I don’t have very many childhood memories, at least not at surface level. Most require some strange, nostalgic trigger, like the mention of a Scholastic book fair or the movie Spy Kids, and some gentle coaxing before they come swimming back to me. One memory, however, stands out in my mind with inexplicable clarity. I was young, in elementary school, out on the playground with my little girl clique. I remember balancing unsteadily on top of those black plastic dividers that kept the wood chips in the playground when suddenly, someone said, “I’m starting a club, but you can’t be in it unless you hate pink.” Without hesitation, a chorus of our little voices rose up with refrains of “pink is gross,” and “pink is for girly girls.” I remember feeling oddly validated, as if I could hold my head a little higher having denounced such a vile color.
I wouldn’t connect the dots until many, many years later, but I now recognize this memory as the earliest piece of evidence I have of internalized misogyny at work. This phrase might seem counterintuitive, and to some degree it is. Internalized misogyny is the culmination of a lifetime of witnessing sexism against women, even second or third-hand. A lifetime of seeing women as the butt of the joke. Belittled, demeaned, objectified, underestimated and discriminated against. Young minds are impressionable, and observing these patterns throughout childhood certainly has the power to make an impact. After hearing “you throw like a girl” and “I need two strong young men to help me move this table,” one too many times, I came to equate my own gender with weakness, fragility and incapability. The solution? To reject feminine interests and characteristics. In my mind, this was the only way I would be viewed as worthy or strong or independent. This was my ticket to success. Internalized misogyny is a dangerous creature. Left unchecked, it eats away at self-worth and can destroy the relationships we have with ourselves and with other women.
I’d like to say that this was a phase I simply outgrew. Unfortunately, outgrowing the institutions that have dominated us for what seems like all eternity isn’t that easy. My internalized misogyny grew alongside me, evolving to wedge itself into my teen years right between braces and a seemingly endless barrage of growth spurts. Now a little more advanced than just hating pink, this ugly being manifested itself as an aversion to carrying purses, wearing makeup and anything that might resemble an obsession with boy bands. And let me be clear, there is nothing at all inherently wrong with disliking things that you don’t identify with or wanting to express yourself in other ways. That is a-okay. The problem of internalized misogyny rears its head when you actively dislike these things because you fear being perceived as girly, because you don’t want to be like other girls, or worst of all, because you have been taught to think that a swipe of mascara and a One Direction poster will diminish your value as a human.
So I lived with my vision clouded like this for years. Secretly judging my poor female classmates who were simply trying to navigate their own high school minefields. Desperately wanting to be the “cool girl,” the ideal woman that wouldn’t show too much emotion or take up too much space. It wasn’t until I came to college and started taking gender studies classes — first as a degree requirement, then out of a genuine and hungry curiosity —that I slowly began to realize this way of thinking was a side effect of a society sick with sexism and I didn’t have to be afflicted anymore.
As I became increasingly aware of internalized misogyny, I started to notice just how ingrained it is in our language, in our media and in our relationships. I think that from a young age, women develop a scarcity mindset, a view that there isn’t enough to go around. Maybe it’s not enough attention, not enough beauty, not enough intelligence. When we view the world in this way, we begin to recognize other women not as our allies or friends, but as our competitors. It can feel like another woman’s good looks or success or popularity is a personal attack that diminishes our own. We see this illustrated time and time again in media with depictions like the “mean girls” trope, where women are constantly being pitted against one another. Part of unlearning internalized misogyny for me has meant flipping the switch in my mind from scarcity to abundance. I have good news for you, friend. There is plenty of success and love and happiness and beauty to go around! Instead of instantly feeling that creep of insecurity in my chest when faced with another woman’s achievements, I can instead recognize, celebrate, and be empowered by it. It feels good to see your teammates winning.
Another weapon in my fighting-internalized-misogyny arsenal is mindfulness of my thoughts and my words. It has been made so easy for us to pass judgment on other women because we’re desensitized to it. Those words don’t have quite the sting they used to. If I see a girl in a nice outfit on campus, my mind easily makes assumptions about who she is, why she’s dressed like that, and what that says about her. I mean, who dresses up to go to class, right? Wrong. By jumping to these bitter conclusions, I miss the chance to admire this girl and her nice outfit, and I don’t feel great about myself either. Sexism is so deeply woven into the way we communicate that it’s a radical act to speak with intention. We label women as basic for having the gall to like something other women like. We shame women for their sexual choices. We define what a real woman is and isn’t, what she should and shouldn’t do, how she should and shouldn’t present herself. Hot take: there is no such thing as a real woman, or even a woman in and of itself. We all exist at the intersections of our gender identity, race, class, sexuality, age, ability, and other identities, and it’s impossible to extract one from the others. There is no standard woman, just the standard of womanhood that has been imposed on us since before we were born.
So I am re-training my brain from a default response of judgement and bitterness towards other women to a quick and genuine good for her. It’s as simple as that, and it feels so good to be without the constant burden of negativity. You know that feeling when you finally unpack the suitcase that’s been laying on your floor and you’ve been pulling clothes out it of every day, even though you’ve been home for weeks now? That’s the relief my brain feels; with all the stuff out of the way, I have made more room for empathy and love and support. Unpack that shit!
Thinking back to past Emily on the playground, I want more than anything to tell her that femininity is strength. It is power, something to embrace and express unapologetically. I would tell her it’s not her fault she feels this way, it’s just what she’s been taught by the world. She should present herself in whatever way she wants and she should live without the fear of being girly. Girly is good.
Knowing past Emily, she’d probably just roll her eyes at me. But hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere.