Thanks Jessie Anne for this contribution.
Content warning: involves discussion of eating disorders.
I have the pleasure of knowing many amazing feminists; feminists working for social and climate justice, feminists working against racism, transphobia, homophobia. I know feminists who are working in their own way to make their own workplace or industry less patriarchal and misogynistic. Feminists raising kids to be kick ass feminist warriors. They remind me what strength looks like. They ground me with something healthy to aspire to and be inspired by.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the internalized patriarchy that these women quietly carry around with them every day. The baggage I don’t know they have which I haven’t had a chance to help carry. I’ve been thinking about how many of us have similar experiences, and if there are things we can do as a movement to help ease that load.
Being a feminist is kind of a tough gig sometimes, and, at least for me, it has meant some pretty high self-imposed expectations that I added to my already hefty list of unobtainable goals; complete with accompanied guilt.
My particular clusterfuck of internalized patriarchal baggage I’m focusing on here is my experience with eating disorders. It’s long and complicated, and not really a story I have time for here. Although I no longer define myself as someone with an eating disorder, in some ways it continues, though less acutely. I think anyone who has experienced an eating disorder know that the lines between ‘recovered’ and not can be blurry at best. It started with dieting when I was 8, and has at different times involved vomiting multiple times a day for months and years on end; otherwise named Bulimia; the awkward unpopular kid in the class of eating disorders. It has meant a lot of things between that too.
It has meant secrecy, and shame, and often most overwhelmingly, utter mental exhaustion. Sometimes it was so consuming that I had little room for anything else. Sometimes it was less about what was actually going into my body, and more a hatred of my body that was so strong I barely left the house for days. Feeling repulsion and disgust for the skin you live within can be very near debilitating.
I am somewhat at peace with the journey around these issues with myself and my body being a lifelong one. This realization has led me to examine the pressure I have put on myself to be free of internalized patriarchy.
I’m not going to wake up one morning to find myself free from being triggered by comments or situations that make me feel the need to make drastic and unhealthy changes to myself. But I think I now know a place where I can calmly reject those thoughts before they take hold for long; a place which I consider a victory and has taken years of hard work to get to.
For many years I thought, sometimes unconsciously, that I could only be a fully-fledged feminist and activist once I got 100% over my eating disorder and my sometimes-general-self-hate.
Unfortunately, through my own interpretation of what it means to be a feminist, I’ve spent years thinking that I had to one day be a ‘fully formed feminist’ without hypocritical thoughts and with a impenetrable shield that deflects all patriarchal nonsense from piercing my external layer.
In some ways, I’ve labeled myself a feminist-in-waiting.
This may have, in part, contributed to my silence around my eating disorder. Maybe if people knew about it, I thought, almost subconsciously, my feminist membership card might be revoked, only to be returned once I got the ‘total-self-love’ stamp. The unobtainable expectation to be the internally perfect feminist has also led to feeling an added layer of unnecessary guilt. Cause if there’s one thing women could do with a bit more of, it’s guilt, right?
This expectation I set for myself for so long was largely self-imposed and the expectations self-created. But I do wonder how many other feminists out there find it difficult to talk about their own internalized patriarchal baggage. Looking back at conversations and dialogue around issues like eating disorders that I’ve observed or been a part of, I do think that there can be a sense of ‘otherness’ attached to them, which can leave you feeling like these things are experienced outside of our feminist and activist communities. This otherness doesn’t encourage inclusive and open dialogue when they might be experienced in the here and now.
A feminist friend and I also recently talked about the internalised patriarchy we carry into relationships with cis males in our lives. We admitted to each other (this after years of chatting about pretty much everything) how much we often are part of creating a patriarchal power dynamic in these relationships. Once it got down to examples it was kind of funny; and relieving! I wasn’t the only one, and she wasn’t either!
It’s just another example of how the reality of our lives as feminists is still affected by internalized patriarchy. Some of it is pretty hard to admit, too. My friend and I were both left shocked at the fact that we’d never been in a space where we could acknowledge these behaviours with others. Are we the only ones?
A very quick glance around the interwebs reveals many blogs and articles by feminists highlighting similar pressures; the pressure to be a beacon of pure post-patriarchal light in the dark and the silencing which comes with that invisible pressure.
Another friend helpfully pointed out, when I raised this topic, that the pressure comes not only from within the movement but from outside of it. Impossibly high standards are made for us by patriarchy, and it seems by feminism too. But I think these standards are contributed to by the market-friendly co-opted parts of feminism which are at times hard to identify; the smiling and happy feminist front; the ‘feminism for everyone’, buy your happy relatable feminist T-Shirt here!
Maybe we could set up more spaces to discuss what patriarchal baggage we all carry; maybe that would help share the load. A lot of these issues, the internalized patriarchy shit we deal with in private, are sometimes subtle and unclear, even to ourselves. But it’s important we talk about them, or at least talk about whether and how we do. Because whether it’s a secret eating disorder or recreating patriarchal power relations in our relationships, or whatever else, these things can end up affecting not only ourselves, but those around us, and our wider communities.
I’ve come to realize and accept that many of us can carry the worst parts of what we are working to change within us, and that those parts don’t necessarily fall away when we pick up the axe aimed at patriarchy. The axe helped me cope with them; it even empowered me to eventually move beyond my eating disorder, but there are parts of me that remain affected. And that’s ok.
So what I would say to the 17 year old me, and any other young girl feeling so enraged and empowered by this new knowledge of feminism to put to her experience is this:
Being a feminist is a journey. It’s different for everyone. You don’t live in a silo that separates you from the influences of patriarchy. The parts of yourself that will be, at least in part, shaped and defined by patriarchy will come in different forms and will be different for everyone. But you can positively contribute to the dismantling of patriarchy even while having terrible feelings created BY patriarchy.
Patriarchy is fucked, but no matter how it fucks you up, don’t let it also take away your claim to being part of the movement to dismantle it.