Bad Feminist

Photo on 2012-10-31 at 12.33I’m overweight. At times, this consumes me. Then, immediately thereafter I feel like a bad feminist.

Roxane Gay writes in her article, Bad Feminist:

As Judith Butler writes in her 1988 essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”: “Performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all.” This tension—the idea that there is a right way to be a woman, a right way to be the most essential woman—is ongoing and pervasive… Butler’s thesis could also apply to feminism. There is an essential feminism, the notion that there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist, and there are consequences for doing feminism wrong.

I know that my figure doesn’t define me. I know it’s not even an indicator of beauty. I’m not supposed to care. I’m not supposed to body snark myself into a dark corner. I’m not supposed to adhere to the narrow and superficial principles of how a woman should look. I’m not supposed to want to ever be objectified. But I do.

Sometimes I feel fucking fantastic. I look at myself in the mirror and fall in love all over again. But then other days I feel like such a pathetic glowworm.

I know I’m supposed to forgive myself: I just had a baby! And I’m still nursing her 16 months later, so I’m hungry, like all the time. Things have been stressful: out of work, flooded with rejection letters, exhausted, moving, temporarily squatting next door to the house where I grew up, back in the neighborhood that displays the scars from my bullied years at Catholic school.

Then I think about Anne Frank. Ivan Denisovich. Ivan Ilyich. Precious. Celie. Ophelia. Sophie Zawistowska. Winston Smith. Catelyn Stark. Esther Greenwood. Chloe from Fight Club. Hecuba.

Then suddenly my suffering isn’t suffering at all.

Allow a moment from Girls.

Adam: “You think that just because you are 11 pounds overweight…”
Hannah: “I am 13 pounds overweight, and it has been awful for me my whole life!”
Adam: “Holy fucking shit. Here’s the world’s smallest, tiny violin playing ‘My Heart Bleeds For You.’ Fuck you! You don’t know struggle…

I’ve lost friends over the illusory bifurcation of feminism, because sometimes I’m on the wrong side. I’m in a heternormative marriage, one on which I’m emotionally dependent.  If we’re fighting, I am not operating at one hundred percent in any other sector of my life. To some, this is a sin. Much like marriage in general. To some, I willingly signed myself into a system that oppresses women. Simone de Beauvoir famously refused to marry Sartre on existential grounds. Because how could she, or he, be free if they belonged to one another? Or, if you like your feminism angrier, Andrea Dworkin says, “Marriage [is] an institution developed from rape as a practice.”

In the end, obviously, I decided one could marry and still be a feminist. I drew some lines though. Our marriage was a joint decision. I am both proud and glad that there was no proposal, no engagement ring, no traditions where I’m put on a pedestal, on display, given a day to feel as pretty as a picture, veiled, dipped in purity, white as a dove, given from one man to the next. Weddings depress me. So we didn’t have one. And I never took his name.

I’m not cursing any women who have done things differently though. (Freedom is the freedom to chose, after all.) For a while I did consider changing my name. We knew we didn’t want to hyphenate our children’s last names (as that would only kick the can further down the road), and we didn’t want to combine our last names into some hideous portmanteau either. I liked the idea of the whole family sharing one name, but my gut told me to keep my own name. So I did.

There, my gut lead me to a decision that made me feel like a good feminist, but now, its prominence, its protrusion is leading me into a double-edged shame spiral. From vanity to fraud, this gut has got to go.

I’ve started running. And while I’ve always exercised here and there, it’s never been regimented, and it was never running, not really. I would do yoga, work the elliptical machine, ride a bike. All indoors. Running outside is a completely different animal. I’ve always wanted to become a runner, to train for a marathon, and whether it was laziness, or smoking, or my migraines, I have always found a reason to discourage myself. Then three things converged.

1. We are temporarily living in my old neighborhood where I grew up. One that I’ve mostly avoided as my parents have long since moved out of the south side. One that unequivocally reminds me of Catholic school and its ignominious end.

