Just call me an ugly militant feminist

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Two scary faces, both of them mine — for no one to mess with.

How (not) to be cool – pt. 2

Nowadays, it seems that narcissism and an obsession with looks and perfection have become perfectly acceptable, even cool, for women. Social media is overflowing with flattering (often to the point of the person being unrecognizable) selfies as well as posts providing largely unrealistically positive information about the individual’s life (yes, the latter applies to men as well as women).

More than once in the past year, I’ve had to stop and think before I could remember how I knew some of my so-called ‘friends’ on Facebook (possibly an indication for me to remove them from said list). Once or twice, I have been so fascinated by how different a girl looked in photos from the way I remembered her in real life that I had to check other pictures to reassure myself it was actually the same person. And I felt saddened, not as much by how fake and unoriginal she looked, but how proud this seemed to make her. How important it was to her to make an impression on the world. To make herself seen. Apparently, this is what Instagram and Facebook have done to us: it has become perfectly normal to see special occasions as an opportunity to show off our lives to the world rather than as a chance to enjoy the present and celebrate precious times with our family and/or friends (the ones we are with right now). Sometimes this happens subconsciously – of course, we all like to present the ideal versions of ourselves and our lives, both to ourselves and to others. For one of those girls, this means she wears a tight new dress in every photo, with gorgeous hair that must have taken her hours to style, and a ton of make-up that makes her look like just another Kim Kardashian imitation. Perhaps she looks like someone many girls strive to be (though I hope not). But she sure as hell doesn’t look like someone we’d have a great conversation with or who could help inspire us to become better people.

I wonder why we try so hard to present our lives as perfect. Is it because many of us still admire those who (seem to) love themselves the most, and whose lives appear to be easier than our own? However, I’m sure we all agree that it’s harder to connect with people who seem perfect than it is to connect with those who are vulnerable, imperfect, sincere. Maybe we merely wish we could be as oblivious as they seem to be? Maybe we feel our lives would be easier if we lied to ourselves and ignored our inherent, eternal imperfection? Might it not perhaps be more enriching to be able to admit our weaknesses and be willing to change? By weaknesses, I do not mean visual ‘flaws’ as they are defined by society. I mean cognitive and behavioural flaws – including our reluctance to question our obsession with looks and the way others perceive us.

Perhaps we have to ask ourselves whether we are contributing to a kind of world we don’t want, not merely by focusing too much on ourselves and our image instead of helping others, but also by way of what our posts evoke or ‘confirm’ in others’ heads. For instance, do women who post semi-nude pictures of themselves on Instagram in order to get more likes not feel that they might further encourage the frighteningly fast-growing trend towards general objectification and lack of sexual respect we get from men? Don’t get me wrong: both men and women have a tendency to objectify each other in a sexual or aesthetic context, and in a mutually cohesive environment this would not present an issue. But we shouldn’t allow it to become a trend that harms us physically or spiritually, a trend that has already begun to affect our entire lives, including the way we strive to be perceived by every single stranger on the internet.

I’m not just blaming the Kim Kardashians, though. I do feel disappointed by all those who are making it even harder for other women to be taken seriously as human beings, but more than them, I’m blaming our culture. I’m blaming movies and music videos and ads for still failing to present women who are interesting to watch for more than their clone-looks, and I’m blaming them for failing to reflect the richness and complexity of womanhood. Sure, there is a growing number of pleasant exceptions, especially in TV series (HBO and Netflix offering a great variety of less stereotypical female characters) and independent cinema, and now we even have a blockbuster that many regard as a feminist film (Wonder Woman), and I will look at some of those examples in my next post. But the highest-grossing films are still those which portray women in a more simplistic way, without any depth or individuality (either as the tough and sexy action hero, the cruel but sexy antagonist, the neurotic and superficial career woman, the naive beauty, the manipulative co-worker / boss, the jovial and slightly obnoxious chubby woman, or the selfless and otherwise personality-free mother).

