‘My feminism really began after reading The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf. The book is far from revolutionary by my standards now, but when I read it my world was changed forever. This was years after I had been involved in skepticism, and years after becoming an atheist, just barely into my twenties. The difficult questions being raised by her work felt awfully familiar to me, she sounded just like my skeptic and atheist friends who were critical of ideas that were supposedly too sacred to question.
The book didn’t just make me think, it made me angry. I had spent years suffering for ideas I found out were totally fabricated, and designed specifically to make me feel horrible about myself so someone else could profit from it. I suffered for ideas that elevated the status of men at the expense of women. I compromised my health many times to lose weight, and there was virtually never a time that I gave up constant vigilance against gaining weight. It is a pitiable, tiring way to live, and I had done it for about 7 years at that point. I didn’t suffer as badly as other women I knew, many abused themselves for weight loss but also put up with humiliating (and sometimes painful) cosmetic procedures to rid themselves of hair, wrinkles, and other normal human features. When I was a teenager my mother got acid poured on her face to sear the wrinkles off of it. A surgeon, someone who pledges to do no harm to patients, did that to her for money. It echoed so perfectly what popular culture told me about appearance and beauty that it wasn’t even remarkable to me, it was normal for women to hate their bodies and faces. It was so normal that the violence inherent in all of it was invisible. Such a hatred for my body meant seeing me, all of me, as a thing instead of a person. Other women had chipped away at their sense of self exactly as I had.
I wasn’t transformed over night, but I did change a lot about myself pretty quickly. Eating like a normal person actually resolves many psychological problems caused by starvation, so I felt much better in general. I grieved for the years I had wasted hurting myself. I grieved for women who were still hurting themselves. I began to see that I had worth as a person. I was worth listening to and nourishing. I got help from a friend in college and enrolled in some classes, something I never thought I would do. Feminism helped me feel like a real person. I thought to myself, “men get to feel this way all the time, they don’t even have to fight for it. Every woman deserves to feel like they matter.” I wanted more people to know what I knew.
The more I thought about and researched the way women suffer for beauty, and the way men gain from that, I began to see some interesting parallels with religion and scams of all sorts. I became eager to discuss feminism with people in the skeptics groups I frequented. I felt as though I had discovered some new interesting intellectual territory, and was excited to see what other people thought. So many friends had used their intellects to impress me in the past with analysis of various issues. Surely, a great discussion would ensue.
I could not have been more wrong. I was met at every turn with dismissal and embarrassingly fallacious reasoning. What had happened to the intellectual honesty, the curiousness, of the people I knew? Why was no one outraged at the poor quality of arguments being used to dismiss my findings outright? I never expected everyone to agree with me, but I expected the level of discourse afforded to creationists and homeopaths. It became apparent that most of the people in my circle were… men. They didn’t want to think about the things I brought up, and they all helped each other avoid confronting problems with sexism. I became disillusioned with these groups, even though I still strongly supported the stated principles of all of the groups. I still believe in those things, and believe feminism is inherent in critical thought about problems affecting women and girls.
It got much more troubling to me once I began to research things like rape and sexual harassment. I realized that I had either been subject to sexual harassment, witnessed it against another woman, at every job I have ever worked at. This was true of virtually every woman I knew. The ones who spoke up usually got in trouble or were ignore. I realized that sexual abuse was a common experience for women as well. I knew from personal experience how little the judicial system cares if you decide to report being raped. I reported having been raped as a teenager. I gave the police contact information for other women who I knew who had been abused by the same guy, and they never even called them to collect statements. They did question me repeatedly and gave me a card to call someone for psychological help, as if I wanted to discuss what had happened even more. That was all that ever happened. People I told outside of the police had mixed reactions, a lot of men simply thought I was a liar or a whore, and it made dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse much more difficult. I saw these attitudes mirrored all over society. Outside of feminism there was not much concern about these issues at all.
I got more involved with feminist groups, spaces that were much safer for women, and got introduced to feminism that dealt with more than the issues affecting economically privileged white women. I became interested in how racism and colonialism functioned. I am white and didn’t want to do to people of color what men had done to me. I wanted to listen instead. I made a point of finding people with experiences very different from my own, and trying to really understand their perspective. It was amazingly difficult but it helped me develop a lot of maturity, and to also see that social justice was a struggle for the majority of people in the world. I saw how we could all support each other. This is something I still try to do, something central to my feminism today.
Eventually I wanted to write, something that was outside the realm of possibility to me just a few years before. I had come a long way from thinking I was not worth listening to. Since reading The Beauty Myth I’ve discovered some troubling things about Naomi Wolf’s beliefs, but I will always be grateful to her for writing that book. I will always be grateful to other brave women who write, like bell hooks and Andrea Dworkin, for helping to expand my understanding of the world we women live in. My life had improved so much because of individuals who had decided that it was important to spread a message of truth. They wrote despite the ridicule and insults, they wrote because it was too important to let other people stop them. I want to be that person for someone else out there.’
(Dear fellow feminists, Skeptifem has shared her story with us, why she is a feminist. You can share your stories with us too! -Taslima Nasreen)