2. I’m overweight. More so than usual. And my metabolism is slower than congress.

3. I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

Now, I run through distant settings, mirages, places full with childhood memories, with fear, shame, and self-pity. With hope and anxiety and immortality. Ethereal scenes made concrete under my crunching, aching feet, thinking about the strain, the sheer physicality of hurling my jiggling body through space, until I crash into a moment, something someone said, something I said, or did, or was done to me. Ghosts of friendships past. Fingers pointing. Whispers. Derisive laughter. Remembering what it feels like to have a rock thrown at your head. The first metallic taste of betrayal. My tendon then gives out. Frustration. Self-pity. Self-loathing. Looking for a way out. To stop. Retreat. Then I just keep going.

The fantasy is that as I run these bad memories will melt away. Not disappear, but that I can run through them, run toward something that resembles healing.

Much like Comic Crit‘s rendition of Strayed’s journey:

wildThis a spiritual journey. Hiking into the blaze of her grief and then right through it. Beating, scraping, blistering, burning her body with every step. In a pair of boots a size too small. Unshowered. Unkempt. Singing to warn off bears. Stomping into the unknown. Feeling weak. Feeling like a hardass motherfucking Amazonian queen.

I want this.

No, I need this. More of this. I want a spiritual revolution. I want to feel like a hardass motherfucking Amazonian queen.

The bullying from Catholic school isn’t on my mind much (meaning, if we hadn’t moved here, it would barely be on my mind at all), but it is the genesis for a great deal of my insecurity. I want to run through the source, then run through the rest. Which includes the guilt over the possibility of being a bad feminist.

I don’t like being fat. Body shaming is bad. But wanting to be healthy is good.

Feminism is complicated. There are so many inherent contradictions, problems, glass ceilings. For instance, wanting female protagonists to be strong warrior types, but then again, complaining when they don’t have these “masculine attributes” could mean that feminine traits are something negative. Hate femininity as it was bestowed or reclaim it? This is what I feel is at the heart of feminism’s polarization.

Later in the essay, Roxane Gay says, “The most significant problem with essential feminism is how it doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality.” BAM. That’s it. That’s exactly it.

About Cathy Borders

Writer. Book Midwife. The Republic of Letters. Waterline Writers. Omnia Vanitas Review.
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10 Responses to Bad Feminist

  1. whatyoubuild says:

    I think you so perfectly hit upon the conundrum of self-acceptance and yet our continual need as human beings to improve ourselves, in whatever way we perceive we ought to be improved. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself, girlfriend… I think feminism is an ideal and ideals are things we never fully achieve but rather continuously strive towards. If the goal was truly an ending, well, life would get dull fairly quickly! On a related note, I married and kept my maiden name, so as to live up to my feminist roots… and yet, I can’t help but expect my husband to fulfill the things that in our relationship I consider “manly”… So, I’m a baddie, too 😉 Rock on and congrats on the baby!

    • Thank you! That’s really interesting what you say about the means being the ends themselves. How very postmodern of you, and thus, a woman of my heart. Feminism does strive for an impossible ideal; true equality can never be achieved because as long as people are people there will be power struggles. Ideally, there would be more oscillation and less domination though. But I think you’re right, utopia is boring. As a kid I was scared of heaven because of exactly this. In a way, it’s better to be the underdog. It’s more interesting and passionate. Though I am aware that I am still coming from a place of middle class white privilege. And though, like every woman, my struggle with the patriarchy, with rape culture, with discrimination and sexual harassment is real, it’s horrifying, it’s abrasive and frustrating, it’s also heavily theoretical. I have food, shelter, love. This doesn’t mean I can’t complain. I’m digressing though. The many tendrils and facets–some warring, some peaceful–are all extremely interesting. Feminism spends a great deal of time identifying every instance of patriarchal supremacy, and while that will never stop being important and necessary, I think the deconstructions within are as important as the deconstructions outside. After all, this is a search for an identity, one that is authentic and empowered. One that is sincere. This isn’t just about feminism, it’s about existentialism. It’s all entwined, it’s all of a piece. It’s hard not to put pressure on oneself, or at least that is something that’s very difficult for me, but I’m not purely a masochist. I enjoy picking myself apart. It’s what I do. I like finding where I’m hypocritical, because yes, I do all the cooking and my husband does all the handiwork. It’s so gender-specific sometimes I’m embarrassed to admit it. But it works for us. There’s a fat, fuzzy, seductive line between striving and living, and I’m too much of a hedonist to dwell in the former, yelling at myself for all my laziness riding the tides of socialization. So here’s to having our cakes and eating them too! Because why the fuck else would you have cake in the first place if you weren’t planning on eating it? Thanks again!

