Pride & Practicality

I, quiet, bookish, sensible, with a B.A. and curmudgeonly disposition, seemed to unite the blessings of feminism, but found for twenty years that such had vexed me.  Feminism, despite its presence since my adolescence, escaped my acknowledgment until three years ago. For a long time I refused the term and disdained it, believing in the myths of bra-burning and hairy legs.
In middle school I became aware that others judged me based on my outfits through the lesson of social rejection. Of course, most people’s middle school experiences were at least a bit awkward and maybe worth suppressing–but what I learned through teasing was that my appearance mattered, and many people made sure to keep me informed of such.

Absorption into my book on the bus rides home did not protect me; neither did burying my body in shrouds of hoodies and sweatshirts. The glasses, black eyeshadow1, and chain of braces across my face did the exact opposite of shielding me from ridicule. During PE I received a fashion citation2, in which a girl came up to me with a piece of paper torn from a notebook with the words, “fashion police violation.” Finally, after being harassed by boys with prematurely lewd suggestions about my absence of “titties,” and being called “the ugly one” on the bus, I decided I would make plain, safely trendy clothes into my passive armor. I went with my mother and later with friends to stores like Limited Too and begged for a training bra. Every night I’d police my eyebrows for a stray hair. My philosophy was to be girly enough to be unremarkable yet sufficiently bland to remain beneath notice; only the people whom I thought were worth my time would know that my overt dullness masked someone who, quite honestly, looks forward everyday to wearing pajama pants. I cultivated my own anxieties of appearance.
The impression of feminism that I had at this point, was that it was impractical. Media outlets and my peers characterized feminism as a rejection of high heels, makeup, and other “girly” things. Not knowing better, I dismissed this feminist perspective because I believed it to be an assault on my method of self-preservation.

Feminism surfaced into my vocabulary once I was in high school, but only as an outdated term. With some like-minded friends who also enjoyed “weird”3 activities like keeping up with current events and reading the newspaper, I learned to express and refine my opinions. Despite being called “the Pinko,” I was enamored with feeling like I belonged and connected to these mostly self-identified libertarian boys.

This new social group also hindered my understanding of feminism, as I easily bought the idea that women were already “liberated”; that feminists were just looking for things to be offended at, and that men had it difficult, too, oftentimes because of women. I felt exceptionally clever for agreeing with boys over these simplistic and ill-thought-out arguments. The truth was that my acceptance into this group depended on this faux-enlightenment. I realized such as my eye-rolls and scoffs at comments about girls’ chests and pubic hair were very clearly making them uncomfortable, if not offended. My frustration with the obvious inequalities these “smart” kids ignored or actively argued into nonexistence had to be tempered, yet I kept dry-swallowing their patriarchal swill.

Though I altered my opinions for the sake of social acceptance, I began to understand beauty and style as a personal mode of expression at the same time. While boys linked me to “sexy pictures” asking me for my opinion (“um yeah, sure she’s hot”), I noticed that beauty was varied; that style could be a choice.  When I heard a friend comment that he thought dark makeup made ladies look ugly, I defended their style. Clothing and makeup did not necessarily exist to titillate and excite men. With my mom’s help, I learned how to sew, which advanced my appreciation for runway fashion. My style choices changed from unquestioningly trendy to personal. I paid attention to colors, cuts, and my own preferences. What was once something I used defensively, I used with confidence. That I felt comfortable and at ease with my own presence and standing out allowed me later to incorporate feminism with myself. I also started to understand that such feminized interests did not necessarily require me to please others.

In college, I met a population of people interested in the news and politics. It was not rare to meet people who were well-read and willing to carry on long conversations about current events. My friendship with one young woman in particular, radically changed my attitude towards feminism. We shopped for clothes together, talked about makeup, and enjoyed the same television shows–we easily became best friends. One night after swapping class complaints, she casually mentioned feminism: “I hate when people say you can’t be a feminist and love fashion. How narrow-minded.” At that moment, it all came to the surface for me, and we spent an evening sharing our grievances. Inspired, I researched feminism online, warming myself to the term “feminist.” Through online feminist communities and my friend, I learned that feminism was not a monolithic, didactic code. In classes, I learned more about feminist influence on literary criticism and how we read and characterize books and authors. More satisfying than the practicality of social acceptance, the feminist communities helped me understand what the term means and how real that tenet, “the personal is political,” is when facing the difficulty in maintaining my sexual health or having lewd, rude comments directed to me due to my ethnicity or gender. Feminism, I found, is incredibly practical in making sense of these events in my life.

I realize much of this awakening has depended on the people around me–I admit peer acceptance is something I still rely on and has shaped a significant portion of this narrative. As I spend more time reading about feminism and its application, drawing out its flaws and limitations, I can forgive myself for having sacrificed my convictions. Feminism is a learning and maturation process for me, but one I plan to remain loyal towards. What makes me a feminist now, as opposed to before is a question that I still cannot answer very articulately or coherently. On a personal level, I recognize feminism is a way for me to question my own biases as well as external ones, but also a movement that is capable of maturing and taking shape alongside of me. From a wider perspective, claiming feminism is easy and nearly mainstream now–Sarah Palin has no issue in claiming it for her questionable politics. One-size-fits-most feminism doesn’t function, especially when discussing minorities’ experiences and injustices; making a generalization about feminism can be short-sighted and exclusive. But, in spite of these deficiencies, the hope of maturity, the recognition of feminism’s fluidity, and the growth of confidence, will perhaps in part be answered in its union with me.

1. It took me a few years to realize that what looked good on comic book characters did not translate so well to my 13-year old, school-going self.
2. I can’t believe this happened.
3. So I was told in high school.
* I thank Jane Austen’s <em>Emma</em> and <em>Pride and Prejudice</em> for making this feminist awakening piece and reclamation of her work for feminism possible.


About michelle m.

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