“A diamond doesn’t start out polished and shining. It once was nothing...
“Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.” ~ Bell Hooks
I used to be a bad feminist.
Like, a really bad feminist.
In that I called myself a feminist, because I thought that’s what everybody did who thought that women had as much right to vote, and go to school, and own their own things as men, but further than that I wasn’t actually a feminist at all.
In my defence I didn’t start off with any role models. My parents think feminism harmed women even in so far as they don’t recognise equal employment rights as being a good thing. They think that the goals of feminism should have started and ended with the suffragette movement. They don’t believe that women should hold positions of authority. And my dad referred to the man in any heterosexual relationship, heterosexual relationships being the only kind he recognises, as ‘the main one’.
But they didn’t like me dating a Muslim boy because they believe that Islam is oppressive to women. They know this because it says so in the Quran. A book they’ve never read.
They were more okay with dating a Sikh boy because there have never been any Sikh suicide bombers. What do you think? Google it.
Anyway, my parents were anti-feminist, my sister aspired to be Malibu Barbie, and if any of my extended family were any more enlightened I certainly never noticed.
I grew up on a street with forty-six houses in seven of which it was well-known that the men beat their wives. Everyone knew this because they’d heard the fighting and the screaming, and seen the bruising. And everyone blamed the women for not suffering in absolute silence and thus making them have to be aware of the situation.
But then at this point it still wasn’t a criminal offence to rape your wife in this country.
Anyway, I knew that I didn’t agree with most of that but as I got older I didn’t really think about it much. Because nobody had ever made me feel like I was unequal, or consciously unequal might be a better way of putting it, because looking back now I can definitely see where I was being treated unequally. And because I was benefiting from the status quo.
I was really pretty when I was younger.
Like, random men bought me bottles of champagne and randomly paid for my groceries when I was next in line at the supermarket pretty.
And, like, random women never used to waste their time waiting for me to speak before making up their minds that they definitely didn’t like me pretty.
Except that I never used to spend all that much time with other women. And the most of the women I did spend time with where just like me.
Because for most of my life most of my friends have been male, and most of the courses I’ve taken have been male dominated, as have most of the activities – debating, Muay Thai boxing, jujitsu, local politics – I’ve participated in, and my first real job was in an ultra competitive, almost exclusively male industry.
So, anyway, being pretty and constantly surrounded by – for the most part heterosexual – men I for a while became used to being the centre of attention, getting everything my own way all the time, and being treated as though I were the most witty, attractive, and interesting person in whatever room I happened to walk in to.
And while this validation was more than making up for the lack of it that I’d received from my father - and is still chiefly the reason that I’m not half as damaged by the relationship that I had with my parents than I might have been – not to mention giving me an ego the size of Jupiter, it was easy to dismiss the casual sexism that came along with it as being trivial, irrelevant, or simply meaningless banter.
And I’ve been good at working and at fighting. And for the most part this has come easily to me.
And so because I was young, and thoughtless, and unaware I couldn’t imagine why it should be any harder for other women than it was for me; or if I could I thought the solution was for them to be more like me and the women I knew and less like, well, ‘other women’. I was equal just because I had decided to be and everyone else simply needed to do the same.
Shamefully it took seven years of working in social welfare law, involvement in an excruciatingly frustrating attempt to set up a refuge for male victims of domestic violence, and witnessing the bizarre and hurtful reactions of people who I had simply assumed would be supportive after I was attacked before I decided that I should probably become a proper feminist.
Even then I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it.
What I saw of feminism and other feminists didn’t sit well with me.
The only feminism that I’d seen, the kind of feminism that you can’t avoid even if you aren’t consciously looking for it and seeking to learn about it, was filled with rage and aggression. And I was repelled by it.
And I told myself that this was because the approach of those angry feminists was off putting.
In reality I was scared by them and didn’t want to admit it.
