At first, I was only going to write about what feminism means to me because after all, everyone these days seems to be a feminist and yet so many people have different interpretations of feminism. But recently, I have noticed that people are still struggling to grasp what feminism is at its most basic definition. There is still a significant stigma behind the word and there are many people going around explaining (and mansplaining) what they believe that it is.
I don’t have an issue with most of the varied interpretations of what feminism means to people who identify as feminists because it is usually related to how each person practices or displays their feminist views in their own lives. But I do have a huge problem when people who aren’t feminists decide that they know exactly what feminism is when, in fact, they don’t. I have heard the usual – ‘feminists are women who hate men’ and ‘feminists are lesbians.’ Sadly, I’ve heard these definitions from just as many women as I have men.
But the other day I found out that some men are in the practice of swiping left when a woman’s profile reads, “feminist.” While I’m sure the women are better off without a date with these men, it was still puzzling to me. But my confusion turned to disgust when I learned some of the reasons why a woman identifying herself as a feminist would be a turn-off for some men. But, to protect the innocent, I won’t even get into those reasons. Just know that they are gross.
For all of those who don’t know, feminism is the belief that women and men should have equal rights. That’s it. It isn’t a hard concept. I guess it’s difficult for people to understand in the same way some people will never get that #BlackLivesMatter means that Black lives are just as important as White, Yellow, Purple, Brown and even *gasp* Blue lives, so we should start acting like it. More and more every day I wish that some people would just pick up a book and read it.
Anyway, I like to believe that I was a feminist before it was the thing for “strong, independent” women (and men who were ‘down for the cause’) to be. Even though some people still think of unshaven underarms and bra-burning when they hear the word feminist, today you hear one celebrity after another claiming to be a feminist. I’m not hating on that at all, I’m just saying it has become a bit of a fad, complete with its own key phrases – “lean in”, the “shine theory”, and even “pop feminism” (think Taylor Swift).
I’ve always had kind of off-center ideas about what a woman should be expected to do and how women should be expected to act. But before I knew exactly what the word feminist actually meant, I just figured I was thinking as if I was a man, which just goes to show that I was still being constrained by traditional, stereotypical gender roles, despite my liberal ideas. It wasn’t until two of my male friends called me a feminist that I began to look more into feminist theory. Sure, one was playfully mocking me, but the sound of the word in reference to me sounded very fitting.
Today, I know that feminism is the belief that women should have the same opportunities and rights that men have. But to me, more specifically, feminism is also the belief that women should have the freedom to be the kind of people they want to be, just as men are able to do so without question. Our personalities and our dreams shouldn’t be stifled or drowned out by what society expects from us solely based on the fact that we are women.
I strongly believe that women should be able to do whatever they want without worrying about what men say, not in spite of what men say. So the whole burning bras and not shaving thing is BS to me unless you’re doing it because you want to and not because men would like you to do the opposite. I feel like that thought process is an indication that men are still in control of what it is a woman should do.
Surprisingly, there are still women today who think that because they are self-proclaimed feminists, they should not wear make-up or dresses because historically, men have wanted women to do these things to fit their standard of beauty. I am just as against that kind of thinking as I am about non-inclusive White feminism. Neither one of these ideologies is true feminism. They are based upon misguided and ignorant social mores from the past and are not only irrelevant today, but completely wrong.
During the Women’s Suffrage Movement, Black suffragists like Ida B. Wells were forced to be at odds with White suffragists because of the White suffragists’ racist thinking and discrimination of the Black community as a whole. And when women’s liberation was on the move, women put bras (they actually didn’t burn them), Playboy magazines, and hair curlers into a “Freedom Trashcan” at the protest of the Miss USA Pageant because this was a symbolic act of rejection of the male standard of beauty.
Today, there is no reason to burn a bra or criticize another woman for wearing make-up, just as there is no reason to exclude Black women from the feminist discussion or claim unity with Black women while actively discounting the rights of Black people as a whole (there was no good reason for this back then either, but that is another issue).
I think that today, being a feminist is about reclaiming ourselves. If the idea is that men have these standards we have been taught for centuries to live up to, the only issue should be that men are telling us how to live, not necessarily that the things that men traditionally consider to be beautiful or appropriate are not actually applicable to our lives as individuals. Man or woman, we all are separate people and have our own unique standard of what we think is beautiful or OK for us. Some men like makeup on women (or themselves) and some men prefer a more natural look. Some women love to experiment with makeup and other women can’t be bothered with it. Just because historically, we had to wear dresses in order to be accepted in society, doesn’t make wearing a dress wrong. It should be more about the reason behind a woman wanting to do a certain thing when it comes to deciding whether or not she is liberated; and really, at the end of the day, it’s her business whether she is or even wants to be liberated. After all, feminism is for equal rights – the right to choose what you want to do, just as men can. Plain and simple.
So if you want to contour your face using the newest highlighting techniques, wear the most flowery, feminine dresses, or get a boob job and you’re doing these things for yourself, because you want to, go for it! Just because you like things that are traditionally feminine doesn’t make you any less of a feminist or that you’re being controlled by men’s standards of beauty. And shout out to the androgynous and masculine presenting women out there as well. Do you!
The same notion goes for sexual freedom and expression. If you want to be an exotic dancer and you are empowered by it, not torn down by it or forced into it (which would be more of a self-care and safety issue), dance your little heart out and make that money!
Traditionally, male-dominated society (also known as that scary word, the “patriarchy”) takes women’s sexuality and demonizes it. Because of this, instead of questioning the validity of the idea that women’s sexuality is somehow dirty, the problem is convoluted and we instead encourage women to “respect themselves more” so that men will respect us.
But it isn’t up to us to make men respect us, that is their issue, not ours. They either respect us or they don’t respect us because of a belief system they have, not because of anything we do. And for whatever reason, we say things like, “cover up” and call that respecting ourselves.
This is such a hard thing for us as women to unlearn and we often find ourselves shaming other women for not being modest enough. The alternative is true too; if a woman chooses to cover herself up or is a bit shy about her sexuality, she also deserves respect from men and women alike.
It is sad because feminists have to deal with non-feminist men putting an evil spin on the feminist belief system, but women feminists can be just as critical of other feminists. Besides the respect-yourself argument, I have heard women get criticized for deciding to be stay-at-home moms. To some feminists, not having a traditional 9 to 5 job means that a woman has given up her right to work in exchange for taking care of her children because that’s what men and society expect of her. People who think this way don’t consider the idea that maybe the woman happens to want to stay at home to care for her children and it has nothing to do with her children’s father wanting her to. Also, staying at home to care for the children usually requires a lot more work than a 9 to 5 does and it is, in fact, a very legitimate and important job – facts I thought people realized by now.
My point is that no one can tell a woman what’s best for her. And it isn’t just because there is a wide range of feminist ideologies, because there certainly is, but it’s because I think that as feminists, we shouldn’t judge other women just as we expect men not to judge us or put us in boxes of conformity.
If you can take your sexuality and what it means to be a woman from the confines of what men want it to be and make it into what you want it to be, whatever that is, then that is the only respect for yourself that you need. If you can take your gender expression and what it is you think makes you beautiful and own it, that is real freedom.
For whatever reason, feminism is still a dirty word. But for me, it just means that I own my body and can do what I want with it, it means that I deserve to get paid in a job at the same rate as a man in my position would be paid, it means that I want my life, my opinions and my ideas to matter just as much as a man’s. It also means that as a Black woman I am just as deserving of these things as every other woman, White, Yellow, Purple, Brown, or Blue.