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Finding the Balance Between Empowerment and Judgement: My Personal Struggle With Internalised Misogyny

Posted by on September 12, 2017

Sometimes people have wondered how I can be so open and public about my life – certain things that they would see as too private to share with the world. Part of it is my autism – I don’t have the same personal boundaries that neurotypical people have. But my primary motivation these days is a desire to help raise awareness and acceptance for people who are “different.” I’m in the privileged position of being white, cisgender, and middle-class – I have fewer possible negative consequences for my actions than that of someone who has less social status in society. That doesn’t mean I’m free from consequence altogether – I can/will be and have been judged for other labels I carry, from female, to bisexual, to polyamorous, to autistic (even before I knew I was autistic, my autistic behaviours led to being negatively judged). I figure, if I can be a voice for those other labels, and still be seen as human, and accepted, it can help pave the way for other minority voices to be seen the same way. And I try to share my experiences without preaching, because I’ve felt judged as “not good enough” when I’ve been preached at, and I don’t want to judge where someone else is at. It can take a lot of personal, internal work to get to a point of acceptance where you realise how your behaviour has negatively impacted another person before you can work on changing your behaviours. But that doesn’t happen when someone gets defensive because they feel harshly judged.

So You Want a Job solo promo shot

 

Anyhow, the main reason I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject matter recently is because, after a recent photo shoot for my improv show, “So You Want a Job,” I asked my husband to take some sexy photos of me. This wasn’t the first time he’s done a sexy photo shoot with me, but it’s probably the first time when I’ve considered how much I might want to share pictures like that in public, why, and am I brave enough for the potential consequences? If you’re Facebook friends with me, you may have seen some of my contemplation there, and I’ve edited some of that content to include as part of my discussion here.

Also, there’s a wonderful quote in the film Home Again by Reese Witherspoon’s character, which I saw this past weekend, about how “Men just make decisions, whereas women think about the consequences.” I connected with that a lot, especially in the context of thinking about the subject of this blog post. When it comes to a lot of decisions, especially things relating to public perception and image, I spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences. Because as a woman, I feel like I am more likely to live with those potential consequences for a lot longer than a man might. It’s like how they say, a female director could make a flop of a movie, and that would be a career ender for her, but that’s not the same for a male director. Anything I say or do in public may be subject to scrutiny, or worse, online harassment from men who disagree with what I say, or just want an excuse to “debate” something that doesn’t even affect them. I’m presently comfortable living in a space of obscurity, because I’m not high profile enough to be attacked, as the only people who tend to read what I have to say already know me and often agree with me, or are at least open to listening to my perspective, so I’ve managed to escape that kind of harassment, but it is something I’m consciously aware of as I speak out. Will I eventually have the kind of voice that more strangers listen to? Am I putting my life at risk as a result? My family’s? (Or does having sons remove some of the sting, because receiving that kind of abuse will give me more reason to raise them against behaving that way themselves?)

The other topic where I think a lot about potential consequences is when it comes to my romantic relationships — like how I prefer not to go down the path of secret relationships any more, because of the effect that can have on my mental health, but also how I tend to limit my experiences because I don’t want to be perceived as a slut. Being seen as a woman who enjoys sex seems to open more doors to receiving sexual harassment, but I hate that perspective, because that’s victim blaming thinking.

As a result, though, I find that I admire and celebrate women who don’t worry about that. The level of bravery that it must take to be truly themselves like that in public, despite the societal, victim-blaming view that women who embrace that side of themselves are “asking for it.” Slut-shaming is terrible and I hate internalising that because it does prevent me from making choices I might actually want to make. It’s internalised misogyny, and I don’t know how to escape it, because the societal view hasn’t really changed much over the last couple of decades. In fact, it often feels like it’s been going backwards.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the sexy pictures I asked my husband to take recently, and all the shoots he’s done over the years. It’s a rare opportunity for me to embrace a side of myself where I can appreciate what I look like. In a world where the media and advertising tells me that I’m not good enough. Not attractive enough. Not skinny enough.