Scared because their anger too closely resembled the burning rage of my own that I’d spent the best part of a decade trying to suppress and refusing to acknowledge because I’d thought that was the only way to deal with it. Scared because they were angry for all the same reasons, big and small, as I was. And scared because if all this anger on the part of all these women was legitimate then I’d been doing life wrong, evaluating the world incorrectly – and then I wasn’t as equal as I thought I was.
I still try my best to limit my exposure to this kind of feminism. I’m still only just beginning to work through dealing with my own anger about the things that have happened to me as an individual and that on its own has been playing havoc with my mental and emotional stability. I find that if I spend any significant amount of time engaging with anyone else’s anger about the same issues, not mention collective anger about women’s shared experiences, it becomes too overwhelming and triggering so that I can’t evaluate what I think and feel about it rationally.
On one level I feel slightly guilty about that but for the most part I think I have to take care of my own broken brain before I can start worrying about the rest of the world. Incidentally I’m completely comfortable with righteous anger on any other set of issues.
But then all this mental health stuff happened.
And as a part of addressing it I’ve had to work through how I feel about my gender and sexuality and acknowledge the way this has contributed to my sense of identity and my place in the world.
And there’s no way you can do all that while continuing to avoid thinking about the issue of feminism.
And in thinking about feminism I finally, belated, arrived upon the realisation that believing yourself to be equal isn’t even half the battle. You don’t become equal simply by declaring that you are.
Being equally, really equal, means that you get treated equally.
And I haven’t been and I continue not to be because the society, not to mention the world, that I live in does not consider women to be equal to men.
I’ve got half the jobs I’ve ever had because of the way I look. Which means that those jobs weren’t open to women who didn’t look like me or to any women at all on merit. And this has surprised nobody. Because there’s still a large enough swathe of the workforce where it’s culturally even if not legally acceptable to treat women as other than equal.
When I lived in the flat almost every time I went anywhere or came back from anywhere on my own I was followed and harassed. Until I had to develop a pattern of walking past the casino round the corner every time I went out, even if it wasn’t on my way, so that the bouncers could lose the jerks for me. That happened because there are still a huge number of people who are culturally conditioned to believe that they’re entitled to do that regardless of how unpleasant and unsafe it is for me because I’m a woman and how I feel doesn’t matter. The fact that the rest of the time those people don’t mix in the same circles as me doesn’t make this any less of a social problem. Can you imagine how those men must treat the women who are unfortunate enough to be in their lives every day?
A state that considers women equal wouldn’t systematically cover up the sexual abuse of vulnerable women and girls to protect powerful men.
In a state that considered me equal I would be able to report the things that have happened to me with the confidence that something would come of it other than the total destruction of the rest of my mental health.
In a society where everyone believed that I was equal I wouldn’t have spent most of my life refusing to be treated by male doctors because I couldn’t get them to take me seriously because of my gender.
And then in France they’re passing a law that says women can’t wear what they want. In Italy if a woman was wearing jeans it’s not rape. In Nigerian girls are being kidnapped for trying to get an education. In Pakistan they’re being shot. In parts of America women can’t safely access contraception or abortion. And Saudi Arabia is, well, Saudi Arabia.
All of which is worth desiring to change regardless of whether I can find a healthy way to process being angry about it.
So I have embraced the concept of feminism and the idea of myself as being a feminist. A proper one this time.
I’m fine with the idea that I’m an equal but I’m going to keep calling myself a feminist until I can go wherever I want and do whatever I want safely in the knowledge that the rest of the world thinks of me that way as well.
Now I just need to decide what exactly it is that I’m going to do about it.
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” ~ Robert Frost
So I have a few posts in the pipeline where I’m struggling to express myself in quite the way I want and I’m a bit too preoccupied this week to attempt to resolve that, so in the meantime I’ve borrowed this idea from Tim over at Short Stories and Sustenance.
