Episode 27: In Which the Protagonist Considers Throwing in the Towel and Taking Up Underwater Basketweaving

[Brutal Women note: This was originally posted on 1/7/05: I am re-date stamping it for 1/27/05 to keep the comments current, as it’s received some interest.]

Brendan’s found a couple of good articles. The one I want to tackle is this one about why feminists are afraid of fat: i.e. feminists want to be pretty, too. The “I want to be loved and still be a real person” conundrum.

There’s simply an irreconcilable contradiction between feminism and femininity, two largely incompatible strategies women have adopted over the years to try to level the playing field with men.

The reason they’re incompatible is simple. Femininity is a system that tries to secure advantages for women, primarily by enhancing their sexual attractiveness to men. It also shores up masculinity through displays of feminine helplessness or deference. But femininity depends on a sense of female inadequacy to perpetuate itself. Completely successful femininity can never be entirely attained, which is precisely why women engage in so much laboring, agonizing, and self-loathing, because whatever you do, there’s always that straggly inch-long chin hair or pot belly or just the inexorable march of time.

Feminism, on the other hand, is dedicated to abolishing the myth of female inadequacy. It strives to smash beauty norms, it demands female equality in all spheres, it rejects sexual market value as the measure of female worth. Or that was the plan. Yet for all feminism’s social achievements, what it never managed to accomplish was the eradication of the heterosexual beauty culture, meaning the time-consuming and expensive potions and procedures—the pedicures, highlights, wax jobs on sensitive areas, “aesthetic surgery,” and so on. For some reason, the majority of women simply would not give up the pursuit of beautification, even those armed with feminist theory. (And even those clearly destined to fail.)

What I find fascinating about this idea about the conflict between “femininity” and “feminism” is the internal conflict: In order to be loved, I must look and act this way. This is called “being feminine.” It may not be who I am, I may loathe most of it or like some of it, but in order to be loved, this is how I have to be.

Because for all the talk about female vanity, and how the only reason women go out to buy shoes and lipstick and the reasons women starve themselves and angst about their looks, what we’re talking about beyond basic vanity is just this:

Good women, the sort of women who are loved, are the women who look and act this way.

That’s the message you get banged on the head with everyday in your MSN advice columns, and stupid studies about how men want to fuck their mothers, so women should strive to be little and less successful than the men they adore.

And, no, it’s not just about love from men, though male approval is a huge deal: women are the first ones to punish the fat women who don’t play by the rules, the people who don’t go hungry, the ones who won’t wear shitty shoes and pretend to be stupid on a date.

By the time you’re three or four years old, you know what sorts of actions and poses will get you good attention. You know what the ideal is gonna be. And even though it’s total bullshit, all you hear, over and over again in the news media is how being smart and strong and wearing pants and knowing how to spit means that no one will ever love you. Guys might sleep with you, but they can’t show you off to their friends, cause you don’t look like the sort of girl they know they’re “suppposed” to bring home. Women might exchange a few words and say how neat your life is, but unless you surround yourself with women just like you, you’re going to find all their talk about makeup, boob jobs, and manicures deeply, deeply boring.

When you’re told as a little girl that in order to be loved, you need to be pretty (and docile, and quiet) and then you’re shown pictures of girls and women who don’t look like you, you’re going to try and look like those girls. Human beings are social creatures. They like to be around other people. Touch, friendship, love, all that good stuff: that’s what makes you human. The ones who lose that stuff, or are born with some sort of screw missing in the sociability department are usually the monsters, the freakshow killers who view people as things.

The struggle for those women who want to be themselves – and whose selves are the smart, strong, successful types – is a heartwrenching, soul crunching battle between wanting to be a person worthy of being loved and wanting to be yourself. Because you’ll get banged over the head every damn day that being yourself isn’t enough. You’re not lovable first thing in the morning. Wearing jeans and being smart and speaking loudly isn’t lovable. If you do those things, you’re a feminist man-hater, and no one will love you.

And you know, it’s funny: I read this article right after I came home from my Denver trip, where I was ruminating on all this corporate stuff pushed my way, musing about how long I could reasonably wait before asking that I pull a salary in equal measure to the work I’m about to do, and I was sitting between these two petite, straight-haired women with lean shoulders and make-uped-into-flawlessness skin, and I thought:

This is it. I’ll never get laid again.

I’m tall, broad-shouldered, wide-hipped, brunette (curly hair), weigh as much as the average guy, have breasts that no one will ever write home about, have three degrees, done some world traveling, written novels, write violently feminist stories, maintain a feminist blog, and now I have an important-sounding job that’s going to take me around the country in suit jackets with briefcase and laptop and cell phone and corporate card. All they have to do is start paying me 60K+, and I’ll be priced out of the running.


Because women exist so that men can feel better about themselves? Cause men are so insecure that they can’t stand the idea of hitting on or being rejected by a woman with three degrees? Cause the idea of being romantically involved with somebody who’s your equal is really scary?

That’s what the media likes to say, doesn’t it? Those are the articles feminist blogs and Bitch magazine are always pissing on.

But those aren’t the relationships I surround myself with, and those aren’t the sorts of people I have in my life. The buddies I have are in pretty egalitarian relationships, actually, whether hetero or same-sex. The friends I have like me just this way, and I like them just like they are, which would be why we’re friends.

