When I was nineteen, I wrote an entry on Feministing’s community blog called Myths Regarding Feminism Among the Younger Generation. Recently, I found that someone had copy and pasted this blog entry into a forum about feminist news in 2011, and it stirred quite the response about what feminism actually means and whether these are actually myths or truths. This discovery was the incentive for me to revisit this topic, four years later. Although now I would tweak some of these myths to represent my growing knowledge base about feminism (for example, avoiding the word “purity” from Myth # 3 which can be tied to the realm of slut-shaming), I recognize that this discussion is still extremely relevant to my writing about self-care for young women.
My book, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Self-Care, is geared towards the target population of young women. I can say confidently that this book could not have been written without feminism. As a marginalized woman of color who comes from a culture that promotes slut-shaming and restricts women’s choices, I personally found feminism to be my guiding light in making empowering choices for myself. Feminism helped me to deconstruct the restrictive “rules” I learned in childhood within the context of a Bangladeshi family. This convinces me that a woman’s engagement in her own self-care, theoretically, cannot exist without fundamental feminist principles.
This is because feminism puts forth the “bold” notion that women can and should be able to prioritize themselves in a world that socializes them to be the caretakers for others. They now have more choices and options in how they lead their lives, how they wish to form relationships, what careers they pursue, and what dreams and ambitions they chase. Even if you shy away from the label of “feminist,” you have to acknowledge that your present choices and options are in fact, a result of the feminist movement. Feminism also means that self-care for women is not a luxury but a necessity. All human beings need to engage in self-care, but I believe feminism is especially needed in order to encourage women, who are often told to forsake their needs to meet the needs of others and be people-pleasing, to refocus on this.
Unfortunately, some people don’t want to be associated with feminism despite the empowering opportunities it can provide. While that’s a personal choice, I believe it’s a somewhat misguided one. Society’s resistance to feminism seems to stem from a fear of the stigmatizing stereotype of who a feminist is (as seen in some of the myths I discuss in my old post). Let me be clear: I don’t believe in the “cookie-cutter” feminist. Yes, there are feminists who follow the stereotype of feminists, but there are also feminists who don’t. Feminists come from all different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives. They are men, women, transgendered and gender-defying. They can be of any race, ethnicity and nationality. They can indeed be “feminine,” “masculine,” a mixture of both or a mixture that doesn’t fit into either; they can choose not to subscribe to these categories at all to identify themselves. They can care about their appearance, want to be “sexy,” be indifferent, dress in whatever way they choose however they feel like it at the moment. They can use reverse discourse to take back and reinterpret demeaning words that have been historically been used to disempower women, or they can choose not to speak those words at all. They can be able-bodied, disabled, or have a disability that’s not always visible. They can be highly sex-positive; they can be abstinent; they can fall somewhere in the middle; this can change at different stages of their lives depending on their circumstances. They can be spiritual, religious, atheist, agnostic, and so forth. Even more controversially, some feminists may disagree on certain key movements of the feminist movement like the pro-choice movement.
What, then, unites them? Fundamentally, a principle that society should acknowledge the full humanity of women and recognize them as citizens that deserve equal rights. Most importantly of all, feminism means acknowledging the full humanity of women. I want to stress this both in the way that women are viewed as well as how feminists view each other. Men are viewed in a more holistic light than women in this society; yes, they do face stifling gender roles as well and pressures to be highly masculine. They are also, to some extent, objectified in terms of how much money they make, their ability to provide and how physically strong they are. Deconstructing these gender roles and including the male experience should be included and discussed in feminist discourse. Yet often, men are not just judged by these characteristics alone; their whole package is often considered – intelligence, sense of humor, personality, among other factors. Women, however, are highly dehumanized and objectified by the media and in turn, are socialized to focus on their appearance (another factor that complements their internalization of people-pleasing behavior). Studies even show that women tend to derive more of their self-worth from interpersonal relationships – something I believe is a largely (if not completely) influenced by this type of socialization.
