, not “feminine” enough, that they don’t belong to womanhood. YOU determine your womanhood, not others.
Here’s to the women of the world. May you see your own value.
Thank you for writing you blog and sharing yourself with us! I appreciate you and your observations so much. It’s added a lot to my knowledge of fat activism and feminism! Yay, you!
Thank you S!
I know most part of your blog is about fat activism, but this post is no even about fat women. If you take out the word “fat” (not that you should) it is still so true. I too felt since being little that I needed to compete and defeat other girls/women, that being just me was never good enough. Life is not a competition with other women – commons sense, right? But we still are groomed to compete and suffer because of it. It seems to be embedded in so many lifestyles and cultures. If I wasn’t blonde I needed to be striking brunette – I wasn’t. I have average brown hair. Low self-esteem, poor body image, worthless self – that really does ring the bell… Your blog is so very often is not about fat activism but the activism of another kind, overall humanitarian effort. Respect, consideration and value for humans, no need to justify my existence by being certain weight/height/face shape/having cool things etc. Your blog is like an oasis in the desert of all of the mountains of junk like “Oh look! This 600$ dress will make you look slim and so fashionable! Any worthy woman will buy it, like, now!” What you are writing is important to your readers. Sometimes it is so important and so true it makes them cry. And laugh. And wish they could express their thought and feelings so openly.
Your writing style and elegant sense of humor don’t hurt, either 🙂
Here’s to the women of the world.
Thank you VS, your kind words and support do mean a lot to me.
But I do want to make one thing very clear, for my own sake – my blog is always about fat and fat activism… sometimes it fits more things, but for me, the central message is always about being a fat woman, because that’s what I am. I’m glad that that my message reaches much broader than just the fat politics, but it’s important to me that we not take the focus off fatness. Even if it fits other issues, it is ALWAYS about fat and fat activism. I don’t want that to be detracted from, as it’s really important to me.
Thank you for articulating how women– especially fat women who may grow up feeling as though we we don’t qualify as “real women”– often internalize misogyny from the culture around us. I have had difficulty explaining to others the concept of women internalizing misogyny.
I am 41 and only recently have I started to think that I could wear suits and look good in clothes. Before, fashion was something that happened to other people. I derided fashion as something for girly-girls, Not Me. There was envy beneath my contempt for the stereotypical female clothes-horse. The older I get, the more effort I make not to judge other people by appearances. I don’t want anyone making assumptions about me based on the way I look, so I try not to do that to other people. This includes rejecting the sexist idea that feminine women who care a lot about clothing and make-up are frivolous and /or stupid.
Internalised misogyny is just so prevalent, that we all think it’s normal. We’re so conditioned that it takes really major shifts in our lives and our thinking to let go of it. And yep, it’s really hard to explain to people who just can’t, or won’t, see it.
Learning not to judge others for their appearance was for me, the first major step in learning to not hate myself. It is SO good for everyone when we learn to let go of that judgement!
I got ridiculously lucky about a lot of things right from the get-go, and one of them was having the mother I did. She was such a great example to me of how to choose who you are in the world.
Mom never let anyone tell her what being a woman made her, or what being fat made her. She never let anyone tell her she couldn’t enjoy one thing because she liked another. She was unapologetic in her adoration of grand opera and Johnny Cash, of figure skating and football, of fine French cuisine with a glass of wine and a plate of sausages with a beer. If someone else didn’t like it, that was their problem, not hers.
She made fast friendships with both men and women, never worrying about whether anyone else would approve her choice of companion. Male, female, black, white, gay, straight, none of it mattered. What mattered was whether they had things in common and treated her with respect. She liked the people she liked, the music she liked, the clothes she liked, and the activities she liked without fear or favor.
It made being a girly girl who can’t stand pink and who has a fascination with odd – and sometimes gruesome – aspects of history that much easier. It made it okay for me to find the fabulous in Verdi and The Beatles and Arlo Guthrie all at the same time. It didn’t matter that other girls were taught that they could only be girls if they loved horses and baking cookies and eschewed cheesy horror films. I was free to love or hate any of those things and thousands of others as I pleased. I never did get the pony I wanted, I prefer baking pies and cakes to cookies, and my idea of a really great time is to find the worst MST3K-worthy horror films and laugh wildly at them.
Mom taught me to color outside the lines and never shut up just because other people told me to. The only friends/boyfriends I ever had who she disliked, I came to realize were people who didn’t treat me with respect. She encouraged me to follow any interest I had without regard to how it looked for a girl to enjoy playing with frogs or for a twelve-year-old to spend most of her time reading the works of George Bernard Shaw… liberally interspersed with the Paddington Bear books.
She taught me to be comfortable in my own skin.
On International Women’s Day, all I can think of to say is Thanks, Mom.
Your Mum sounds amazing Twistie, I wish I’d had one like her myself.
One of my self issues continually has been that, in my full-length mirror in my bedroom, I look at myself and feel beautiful. My smile, my eyes, my cleavage, my waist and hips, my long legs….I am fatly beautiful.
I get to the front closet for my stylish coat and scarf, my cane that matches today’s outfit, and I push the button for the elevator…and as I reach the first floor, sometimes my self-esteem plummets at the same speed as the elevator. The thin, long-haired girls, the sophisticated women able to stride down the street: there are occasions during which I feel invisible.
And that is the dichotomy: being a tall, fat woman renders me absolutely NOT invisible. And wearing black in order to look “thinner” doesn’t work, since nothing on this green and blue earth will make me look “thin.”
And so there comes a spiral of emotion, during which I do not show that insecurity, that sense that I do not measure up. Head up. Shoulders back. Flirt with some men and women on the street, because I am what they dream of. It is internal, not external, this self-confident air.
And so I hold my head up, accepting the Academy Award because I deserve it. It is an act, sometimes, but a necessary one: I am fatly beautiful, sexy and stunning.
Whatcha think ya gonna do about THAT, darlin’?
I love to encounter strong women, exactly like this! Even if it’s just for a brief random moment in passing.
I understand those feelings Maxene, I’ve had them myself. And you know, sometimes “fake it ’til you make it” is the best thing you can do – because it works!
Keep those shoulders back and that chin up.
Here’s to womanhood and here’s to women treating each other well! I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your honesty and openness when writing. I know you write this blog for you – and that’s totally cool – but you have made a positive impact on my life with your words. You’ve been able to articulate so many things I have thought about my own body image and spun them on their heads.
Thank you Kirsten.
Thank you for sharing this. Very insightful.