Being A Feminist Doesn’t Protect Me From The Patriarchy

As the girl sat at the desk in front of me loudly declared that she thought it was time I started shaving my legs, I realised that the secret I’d been trying to keep hidden under my knee length socks would finally need to be addressed. As one of the last remaining vestiges of my childhood (and because my mum didn’t want me to start shaving – she obviously knew I was letting myself in for a lifetime of incessant maintenance), I was one of the only girls in the class who hadn’t been de-fuzzing and now I’d been called out on it.

How bloody hard is high school?

Every day is an absolute nightmare of attempting to navigate puberty, understand sexuality, and try your best not to do anything so mortifyingly embarassing that you’ll leave school with a dreadful nickname or be remembered in the annals of history as the person who snotted all over their own leg whilst they were on a date (NOT ME, no sir).

ANYWAY. I very vividly remember being frightened of my own body during my teenage years; constantly worried that it was going to do something to embarrass me like let me bleed all over my school skirt or grow a gigantic pimple on my chin. Couple that with the fact that I was developing quite the ample bosom even at this point, I frequently felt the uncomfortable sensation of wanting to remain as invisible as possible lest my body not be ‘conforming’ in some way.

As an older, hopefully wiser, feminist woman, I can now look back on this period in my life and recognise these feelings as some of my first experiences of what it’s like to occupy a female body. In hindsight, I can acknowledge the discourses that encouraged me to conform to particular brands of body politics and adhere to the social rules ascribed to that physical form by my fellow females. I can also see that a lot of this was probably done for the male gaze (something I feel that I knew at the time but probably didn’t understand the wider social implications). And, finally, those feelings of wanting to disappear and worrying about my bodily functions were likely to be representative of wider pressures for women to be non-obtrusive and private (which again is not something I was aware of at the time).

So, whilst my teenage self recognised these feelings, she couldn’t contextualise or fully understand them. Which, given the fact that all of this is being experienced in front of hundreds of other peers in very close scrutiny, is fucking torturous if you think about it. Of course, my older self now being safe in the knowledge that all of this body politics is actually patriarchal bullshit, immediately disregarded the whole thing and now lives a happy and wonderful life free of concern or worry.

NAHHHHHT.

Although nowhere near as scared of my body as I once was, I still regularly succumb to the pressures of occupying a female body. The feminist in me wants to say that this is purely a matter of choice and nothing to do with conformity, but that’s just not true. You see, there’s still a huge part of me that believes that I’d be more attractive if I were thinner. I still pluck, preen, pamper and shave. I still wear make up on almost a daily basis. I’m not sure where patriarchal preference ends and feminist choice begins for me on these decisions, but I do know that fear of criticism (for not being the ‘ideal’ woman) is a huge driver in the decisions I make about my own body and that’s politically problematic.

What a convoluted position to occupy – believing that there is certainly some sexist nonsense involved in the things that you’re choosing to do, but doing them anyway because there’s also a genuine concern about what might happen when you step outside the safety of social convention. I think this is something that people regularly misconstrue about feminism. I mean, I didn’t become a feminist and then magically become somebody who is so kick ass that she doesn’t care what anybody else thinks (I WISH). Because the fact is, since I was a teenager (and probably even before), there has been this fundamental pressure for me to utilise my body in certain ways in order to be viewed as “acceptable” and that is a huge burden to shift.

Being a feminist can often mean being in the complicated situation of being able to discern misogynistic skullduggery when it arises but, weirdly, not necessarily being able to free yourself from the bindings of said skullduggery. People have to live inside society’s prescribed rules and discourses which influence our behaviour on a daily basis, and this can be tricky terrain to navigate if you’re also somebody who recognises these conventions as not necessarily the most just or best way of doing things.

So yes, I still shave my legs. Yes, even though I’m a feminist. Because, ya know what? Although feminism helps me understand patriarchy, it doesn’t protect me from having to be engaged with it every single day.

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  • Jo

    Oooh, I absolutely love this post, Suzy! It perfectly answers the question of, “How can you be a feminist when you do XYZ?” Aah, the absolute perfect answer!

    I have to say, I never really considered why, exactly, I shaved my legs until I read Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole (incredible book if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!). One of the chapters is all about body hair, and I’d never really thought about why women shave when men don’t. Why *I* shaved. It’s just what women do. It really opened my eyes and got me thinking, to the point where I decided I was going to find out why I shave, whether I actually want to, by not shaving. It’s an experiment I undertook for about three months. I still shaved my underarms, because I already knew that I just personally don’t like underarm hair (even on men, to be honest, it just makes me think of spiders *shudders*). I realised that, for the most part, I’m not actually all that bothered by my body hair. The hair on my legs is pretty much colourless, so I no longer shave my thighs – it’s soft and less noticable to the eye and to the touch than the hair on my arms, and I’ve never considered removing the hair from my arms, so why my legs? I do shave my calfs, though, because although I’m not bothered by my leg hair, I do like hairless legs, too – but I’m no longer shave so religiously. If I can’t be bothered, I don’t. I can go well over a week without bothering, and just not care. But I do have pretty colourless hair, I can’t say whether I’d feel the same if it was dark and more obvious. I’ve changed how I deal with my pubic hair, too; I keep it tidy for reasons of comfort, but I quite like the triangle – whereas before, it all came off because guys don’t like it.

    Now I’ve started dating. And although I’ve got nowhere near having to deal with the opinions of a guy on any of my body hair, I have started to feel nervous and worry about it. What if the guy I end up with doesn’t like pubic hair and doesn’t want to have sex with me? The idea has me truly worried, because I know how mortified and hurt I would be if my body disgusted a guy. Although I’m not going to change my body for a guy – if any guy has issues he can piss off – it doesn’t change the fact that that would be a difficult situation to deal with. I found out a few days ago a guy things have been going well with is a boobs guy, and mine are fairly small, and so now I’ve been worrying that maybe he’ll think their too small and lose interest and… ugh, it’s ridiculous. I am happy with my body and how I look, for the most part, but that doesn’t stop me worrying about what guys think of me.

    Knowing that I’m “supposed” to look a certain way is down to the patriachy, and none of it really matters, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is all ingrained, that we’re taught how we look matters from an early age, and being attractive to guys is important. But knowing that this is down to society and the patriachy doesn’t stop the guilt that I’m a bad feminist for caring. Haha!

    Wonderful post, Suzy!

    • Ahhh Jo! Thanks so much for such a personal and lovely response to my post! <3

      I haven't read that so I might have to add it to my Christmas list – thanks for the recommendation! You hit the nail on the head with your comment, I also feel that I'm not sure why I particularly shave except for the fact that it's expected of me. Similarly to you, I go weeks where I just don't bother (but that's only when my legs aren't on show so it doesn't mean anything!) I can't get to the bottom of my feelings about it all but I'm pretty sure that it stems from a fear of criticism, something which I link to patriarchy. Also similarly to you, when there's a gaze involved (male or female), it concerns me way more than if it were just me and my body and nobody else haha. It's a fascinatingly complicated feeling!

      I'm glad you've got a pretty strong stance where guys getting lost if they don't accept your body is concerned! Although I completely understand your worries because I'd be exactly the same. It goes back to that gaze thing again! However, you are absolutely beautiful and you don't need anybody to validate that 🙂 You do you and the right person will love it no matter way!

      xxx

  • I got my braces stuck on the couch during a first date. About a month later, that “boyfriend” moved away and didn’t tell me.

    • HIS LOSS. (PS: What a total shitbag).