And yet, I can’t really talk, can I, because I haven’t dated in a couple years (and, to be fair to myself, haven’t tried: my brush off of Yellow being a good example). So I’m pretty much it: I’m that scary, alone, butch-like femi-nazi that your friends and mothers always warned you you’d end up like if you didn’t marry the first guy you had sex with.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I thought that in order to be the “right” kind of girl, I had to dress more fem, speak softly, and defer to my boyfriend in all of his infinite wisdom, forgetting that he, too, was Just A Kid. I’d spent so long feeling ugly and out of place that when I hit high school theatre (I dropped weight, lost my braces and glasses, between eighth and ninth grade) and suddenly all these guys asked me out, it was like somebody dumped a big pile of something in front of me, but I didn’t know if it was good or bad, I just knew that I was finally doing something right in the girl department. I picked the best suitor of the bunch, broke up with him once, had him call me crying on the phone, so stayed with him cause I thought people would think I was weird if I didn’t have a boyfriend.

The longer I dated him, the more worried I got about how people would look at me if we ever broke up. No guy had expressed interest since I started dating, so I had nobody to hop to to maintain my girl status if we parted.

He cheated on me.

We broke up for three days, and got back together again: because he cried a lot, and I didn’t have a boyfriend.

And then he started telling me how I was supposed to be, how I should look, so that he wouldn’t cheat on me again.


I was convinced he cheated on me not just because he was a horny kid and had the opportunity, but because I was some sort of failed woman that no one would ever love.

So, you know, I tried. I tried to wear skirts and dresses and speak softly and defer to him and pretend he was oh-so-much-more worldly than I.

To sum up: I lost myself.

Weight was my one rebellion, the one indication that there was something deeply, deeply wrong, and I put on something like 60 or 70 pounds in a year and half.

We moved in together, things got increasingly bad, blah blah, you’ve all read this stuff from just about every other woman in the world who’s got a domestic abuse story. Death threats, restraining orders, blah blah.

To sum up: it sucked ass.

So, etc., I left, etc. my parents went on suicide watch, and I was convinced that it was all over, this was it: I’d totally failed at being a woman. I couldn’t even stay with a guy who everybody said was so incredibly in love with me that I was a selfish bitch to want to leave him. I was cold, frigid, blah blah (again, insert cliche story here). And all I could think was, “Oh, no, if I break up with him, no one else will ever love me. I’ll be alone for a long, long, time.”

That was pretty much the worst thing that could happen to me, I thought. I’d leave him, and no one would ever love me again.

And you know what: I stared that one in the face, and I made the decision.

Because there’s scarier, more terrible shit that can happen to you than not being fem enough to be “loved” by some loser.

When you break, you pretty much have to make a decision: kill yourself and get it over with, or be better.

I chose to be better.

And, “being better” for me, meant being myself. That’s me. The person I always thought was me, the one who wanted to torch all of her skirts and jump off bridges and go motorcycle riding and move to Alaska.

Yea. That one.

The feminist one.

And you know what: she’s a fuck of a lot better than the person I thought I was supposed to be.

So. Listen up.

Feminist vs. femininity:

No, they aren’t either/or. But something else is:

Being who you want to be, and being who you think everyone else thinks you should be.

We (and I include myself in here, every day’s a goddamn battle) spend so much time wrapped up in these bullshit articles, these bullshit “studies,” these bullshit thoughts about what fucking incompetent, insercure, and infantile people men are, that we’re not stopping and stepping back and looking at the real people we’ve surrounded ourselves with.

If you’re with the people from the bullshit articles, find other people. If you’re an insecure guy, figure it the fuck out: you don’t have to make more money than me, have more degrees than me, be stronger than me. You need a good fucking heart and a passion for being alive – the rest is fucking details.

And women: if he doesn’t figure that shit out, IT IS NOT WORTH COMPROMISING YOURSELF SO YOU’LL LOOK LIKE AN MTV GIRL. Dump him. Get your shit together. Figure out what you can do on your own. Surround yourself with good friends. Question your sexuality: if you’re lucky, you’ll find that maybe you’re not into guys as much as you thought you were (I still sometimes wish I’d wake up one morning and “turn into a lesbian.” Can anyone recommend a starter kit?). And even though those relationships won’t be any easier than any other relationship, at least you’ll have a lot more to talk about.

As for me, yea, sure, these articles piss me off. They make me question myself. But you know what, after that intital, “Oh, fuck it, I’m throwing in the towel” feeling, I rememeber where I’ve been, who I could be, and remember why the hell I’m here and how I got to this point, and you know what?

Every damn thing is worth it. The jeans. The no-makeup. The boxing classes.

Cause you know what? I secretly like the way I look. I’ve always liked my breast size, I have the birthing hips that populated the West, if I have to go butch and scary and intimidating, I can do it. I like my red shoes. I like my square-heeled boots. I like being smart. I like reading books. I like being able to figure shit out. I like the fact that Blaine asks me, “Is this smart person lingo?” I like this person I made, and I gotta tell you, I’m getting really fucking sick and tired of a bunch of wackos blaring at me that I have to hate myself because I turn down dates and don’t obsess about a boob job.


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