Three Things About Yourself:
- I’ve been shot at. It was in Lilongwe in Malawi. It was a case of mistaken identity, or crossed wires, I’m not entirely sure which. Some armed men thought that I had stolen something when, obviously, I hadn’t and so they chased after me and then fired at me. At the time I had absolutely no idea what was going on so I just ran away. My training group at my new job thought that I should tell more people this as they decided that it was one of the most interesting things about me.
- If the only ‘meal’ I could eat for the rest of my life was hummus, flat bread, and balsamic vinegar I’d be perfectly content.
- I went to see the psychiatrist today. She diagnosed me with some new things. So, now apparently in addition to complex post traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder I also have generalised anxiety disorder (no shit…) and borderline personality disorder (I haven’t yet processed what I’m supposed to do with this particular piece of information).
Three Things That Scare You:
- Spiders. Which is unfortunate since my house seems to have been built on some ancient spider mating ground or gathering place. I’ve killed at least two dozen of them today and I’m still surrounded by the fuckers. It’s no wonder that no matter how many of them I clean up the house is constantly covered in huge cobwebs that make it look like nobody has lived here in forever.
- Boredom. It bothers me when I haven’t done anything worth talking about for even any short period of time. I start to panic that I’m wasting my life, and that I’m going to become too uninteresting so that no one will like me anymore.
- Driving. I hate it, absolutely hate it. So I just don’t do it.
Three Of Your Every Day Essentials:
- Like Tim, I can’t live without my WiFi. I don’t need the internet for work but the vast majority of my information, entertainment and communication comes via the internet. I tend to panic if it’s not there.
- Tea. Caffeinated tea. I drink ridiculous amounts of tea and I’m well and truly addicted to caffeine. If I don’t get enough of it I’ll get in a mood with myself if there’s no one else around. I once tried to do one of those stupid detoxes, and at the time the only bad things in my diet were the caffeine and sugar in my tea, the withdrawal symptoms genuinely made me feel like I was dying.
- Sleep. I don’t function well if I don’t get to sleep properly.
Three Of Your Favourite Hobbies:
- Blogging. Obviously.
- Watching too much television. Although that’s a relatively new one. When I lived on my own I hardly ever watched TV.
- Is travelling a hobby?
Three Careers You’re Considering/Have Considered:
- Between the ages of birth and fourteen I wanted to be a vet. Then I had to pick the subjects that I was going to study for GCSE and A Level and I didn’t want to do any more sciences than I absolutely had to, so becoming a vet was out.
- I’d love to be a writer but there’s zero chance of that ever happening. I don’t have the confidence to even try for a start.
- I’m considering my options if I were to carry on working in finance in the long term. The private sector has so far been much more understanding and accommodating of my mental health problems than the charity/public sector organisations that I’ve worked for, they seem to be fine with it because I’m good at my job. I never got any credit for being good at my job when I worked for the housing charity.
Three Books You Have Recently Read:
- The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides
- FT Essential Guide to Negotiations: How to Achieve Win: Win Outcomes - Geof Cox
- The Lady In The Looking Glass - Virginia Woolf
Three Things You Are Working On, Writing Wise:
- I’m trying to make an effort to blog more consistently; I’m not doing very well, I know.
- There are a lot of things lately that I’ve wanted to work through by writing about them but don’t feel as though I can without encroaching on the privacy of other people, so I’ve started tentatively working on examining them fictionally. I don’t have much practice in writing fiction. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything worth reading.
- Erm, I don’t know other than that. I suppose I need to update my CV now that I have a new job, does that count?
Three Things That You Want To Do Before You Die:
- Most of my current mental health problems essentially boil down to the fact
- That I can think of literally nothing in answer to this question.
- Except possibly to overcome the permanent feeling of fatigue that I’ve experienced for the last few months.
Three Celebrity Idols:
- Helen Bamber
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Katherine Hepburn
- “I have no regrets. I wouldn’t have lived my life the way I did if I was going to worry about what other people were going to say.” ~ Ingrid Bergman
- “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ~ Anne Lamott
- Pixie: I really hate cows. My Life As An Imposter: Note to self: hire a cow.