  2. Fuck healthy. Healthy is boring. Be strong and high. Running achieves both, and I’m utterly addicted. When I’m on the rag, I imagine it red and pulsing — the uterus is a muscle! And running through pain and anxiety, as you said, is just it. I used to hate the violence of running and swam instead. (Well, I still swim, but only in the ocean — which is violent.) Now, I love it; it’s a “fuck you” with each step. You go out in public as ugly, dirty, and sweaty as possible, and whatever people say to you, you ignore. If it’s a catcall, someone calls your name, whatever — you just wave and keep running. I also focus on the wind on my skin and the colors as they pass. I’d be a basketcase without it.

    • I almost don’t want to respond to the perfection of this comment. The uterus is a muscle, red and pulsing and bleeding onto the page. I’ve always thought of myself as soft–not weak–but fluid, formless, chaotic like a violent ocean. And I loved it. I love it. I wear like an insignia: my house crest: the red sea of Solaris. But lately I’ve been fantasizing about the “fuck you” hard and heavy, wanting to take shape, cut glass, jut out and make myself the obstacle. I think running will take me here. I’m learning to rely on this high, for so long I’ve dwelled in synthetics. I’ve been feeling it’s time to grow up. It’s time to become a mountain. I can still be an ocean. I just want to experience more. I want to feel it all. Right now I’m mostly feeling shin splints and hip pain, but no one said it would be easy. (If you’ll allow me to end on such a cliché.) ❤

  3. Beauty is skin deep~ Happiness, self confidence and pride are priceless! And THAT is beautiful!

  4. Tara says:

    I love this. Thank you.

  5. I came across this blog through Kelsey. I love your writing and your sense of humour. We might have different perspectives at times, and I could strike you as a very, very bad feminist.
    About the weight issue I do not have much to say, but from the photos you are really beautiful. I hope you find your balance.

    • I blush. Thank you. I find discussions about the duality of feminism to be so fascinating because so much of feminism deals with the muck of men (they’re dominance; the rape culture they’ve created; their acts of violence and oppression; etc.) that it’s nice to bracket that and discuss the war within. Because in the end where does that leave women? To me, the glass ceiling isn’t really about soaring to complete equality, it’s about answering the question: to reject what is feminine because it was created in the negative, as a relation to what it is not? Or to reappropriate and own, flaunt, and discuss the positives of femininity? I fall into the latter camp. But mostly because I believe gender works on a sliding scale (as does everything, really), but a scale that isn’t hierarchized. Strength is strength. It’s everywhere. It wears different masks and fights different battles for everyone. To let masculinity own that word is as stupid as letting religious people own the word “marriage”. All that being said, I’m still working on where I begin and socialization ends. I think it will be a lifelong study.

      P.S. Your blog is beautiful. I’m eager to explore it.

      • I believe after you that gender works on a sliding scale. We all have yin and yang within, there is no need for hierarchies. Now the balance should be redressed and yes, we should flaunt the feminine.
        From what I see you have all the talent in the world to be a great writer, like an essayist on social issues perhaps. I just love your choice of words, they are always so fresh.

  6. Thank you so much! Actually, I write fiction. This blog is more of a hobby but I am not opposed to possible expansion in genre someday.

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