An example: a few weeks ago, I rewatched a 2011 comedy with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston called Just Go With It because some friends love the movie and wanted to see it again. I thought maybe I’d think of it differently now than when it first came out, and I did, though not in the way I expected. The first time I saw it, I thought it was mediocre and not particularly funny. When I saw it again, I thought it was not just average but actually pretty terrible. The number of scenes reducing women to the appeal of their bodies and their ability to please a man sexually by far outnumber any (potentially) redeeming scenes. In order for Adam Sandler’s character Danny to fall in love with Jennifer Aniston’s character Katherine and lose interest in his much younger girlfriend Palmer (whose only appeal seems to lie in her looks), Katherine first has to show off her curves in a bikini, proving that her body is just as fit, youthful, flawless, and thus sexually desirable as Palmer’s. In yet another scene designed to satisfy the ‘male gaze’, Katherine joins in on a hula-dancer competition with her frenemy, played by Nicole Kidman. That night, Danny finally realizes he has feelings for Katherine.

A movie like Just Go With It is not instantly recognizable as misogynistic unless you are already taking everything you see and hear with a grain of salt instead of mindlessly consuming and accepting whatever you are fed like most of us do. Because the movie merely repeats an old pattern which is subconsciously influencing male and female minds.

The worst thing about misogyny in popular culture is the fact that as soon as you point out examples of it, you are very often dismissed as a fun-spoiling bitch. While my friends would never call me that, I’m sure it’s exactly what they thought of me after I tried to make my point. No one likes to see one of their favourite comedies torn to pieces.

As a more complex and interesting example, I would like to mention the first episode of the Netflix show Easy, which still haunts me. Right after I saw this episode, I googled articles about it and was alarmed by the fact that the Internet was not actually filled with articles about how this episode reflects, and appears to comment on, the deeply misogynistic elements of our society. It also alarmed me that one of the people I spoke to about it did not consider the domestic rape scene disturbing in the slightest, and I think many viewers nowadays wouldn’t, because, thanks to internet porn, they are so used to sex being portrayed as something that has to be pleasant for the man, but doesn’t need to be so for the woman. In the final ten minutes of the episode, the otherwise so loving and caring husband completely disregards his wife’s desires and visibly does not care in the slightest that she is in pain while he is fucking her. Doesn’t anyone see this as deeply upsetting in its contradiction? Has it become so normal that no one feels the need to comment on it?

Is it really cool for a man to use and exploit a woman without paying any attention to whether she is into it or not? And is it cool for a woman to sacrifice her own desire in attempts to please a man who doesn’t respect her? Are women still conditioned to feel they don’t own the right to confidently voice their own desires?

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her book Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, “we teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. […] Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls spend too much time trying to be ‘nice’ to people who do them harm. […] This is the catastrophic consequence of likeability. We have a world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likeable.”

Isn’t it cooler to accept and respect yourself at the risk of not being liked, than to bend over backwards for other people’s approval only to (possibly) be liked more, but respected less – both by others and yourself? Being too nice to people (especially to those who don’t deserve your attention) is draining and – I can tell you from experience – not worth the trouble. I still cringe at how much I wanted to be liked at high school. How important it was to me back then: pleasing people I didn’t even like, didn’t find interesting or kind or funny in the slightest. As a consequence of my behaviour, I lost all awareness of my own needs and identity, my trust and my self-worth, all of which took me a long time to rebuild.

Most women are still reluctant to call themselves feminists, and I doubt this is solely because they have yet to realize that being a feminist doesn’t involve hating and destroying all men (though I admit that an awareness of injustice does carry the risk of inspiring anger and frustration – it certainly does in me from time to time). I think our reluctance stems from the fact that feminists have long been considered uncool. Men – as well as women – still tend to think of feminists as dull, butch, unattractive, and very angry people who make a fuss out of nothing. Sure, there is the occasional self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ celebrity who won’t alienate fans when using the term because they still largely adhere to men’s general expectations of what a woman should be (vain, beautiful, pleasant, unrebellious, and thus not a threat to the status quo).

