Every feminist knows of the internal struggles that often arise when we try and juggle our lives as imperfect, flawed human beings and oppression-busting social justice warriors. Sometimes it feels to me like those two identities are constantly waging war around my head. This is before you mix in my other identities such a “white, cis woman” and “pansexual”. Often, facets of myself seem paradoxical and conflicting, and sometimes the internalised misogyny we are all unlearning can come back with a vengeance.
The Perfect Feminist does not exist.
I say this because it is true, but I do not mean it is a bad thing. I’m not a perfect feminist, I’ve never met a person who is, but I’m still comfortable and proud of my beliefs even if I do slip sometimes.
For instance, I absolutely love make-up, fashion and beauty. And I absolutely play into the ridiculous beauty standards our society upholds. But I am absolutely aware of this.
I have spent a lot of money and a lot of time on learning how to use makeup to achieve that perfect, airbrushed-skin look or that beautifully full pout or that wonderfully chiselled, contoured appearance that defies my natural bone structure.
I shave everywhere and I love having nice hair and I love wearing clothes that make me feel “sexy”. Some people would say this makes me a bad feminist, for playing into the patriarchal standards ultimately created for the approval and enjoyment of the male gaze. I would say they are bad feminists too, for thinking they can dictate to me the choices I make about my own face and body.
See, men might enjoy the way I look when I put all this effort into my appearance, but so do I. It makes me feel good when I look in a mirror, and whilst I’m well aware I’m measuring myself against made up beauty rules. It’s hard not to think I’m at my most beautiful when I look like that, when society has told me my whole life that is exactly what beautiful is.
I fully believe that make-up is an art form too, one that we can reclaim and make all about us. I find it fun, I find it satisfying to be able to create different looks and as so many men are eager to let us know, “they prefer the natural look anyway”. Good. Allow me to enjoy the irony of using these tools that are designed for your approval to transform my face into something you don’t want. Good.
Some women can’t help it that they feel flattered by unwarranted male attention. Personally, I am not one of those women. I can’t stand being cat called and I don’t like being talked to by a guy who thinks he deserves to speak to me, even when I am clearly not interested. But I will never shame a girl who finds themselves validated by shouts of “hey sexy!” on the streets. I’ve heard feminist women say they hate that they enjoy it but they can’t help the way they feel. I’ve heard them say they feel terrible for feeling that way, but don’t. We are taught from day one that is how we measure our worth. If not by the circumference of our waists then by our desirability to those around us, so who can blame us for feeling at least a little bit happy when we’re told our tits look good and we’re wanted. We’re told we should be wanted and no matter how “feminist” you are, those lessons can still permeate your thoughts and for many of us they’re always there, at the back of our minds.
Perhaps you love a good old, sexist rom-com. Perhaps you watch Grease and you smile and sing along through the end scene even though you know Sandy has completely changed her appearance and her values to be with a rude, arrogant boy and it’s totally unfair but that song is reaaaally catchy and this film is a classic. Maybe Beauty and the Beast is your favourite film, despite the obvious anti-feminists themes, um like the part where Belle is forced to be the prisoner of a hyper-masculine beast until she learns to love him. These things do not make you a bad feminist! My heart aches for every girl who feels ashamed when enjoying these things, sometimes it’s actually necessary to put all the problematic stuff you can’t help but notice out of your mind and enjoy a film guilt-free.
If you catch yourself calling another woman a “bitch”, or accidentally slipping up and using “girl” as an insult, then please don’t fret. It wasn’t too long ago I heard myself using the phrase “like a girl” in a… not so uplifting way. I immediately felt so much shame building up inside of me, how can I spend 75% of my day either thinking about or fighting against the very system that normalises phrases like that and then go on and use them myself? I reassured myself that I don’t mean it, that it isn’t my fault this sentence is so common it managed to slip out of my own mouth without me even realising. The feminist I would be worried about is the one who doesn’t understand why these phrases are wrong.
I am not a person who believes marriage is inherently anti-feminist. Or rather, I believe it doesn’t have to be. Whilst it’s true that marriage is a patriarchal design and was used in the past to own women, it doesn’t need to be that today. You can make it what you wish, and the most important thing is that it includes equality between you and your partner. Whilst getting excited at the idea of one day getting married to a man might make you feel like a bad feminist, it does not. If you want your father to “give you away” or you want to take his name, these are your choices and making them doesn’t make you a bad feminist!
The first time I found myself getting a little offended over the term “white feminist”. The first time I found myself getting offended at the sentence “all white people benefit from racism”. This was before I found out what these phrases meant and since then, I learned and changed my viewpoint and I no longer catch feelings when I read things like this. Don’t feel bad about mistakes you once made in your social justice if you’ve grown from them now.
Worst of all though, is the internal struggle that comes with being a girl who likes girls. When I stare a little too long at women I find attractive, when I’m talking to the lads and I agree with them like “oh yeah, Natalie Dormer is hot”, when I glance at a woman’s cleavage but know that I would be uncomfortable if it were a man doing that to me. When these things happen I kind of hate myself. I mean, I’m not a dick. I have never and will never catcall a girl, tell a girl she has a nice ass when it’s completely unwarranted, leer at women, I know a woman’s bare skin is not an invitation for my scrutiny. But sometimes, being a female feminist who likes girls, I feel bad even appreciating a woman’s appearance in my head.
There are plenty of trivial things we do that can knock our confidence in our feminism, but they are not without our best intentions. There are only a handful of “rules” in my idea of feminism, which whilst I don’t wish to police people, I will not acknowledge people who are transphobic, racist, homophobic, ableist or classist as Feminists. Nor will I entertain the brand of feminism that tells women to cover up and respect themselves before any man ever will.
If you’re a white feminist who disregards the struggles of WoC then you’re a bad feminist. If you’re a cisgendered feminist who disregards trans folk then you’re a bad feminist. If you’re a straight feminist who doesn’t stand up for LGBTQIA+ then you’re a bad feminist. If you’re an able-bodied feminist who doesn’t care about the disabled then you’re a bad feminist. If you’re a rich feminist who spares no thought for the lower classes then you’re a bad feminist. In the words of Flavia Dzodan: “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.”
And here’s to all the feminists who are inclusive, who truly believe in equality for us all and who sometimes make mistakes. You are valid, your feminism is valid, it just takes time to unlearn.