Acknowledging the full humanity of women in feminism also goes both ways. It means feminists or those interested in feminism must recognize other feminists as human beings, capable of flaw, fallacy, “guilty pleasures,” and qualities that may oppose stereotypical feminism. Although feminism is tied to this principle of women having equal rights, it is also bounded in the philosophy that women have the right to make their personal choices. Feminists shouldn’t condemn or otherwise pressure other feminists for making certain choices in their lives so long as these choices are not violating the rights of others; that defeats the purpose of feminism.
Just because you as a feminist don’t believe in the institution of marriage, for example, doesn’t mean you have a right to condemn another feminist who might. Just because you believe a man holding the door for you is an outrageous act of sexism doesn’t mean there won’t be another feminist who doesn’t see it as a big deal and prioritizes other feminist issues. One feminist might focus on issues of domestic violence and street harassment; another might tackle the daily microaggressions like dating rituals or “chivalry” as a part of their activism. Sometimes, we may tackle all of these issues. We need activists and discussions on a variety of social justice issues, not just one.
We have to acknowledge our differences as feminists, celebrate them, and challenge ourselves to learn from them, because feminism and self-care, paradoxically enough, means acknowledging that our feminist identity isn’t the only part of our identity. We must acknowledge the intersectionality among our identities which include our culture, race, ethnicity, nationality, personality, religion, dating patterns, beliefs and values about marriage and sex, personal style, and a host of other intersecting identities that may even conflict with mainstream feminist identities.
This “conflict” should not be condemned; it should be explored. It can open up exciting dialogues about what feminism means to us personally and how that compares to the way the movement is working now, both at a domestic and international level. In my opinion, this diversity is a blessing. We have a lot to learn from each other on this journey. From men, women, and transgendered people. From ardent feminists, from people who claim to hate feminists, from people who don’t understand feminism and from people who want to learn more about it. Starting this dialogue is so relevant and is so crucial to the power of the movement and the understanding of its goals.
On an individual level, feminism means taking care of all of these complex aspects of our identity and recognizing that feminism is only one of them. Engaging in proper self-care means giving due attention to all the facets of our identity, and not just who we are “supposed” to be, how we’re “supposed” to act as feminists. We must use feminism to broaden our horizons rather than stifle us; if we do the latter rather than the former, we defeat the purpose of feminism and we only perpetuate the myths about it.
Feminism is about giving us the choice to engage in healthy self-care; it’s about giving us a right to our own unique identity; it’s about giving us a variety of options to choose from. It’s about recognizing our humanity as well; we cannot be perfect, cookie-cutter feminists in every facet of our lives, and that’s okay, so long as we’re open to understanding why. I’ve met “feminists” who claim to be all for women’s rights, but tear each other down for making personal choices they disagree with or condemn them for not following a certain script when using their voices on important issues. Being feminists means we support other women in making the choices that empower them, not judge them and deprive them of the right to do so.
When we approach feminism from a perspective of this openness, understanding and compassion, we open ourselves up to self-care in healthier and more realistic ways. Sometimes, what we want, how we feel, how we think, and what we know will be at odds with one another. Sometimes, they will be perfectly in sync. People are messy, complicated, nuanced and contradictory; so are life circumstances, sociopolitical movements, and the uncomfortable truths hiding behind the labels that threaten to pigeonhole us. As I wrote four years ago, being feminists doesn’t mean we are any less human or fallible. The exciting part about being a feminist is accepting that right to be human, embracing the freedom to be ourselves, taking care of ourselves holistically, and no longer being ashamed to take on the F word or the rich, complex identity that accompanies it.
Copyright © 2015 by Shahida Arabi.
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Shahida Arabi is a graduate student at Columbia University, the former President of NOW-NYU and the author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Self-Care, a bestselling Kindle book also available in print. Her interests include psychology, sociology, education, gender studies and mental health advocacy. You can check out her new blog, Self-Care Haven, for topics related to mindfulness, mental health, narcissistic abuse and recovery from emotional trauma.
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