Last week I meant to write a piece for International Women’s Day but became stunted once again by the anxiety I feel writing about major issues when my own experience is narrow, privileged and often embarrassing or unpleasant to write about. In light or in spite of this, I’m going to write something anyway.
I experience waves of judgment, anger and hostility to other women quite often when they write about “Women’s Issues”, and I feel very conflicted by these negative, reactive emotions. I wonder whether they are a result of a feeling of shame and embarrassment that has accompanied me throughout my life, from the horrors of puberty to rushing to Boots to get the morning after pill at uni. Even now I watch my cursor blinking at me for a good minute after writing that last sentence, trying to decide if the point I’m trying to make really needs a flippant reference to those regret-filled pilgrimages up Brighton high street, or whether these types of anecdotes are gratuitous, off-putting, or isolating for the fragile masculinities of so many of my contemporaries (bless them). I wonder, too, if I’m envious of other women’s abilities to articulate and share their thoughts when I’m too embarrassed to accept my own. I admire women who are brave enough to talk about their experiences, but on International Women’s Day I found myself feeling more critical, more apprehensive, and more defensive than I had planned.
My own feminism is wrought by the way I’ve been treated by men and women alike. I was relentlessly shamed for being a ‘slut’ throughout my last two years of secondary school to the extent that I was spat on walking to class, and when I read my first article on slut-shaming four years later in my second year of university I felt overwhelmed and engulfed by anger. I was angry that my childhood had been cut short by people’s perceptions of my sex life when I was too young to understand my own sexuality, let alone deal with an onslaught of harassment from my equally uneducated peers. I remember logging onto Bebo (RIP Bebo, you are not missed) back in the day and seeing one girls’ ‘about me’ section which read : “did you hear about Laura Bishop, what a slut”. I’m still so ashamed of this time in my life that I’m reluctant to tell people about it in case they ask, “but were you a slut though?”. The truth is I was 15 and shaving my hairless legs every day of the week in case the girls in PE made fun of me, not so that boys would want to have sex with me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy male attention because rest assured I did and do, but the fear of shame, judgment, exploitation and the need for acceptance that comes out of this kind of discourse runs deep and it pervades the entire spectrum of social life, from platonic friends to romantic relationships.
I know that bullying is part and parcel of growing up and that you can’t get along with everyone, but I also know that if children were taught not to demean girls (and women) based on their perceived sexualities/activities then it may not cut to the quick of someone’s identity in the way that I experienced as a child. Disrespecting someone, disregarding someone because they are a “slut” reduces them as a person—it objectifies and nullifies them. It made me feel debased in a way that has continued well into my adult life, and it really bothers me to see that young girls are still living in fear of their phones and computers in the way that I was. I am not, of course, implying that the difficulties facing young girls at school outweigh those facing young boys. Gender stereotypes affect everyone negatively, regardless of identity. Feminism is, at the end of the day, a human issue and not a female one.
Feminism has provided me with both a means of empowerment and a means of checking myself and my privilege. By engaging with feminist voices from Virginia Woolf to Muriel Spark to Beyonce to Caitlin Moran I’ve managed to cultivate a way of owning my femininity without sacrificing my sense of self-worth, and of understanding the importance of solidarity and intersectionality in a time where identifying as a woman can be dangerous in a very real sense. There is no reason why this education should have been offered to me so long after I needed it, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be taught in schools. When we’re teaching children about periods and armpit hair we should teach them about consent and about their rights over their bodies and their choices. Being a woman should be a space of shared interest and solidarity and not of sexual competition (Duh). In the immortal words of Mrs Norbury in Mean Girls: “you all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores.”