When my love language is “words of affirmation,” I want to be able to share things that make me feel good about myself, because then I’m more likely to receive that attention I desire. But on the other hand, if I dared to share those sorts of pictures with the world, rather than privately with individuals, then that opens up another can of worms. Because then I’m an attention seeker. A slut. A whore. A whole host of labels with negative connotations that I can’t begin to know how to embrace because they’re used to keep women down, in their place. Shaming them for just being brave enough to express who they truly are.

As much as I believe in the importance of not worrying about the judgements of others, I acknowledge that this is an area where I still hold back. Sure, I can be a publicly open bisexual polyamorous autistic woman, but can I do that and embrace the desire to be truly seen? To risk even more possible negative judgement?

Do I hold back from opportunities I want to embrace purely because I don’t want to see myself as a slut, let alone let anyone else see me that way? Why do I consistently see that as a bad thing for me, when I no longer judge other women for exerting those freedoms themselves?

I so very much want to embrace this other side of myself that I’ve tucked away for years. This sexy side that I don’t let myself believe I’m allowed to be because I’m a mother and what lessons am I teaching my kids if do? What will they think if they came across the pictures? The Internet is forever.

On the tame side of my sexy photo shoot, underneath my So You Want a Job host outfit

 

A very good friend of mine who is attracted to me tends to be on the receiving end of many of my sexy photographs, because of my desire for those words of affirmation. When I sent him the latest batch, he joked that I should be promoting a show called “So You Want a Blow Job.” My first reaction was simple amusement at how he’d cleverly altered the title of my improv show and I secretly wished I’d thought of it myself. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to embrace it as an actual thing, and somehow develop it into a feminist improv show about how to be more respectful to women.

There seems to be this public perception that an attractive/sexy woman can only be appreciated physically, and so her sex appeal is her only worth. That there’s no smarts underneath the exterior layer, or if there is, it doesn’t need to be heard. On this note, I guess my thoughts for this blog post started a month ago, when I shared some of my feelings in this area on Facebook:

 

I dislike the idea that women are only as valuable as their physical attractiveness. It makes me want to get dressed up and be part of photo shoots so people can compliment my appearance. It makes me want to be an object of desire.

I dislike the idea that if a woman uses her sex appeal, then that’s all she’s worth anything for. To be a sex object with no agency. To be used. Or that she’s just upholding the patriarchy/sexism, and can’t possibly be a feminist. It makes me want to shy away from any and all sexual desire. To pretend I have no interest in it until that becomes true.

Though I get compliments on my appearance now (not necessarily often, but certainly a lot more than I used to), I still find this area challenging to navigate. Part of me wishes it was possible for me to have the courage and use my own (limited) sex appeal to sell my brand, my products (books and/or improv shows), and still be valued for my mind, my personality, the person I am, and the skills I have in the areas that interest me. And to not have to worry about getting unwanted comments of desire (or threats, if I’m not interested in the people who give them to me). I hold back in part because I don’t want to be the subject of victim blaming. I also hold back in part because I have a number of family members who follow my activity online, and I have concerns about many of them not wanting to see that side of me. Never mind that my dad has read my novel, which has several sex scenes in it.

I’m more likely to share this side of myself, the side where I feel sexy, with select people when I feel risk is minimised because I’m already close to them. And I know how they feel about me. I desire their compliments and I know they won’t accidentally say something that upsets me.

I don’t know how to share this side of myself with a wider audience and still be unapologetically me.

This perception isn’t one that is only upheld by men in our patriarchal society. It’s also women. We find ourselves in competition with each other, judging ourselves as not as good as, or better than, the next woman. We devalue our own gender for so many reasons, and for what? Does it make us feel better about ourselves? I know in the past I’ve used the phrase “I’m not like other girls,” and though I don’t think it was because I was consciously trying to separate myself from my gender, I did feel a sense of superiority because I’m not the kind of woman who wears make-up every day, and I happened to get along with a decent number of men because of my interests in male-dominated areas (not that it often helped me get into a relationship with them; it was more likely to do the opposite, to be seen as only worthy of friendship, but there I go using language that suggests I think I’m valued more only when someone wants to sleep with me – why do I think that? I have some of the most amazing friendships with people who aren’t sexually attracted to me and I wouldn’t want to live my life without them). If I judged a woman negatively because of her attractive appearance – it was most likely because I felt jealous that I was incapable of looking that good. If I judged a woman as unattractive, it was probably because I wanted to feel better about myself. “Well, I might not be especially attractive, but at least I don’t look like her” kind of thing.

