“You have five seconds to be facing forward and silent!”
I was screaming into the churning, belching, giggling herd of Mr. R.’s Spanish-English class getting ready to return to class from the cafeteria. I’ve found that turning every task into a countdown usually elicits the response you need from even the most stubborn students. My arm was raised in such a way that the upper arm formed a right angle at the shoulder with the rest of my body as I confirmed the disappearance of time counting down on my fingers. All was going according to plan until, in the space between two and one, the line leader pointed up in horror at the dark inner-reaches of my arm-pit and uttered an expression of sheer disgust far too audible to be mistaken for anything else by the front half of that line.
I did my champion move of shame where I pretend not to hear what just happened, although my raging inner-monologue was giving this 9-year-old an hours-long tongue lashing divided between 1) how women trying to look perfect all the time are just surrendering to society’s ridiculous expectations; and 2) how she shouldn’t judge because one day she and all her little friends will have to deal with stubble and sweat and mustaches and all the embarrassing joys of adulthood. For the rest of the day I tried to forget it all, just kids saying the darndest things, but several times throughout the day I simply had to go to the dankly lit staff-bathroom mirror, return my arm to that angle, and try to recreate the horrific image she saw to determine if it could have really been all that bad. The fact that a 9-year-old could trigger such an intense fear of looking ugly for even one moment was deeply disturbing to me.
I feel no little shame in admitting that, like any modern western woman, I do worry about my appearance. I draw on my eyes with crayon almost every morning. I have developed entire differential equations to determine which combinations of clothing will minimize my mid-section. I’ve been counting calories and exercising daily under the authoritarian gaze of my swimsuit. Taking all these facts into consideration, I begin to wonder, can I still be considered a feminist? I support as many feminist causes as I can get my hands on (as it is simply the correct, ethical, logical thing to do), but this episode has made me worry that the way I live out my life makes me a hypocrite. What if my fear of looking bad undermines any message I can give my students about becoming great contributing members of our world. Have I been making excuses for not practicing what I preach?
This fear of hypocrisy goes beyond succumbing to the beauty myth. In my domestic life, I seem to be the only force able to accomplish the cooking, cleaning, and other household chores. If not for my efforts and constant prodding, these 5oo square feet of ours would resemble a mold-infested wasteland. Mark will only assist me with such household tasks after a great deal of nagging and occasional threats. While I’m at work (a traditional women’s school-marm job), I try my hardest to emphasize to my students the equality between sexes, only to come home and slip into the June Cleaver skin that’s been waiting for me since the mid-century. Can I truly still be a feminist if I don’t walk the walk?
Of course Mark is rarely sympathetic to any gender-equality issues I ever bring up. He honestly can’t understand why non-vagina related products (like soap or yogurt or anything pink) marketed exclusively to women frustrate me. He doesn’t see how a laundromat named WIFE SAVR is making insulting assumptions. He fails to notice that anyone who addresses us when we’re together speaks primarily to him, as if he is automatically and at all times the head of this unit. Whenever I try to discuss these things, he tells me I’m over-analyzing or being plain dumb. Sometimes I feel like college-me would have kicked him to the curb long ago.
So what does it actually mean to be a feminist? Is it a betrayal to try to contort myself into the expected role of a woman for the sake of ease, even when my heart is in the right place with the kick-ass sisters of the world? I have tried before to abandon the comfort of my personal, unrevolutionary life in order to achieve the life that my high inner-standards require, but these attempts have never been met with success. Sooner or later I come back to rest in the unchallenging, no-surprises life of a traditional western woman. I fear I simply don’t have the bravery needed to truly turn the personal into the political like so many before me. I may be too timid to lead by example, and that more than anything nurtures the disappointment that’s been growing in me for years.
On the other hand, could feminism be simply living your life in a way that makes you happy regardless of the outside world and its expectations (or lack thereof) for women? Would rebelling against stereotypes simply for the sake of rebellion be giving them just as much power as conforming to them? After all, in either case you’re letting others’ expectations and not your own wants dictate who you are.
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. I only find small parcels of strength where I can then and keep on running, always stumbling and often in the wrong direction. I want to be an inspiration in this world. I also want to be happy. Right now happiness grows in the soil enriched by the ease of not having to defend my choices against daily scrutiny from the status quo; it comes from long hair and skirts and doing dishes because they sure as hell won’t get done by anyone else. This stance could be laziness. It could be surrender. My hope is that this is merely a time in my life to gather strength and force of will like a rumbling thunderhead in the distance; to collect the courage and experience to set fire to the world when the time is right.