Those suspicious of ‘feminism’ like to ignore the fact that what this concept actually means is the knowledge that women deserve to be respected and taken seriously as human beings, the awareness that this fact is not actually reflected in our culture (no, not even in our ‘progressive’ western world), and the resulting attempt to achieve social justice and equality. And many women are too deeply entrenched in their roles to recognize how convenient the upholding of double standards and extreme paradoxes is for men: women must not show signs of aging, but men may, which means men do not need to worry about their own looks, but they have the power to make women feel deeply insecure about their own; women have to be thin and beautiful, otherwise they are ridiculed or ignored; however, if they are beautiful, they are solely appreciated for their beauty and not actually taken seriously as human beings – it’s a vicious cycle that keeps women weak and ‘in their place’.

To me,
an empowered woman is the coolest thing ever. Women who aren’t afraid to ask for what they want, women who accept themselves with their supposed physical flaws and do not try to change them, women who take it for granted that they deserve just as much respect as men, even when their experiences might have taught them otherwise. Women who have the wisdom and self-respect not to worry about aging, and who have the courage to say no whenever a man tries to convince them to do something they don’t feel comfortable doing. Because there are way too many women out there who allow the increasingly misogynistic aspects of our culture to define the way we should act and respond to the behaviour of men. We let shitty movies and magazines and Internet porn establish the ground rules. Because we are continuously given the impression that we are going to be considered uncool, fun-spoiling bitches if we don’t.

So it’s time to ask ourselves what’s more important: awareness, courage, self-acceptance, freedom, and originality – or standardized good looks and likeability?

 

On being the only single person in town

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Valentine’s Day is coming up and I’m single, as usual. Smug couples will be feeling sorry for me whilst unhappy couples will be jealous of me, and everyone else is just going to yawn, because, let’s face it: most singles and happy couples aren’t going to make a fuss about Valentine’s Day. The only ones who do appear to be the ones who feel their love needs to be validated in some excessive way, preferably on public display.

So let’s talk about being single. I’ve been single for over seven years, which I’m pretty sure makes me an expert on the subject. Or, since I’m inevitably going to be talking about relationships as well, let’s say semi-expert, because I’m certainly not an expert on being in a relationship, as I’ve only been in one and it wasn’t the best example: we never lived together, and over half of the duration of our relationship was spent apart, living in different countries.

During this time, I was so insecure, so anxious, so preoccupied with the idea of him not loving me enough that I never even considered the possibility that he might not actually be the most suitable partner for me. My lack of trust and self-confidence ensured I never felt completely safe in the relationship, which, of course, also meant it rarely ever got dull or boring. I was so worried and stressed out with my panicky thoughts that I didn’t find the peace of mind to ever rationally weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of being in this relationship. Instead, it took two and a half years of driving him insane until he finally did both me and himself the favour of breaking up with me via Skype a few days after my birthday (which, by this stage of the relationship, he had – of course – forgotten) and my sister’s wedding in Australia.

Sometimes I still wonder whether it was the best or worst timing for him to leave me. You see, without him breaking up with me at this time, I never would have decided to go spend a year in Australia (because I was never really interested in living in Australia). And that year turned out to be one of the best years of my life, though I did fall in love with someone who has proven difficult to fall out of love with, despite – or rather, due to – the fact that he has never decided to love me back. This guy is still one of my best friends and I feel equal amounts lucky and unlucky to have met him. Unlucky, because any guy I have met, and might meet in the future, since I’ve known him is inevitably going to be compared to him (and mostly unfavourably). Lucky, because knowing him has enriched my life in many ways. And because other guys haven’t really been able to hurt me anymore, since none of them were even half as cool as him. So thanks to this unrequited love, I’ve gained a sense of inner freedom and control that has enabled me to enjoy flings much more than I enjoyed being in a relationship, and I’m no longer striving to find something that will last forever. Not simply because I don’t really believe in ‘forever’ anymore, but more so because I have come to realize it’s not actually been stability and continuity that have made me feel sane during my life thus far. It’s always been a sense of adventure as provided by travel, meeting many different people, and the challenges I’ve set for myself which have most filled me with energy, hope, and contentment.