I try to avoid that way of thinking now, because I know how much it can hurt. I have so many amazing women of all different shapes, sizes, colours, and abilities in my life now, and rather than being jealous of the areas they’re successful in that I’m not (or less so), I choose to celebrate them and be thankful I have such amazing, incredible women in my life now. It’s harder to escape to this perspective as a teenager, but as we get older, we are capable of learning. It reminds me of a woman I was in high school with, who I’ve been Facebook friends with for a long time. A few years ago, she messaged me to apologise for the way she treated me in high school – something I had been hurt by, but never thought I’d get an apology for. I could see through Facebook that she had changed, but it still meant a lot to me that she reached out, despite how hard it was for her to do so.

Recently, I had a conversation with an older female relative. Someone who was raised in an environment that valued women only for their appearance, and whose mother was jealous of hers. She’s one of the sweetest, kindest people I’ve ever met, but to hear some of those voices from her past come out in her voice, commenting on the value of other women because of her appearance, or devaluing herself because she’s “not as attractive as [she] used to be,” makes me sad. Sad that she couldn’t escape that upbringing, those voices, and see beauty in the same places I do. In women who may not be Hollywood conventionally attractive, but to me, are attractive people anyway. Attractive physically AND personality-wise.

Personally, I’m never attracted to anyone who only appreciates my physical appearance, and doesn’t bother to get to know what I’m like as a person. I’m not going to sleep with someone who doesn’t respect that, who doesn’t enjoy my non-physical qualities. The people who do tend to be more likely to receive my attention, and that’s why I think men learning how to be more genuinely respectful toward women would actually help them with the outcomes they desire with them, whatever outcomes they happen to be. Genuinely respectful means being honest about your interest and treating women as people with feelings and agency with a right to choose rather than objects to obtain. It’s better than the type of “nice” that makes a few bad apples complain about getting “friendzoned.” The friendzone isn’t even a thing in my mind, because the majority of my best relationships started out as friendships. And the guys I’ve been interested in, who weren’t interested back? I’ve been fine with maintaining friendships with them instead, because I still value them as people, rather than what I might want to get from them in a different type of relationship.

I do understand that, whether it’s for biological or sociological reasons, men tend to be first attracted to someone physically before the rest. But even with that being true, isn’t it better to stop hating on women who celebrate their sexuality? Because maybe more of us would be more willing to share that side of ourselves if we didn’t have to worry about the hate. We (everyone, men, women, and otherwise) need to love more, celebrate more what we love, and stop talking about what we hate. Because even if we might be disgusted by something (e.g. homosexuality, sexual kinks, someone’s appearance, etc), doesn’t mean that person doesn’t have the right to feel loved and appreciated by the people who aren’t disgusted by it. If you don’t like it, just avert your eyes and don’t expose yourself to it. Maybe I watched too much Bambi as a kid, but I agree with the Thumper quote in there, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

I would like to see a world where women can be both sexy and respected. I like to be able to help make that happen. I don’t know how to make that work, but I am going to soon be discussing how I might be able to do it through improv with a fellow female improviser. Because if I go back to thinking about my kids… isn’t that the lesson I should want to impart on them?

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    Dominica has a strong interest in exploring diversity in media, seeing people subverting corporate control of creativity through crowdfunding and indie publishing, and spending as much time as she can travelling the world and discovering culture. This is what she most regularly blogs about. In her spare time, Dominica is primarily focused on long-form improv theatre, and writing and publishing speculative fiction. You can find links to some of her free and published stories and screenplays on her writing page, or check out her pirate time-travel novel Adrift. Though born and raised in Australia to American parents, Dominica lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, between 2008-2014, until she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. She also has a background in web programming, filmmaking, and stand-up comedy. For more information, check out her about page, or any of the specific pages about her various creative pursuits in the links at the top of the page.

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