“Depression isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you’ve been strong for too long.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
“The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about.”
“The struggle you’re in today is developing the strength you need for tomorrow. Don’t give up.” ~ Robert Tew
“You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” ~ A. A. Milne
“If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.” ~ Maya Angelou
So, as a person with a set of mental health issues I follow a lot of mental health orientated blogs, twitter accounts and Facebook pages. And these blogs, twitter accounts and Facebook pages often post a lot of similar memes.
Now at first I mostly just scrolled passed the memes; for someone who has a commonplace book filled with favourite quotations I’m surprisingly not that fond of memes, but as time’s gone on I’ve began to find them gradually more and more annoying. Until it got to the point that they annoyed me so much that I thought that I should sit down and examine what it was about them that I find so annoying.
And I came up with this.
My pet hate is the one people are forever posting on Facebook about how:
“Depression isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you’ve been strong for too long.”
And I’ve decided that the reason it makes me grind my teeth every time I read it is that it just seems so insufferably smug.
Like the person who wrote it, and the people who are continually reposting it onto seemingly every corner of the internet, genuinely believe that they’re somehow braver – and by implication better – as a result of living with their depression than everyone else.
And it’s the same to a greater or lesser extent with all the others.
I appreciate that people are sharing these memes with the aim of supporting people who have depression to stop feeling guilty about it and to educate those who don’t have depression so that they understand that it isn’t about weakness or sufferers not trying hard enough; but it always feels to me like what they’re actually doing is almost romanticising depression. It’s as though they’re trying to make out that people with depression are somehow ‘special’, ‘heroic’ or ‘other’. I don’t think that’s a healthy approach to take to any sort of illness.
It’s the same angle that’s taken in all those cartoon strips floating around that attempt to explain anxiety by portraying suffers as special little snowflakes who just need to be handled with a lot more care than regular people.
I don’t have depression because I’m any more or less strong than anyone else. I don’t have anxiety because I’m any more or less delicate.
I have depression and anxiety due to some combination of a bunch of horrific things happening and my brain never having worked quite the way it should have done to start with.
There’s nothing ‘brave’ about spending two days barricaded in your bedroom with furniture piled in front of the door because the person you live with is away and your crazy brain has convinced you that there are dangerous intruders in the house who are lying in wait for you downstairs.
There’s nothing ‘special’ about a trip to the emergency room to have your arms patched back together because you’ve sliced them up so good that you can’t make them stop spurting with blood and you’re half way convinced that this time you’ve managed to hit a major artery.
And while, as I say, I appreciate that these attempts at destigmatisation are well-meaning, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to suggest that there is. I think that these memes are creating a new narrative about what a mental illness looks like, and who a person who suffers with their mental health is ,which in its own way is just as unhelpful as the one it’s seeking to replace.
Tell people with depression and anxiety that they’re special and brave and they’re likely to feel even worse about themselves when they can’t manage to function properly; because on top of being able to function properly they’re now also supposed to be special and brave, and they’re almost certainly not going to feel special or brave – they do have depression and anxiety after all - so, oh great, there’s something else that everyone else is able to do that they’ve just failed at.
I also don’t think that this romaticisation is helpful to anyone around the patient either – family, friends, coworkers – I’m maybe not just talking about memes here but the entire campaign that the memes spring from. And that’s because it doesn’t begin to convey just how painful, disheartening, and down right ugly it can be to have to take care of someone who suffers from moderate to severe depression and anxiety.
I think that the only way that we’re going to genuinely tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness is if we’re completely honest about the bad times, and just how bad they can be, rather than insisting that we’re just like everyone except that we’re a bit more antisocial and we sometimes find some parts of life a little bit harder.
Stigma in any area of life arises because many people are incredibly easily scared by things that they don’t understand. These memes annoy me because I think that they’re likely to make people more rather than less afraid when a genuine, unsanitised mental illness manifests itself either in their own mind or that of someone close to them.