Of course, loneliness does strike from time to time. Since I’ve been living in Heidelberg (where I moved last summer), I can count the other singles I have met down on one hand. And I have met A LOT of people. Being single among a herd of people in stable relationships can make you feel really… well, weird. It makes me feel like a bloody alien sometimes. And this, I’m certain, is not purely due to my personal issues and insecurities, but even more so to the fact that – thanks to movies, ads, as well as nosy relatives who should get a life – women have internalized the belief that there must be something wrong with them if they aren’t in a steady relationship in their thirties.

From the youngest age, women are persuaded into thinking that our happiness depends on finding a romantic partner. We aren’t expected to grow into independent, self-sufficient women. We are expected to become wives and mothers, perhaps wives and mothers with careers, but the career is secondary. When/whether a guy finds a suitable romantic partner, is not important; relationships don’t define him in the public eye. But a woman’s ‘value’ is intrinsically linked to her relationship status. (Check out this great article, which a good friend recommended to me when it was published last year, and which, among many other insights, explains why women tend to benefit much more from singlehood than from relationships: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2016/02/maybe-you-should-just-be-single)

Regardless of your gender, there’s the disturbing fact that being with someone for a long period of time changes you. The people you spend most of your time with will inevitably have an enormous impact on your behaviour and personality. So when you’re in a relationship, your partner tends to be the one who influences you the most. They can have a positive effect on you, be inspiring and character-building, but – and this is very often the case – they can also be a negative influence. For instance, the wrong relationship can turn you into a constantly angry and/or anxious mess, make you forget who you were, turn you into an insensitive bitch, distract you from your goals, etc etc… as it did in my relationship. So a relationship can – and often enough will – actually bring out the worst in you.

But before I go on to draw your attention to the benefits of singlehood, let’s sum up the great benefits of being in a relationship:

1. It’s nice to have someone to cuddle with, particularly in winter when you long for someone to warm up your bed before you get in there yourself.

2. It’s also extremely nice to wake up and be able to have sex. (That is, if the other person is in the same mood.)

3. It’s also nice to be loved in a romantic way. It makes you feel really awesome and special, without the need to really make an effort to be an awesome person, aside from treating your partner (and perhaps, their family) kindly enough.

4. As a woman, you can feel smug and safe: no (more) pitiful glances, patronizing comments, or ‘well-meaning’ advice from all your married friends and relatives. Because for some reason, it still appears sad for a woman to remain single beyond a certain age (the terms ‘spinster’ and ‘crazy cat lady’ come to mind), because we never see the possibility of singlehood ever being an active choice when we are speaking about a woman, whereas we are able to see this potential as soon as we are talking about a guy (a ‘bachelor’). It’s as if being in a relationship elevates a woman to an acceptable level, both in terms of her social standing and in her own perception of her inner worth.

5. Most importantly, I think a good relationship will provide you with a sense of safety and stability, which does a lot in the way of consoling us in our existential misery. Yes, there will always be misery, no matter how easy and comfortable our lives, because life is fundamentally tragic and we know we are going to die, and our loved ones are going to die. A steady partner (especially a younger one!) can alleviate our pain and offer – at least temporarily – the comforting illusion of immortality.

Well, those are the main benefits of conventional relationships that I can think of right now. Happy couples, let me know which ones I’ve forgotten! Now let’s get to the advantages of being single:

1. Freedom and space. You become more self-reliant and independent.

2. You tend to value friendships more, and spend more actual time with your closest friends. I think it’s also safe to assume that when we are single, we make more of an effort to meet and spend time with new people than we do when we are in a relationship. And shouldn’t our idea of a rich, well-lived life involve connecting with lots of different people, exchanging thoughts and ideas in order to broaden our horizons, discover new approaches and perspectives, learn to accept ambiguity and uncertainty, and gain a deeper and more balanced understanding of the world we live in? Let’s face it: no matter how clever your (potential) partner is, in some way you are always going to be limiting your potential to grow and accumulate wisdom if you decide to spend all or most of your time with them and rarely meet other people, just as you would if you decided to stay in one place all your life and never travelled anywhere.

3. As a single person, you learn to cope with phases of extreme (sexual as well as romantic) deprivation and frustration, and come to recognize the difference between feeling lonely and being alone. You learn to appreciate solitude.

4. Thanks to those phases of solitude and melancholy, you’re more likely to create poignant artwork.

5. You might grow more empathetic towards others, since you experience what it feels like to be the only single around and (at least if you’re a woman) being pitied and/or patronized repeatedly as a result. You also learn to question social norms and develop a better bullshit radar.

6. Finally, you get to know yourself and find out what you actually want and need, not what others expect you to crave or covet.

I, for one, have come to really appreciate the freedom and sanity that comes with singlehood. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it’s best to stay single all your life, neither am I saying that singlehood is always easy or fantastic; but I also doubt it’s preferable to spend all of your adult life in a relationship. We need to stop seeing relationships (in the limiting sense in which we tend to define and live them) as the one and only ideal. And we need to stop seeing singlehood merely as a lesser alternative or compromise, and instead identify it as a valid lifestyle choice. It really need not be experienced as something alienating that we are forced into or that reflects our perceived worthlessness, as society encourages women to think. On the contrary, we can identify a life – or phases – of singlehood as a chance to experience life in a different way, namely one that will teach us just as many lessons as any relationship can, and that can additionally fill us with joy, comfort, and confidence, just as a great relationship would.

New Year’s Resolution

Society keeps telling women that wrinkles make us ugly – and apparently, beauty is still the only criterion used to assess our worth. Our looks count more than men’s. And men’s knowledge and freedom count more than ours. I wonder when this is finally going to change – at least, I guess, not as long as brainless misogynists are elected presidents.

I’ve decided that this year and every year from now on, I’m going to be proud of the lines that have been forming in my face, and stop being ashamed of them. My wrinkles show that I have suffered and grown, that I am passionate and like to laugh.

Next month I’m turning 34. I’ve decided that I’m going to stop worrying whether I have begun to ‘look my age’ (note how emotionally charged this expression of a harmless fact of life has become, and how insulting it sounds to us), because it’s a fine age to be. I’m going to quit wondering when men will stop finding me attractive since they are so used to seeing only smooth, flawless skin on women well into their forties (even fifties, if they are so lucky to be selected for a starring role) every time they watch a movie or an ad. I’m going to stop worrying because I don’t need a man to tell me I’m beautiful before I can see it and believe it myself.

I’m not going to give in to the pressure to be thin, because the joy of eating good food and the love I have for my imperfect, but fully-functioning body are larger than my craving for attention and approval.

I’m going to stop spending any more time on things that cause me to lose sight of what actually matters. Our culture makes it way too easy for women to focus on our looks and supposed flaws, but I’m sick of us becoming as superficial as society wants us to be.

I have many dreams and goals, but winning a beauty contest isn’t one of them. I want to be wise and funny and kind. I want to write lots more stories and take lots more photographs and perfect my French and improve my Spanish and live in more places and travel the world and meet lots more people and volunteer at animal sanctuaries and read lots more books and make some silly horror shorts with my friends and be there for my family and friends and become a better listener and have many meaningful conversations and be a role model for my nieces and draw and handletter wise quotes and try out new recipes and open a vegan food van and teach all my favourite students online, from abroad. Yes, there’s a chance I won’t be able to tick every single one of these pursuits off my list, but I do hope I get old enough to experience most of them, and I definitely won’t let sexist, ageist society dictate how I’m going to feel about myself or what types of worries I’m going to waste my time on.

I’m going to stop thinking about how others might perceive me, and stop telling myself I’m not good enough. Instead, I’m going to appreciate the fact that I’m a healthy, living creature, able to enjoy so many things that are enriching and fulfilling and don’t require a specific kind of appearance.

Aging isn’t evil. It’s complex, it’s bittersweet. And it can provide you with the best of human qualities, those not yet known to the young: wisdom, kindness, patience, and serenity.