Internalized Misogyny

I have spent far too much time removed from the company of mid-west middle-aged women in the last few years. In no way do I mean that I ought to fully immerse myself in that culture, but rather that my tolerance, my immunity to such prattle, is far below the standards required for prolonged social encounters.

I want to be clear: I am not referring to every middle-aged woman living in the mid-west. I am referring to a very specific set of creatures that I have encountered in abundance during my recent and extended experiences in the mid-west. They have all happened with women of a certain age (middle), with a certain family situation (in a heterosexual marriage with somewhat-grown children), and some sort of job (varies from part-time to full and from unskilled to highly degreed). For these reasons I have lumped together a group in my mind, though to be fair, this group is not exclusive and could include any variety of self-hating people from anywhere.

I have had lunch with a group of these women all week, and the number of times we have discussed dieting makes me want to rush out and buy all of them a copy of Kate Harding’s Lessons from the Fatosphere . If I weren’t absolutely broke (and absolutely a chicken) then I might do just that. Instead, I made a few unnoticed comments about eating what one wanted in balance and left the rest of the conversation to those who preferred its repetitive tracks.

I felt supremely uncomfortable in these conversations. Uncomfortable and quite agitated. In the most recent years of my life I have cultivated my group of friends and urban family rather specifically. I have surrounded myself (and been surrounded by) those who seek to be at peace with themselves- their bodies, their emotions, their place in the world. I have grown so accustomed to the concepts of Fat Acceptance, Self-Love, Feminism, Trans-Alliances, and general acceptance that it is jarring to sit like a sponge in their blatant self-hatred.

Is self-hatred too harsh a term? Perhaps it sounds a bit sharp on the tongue, or maybe it sounds self-righteous. It’s easy to fall into a self-righteous dynamic in these situations, and though I can’t claim complete innocence of that particular quality, I’d like to ignore it for this moment, because the issues at root here are bigger than my predilection toward pretension.

What these women do to themselves on a daily basis is a slow but potent form of self hatred. I remember what it was like when I was on a perpetual diet. The constancy of my self-dissatisfaction and self-shaming along with my utter lack of balance and nutrition were the only things constant about those behaviors. So much of my energy was sapped by my blatant inability to love myself for all of me, to accept my thighs and my stomach and the wrinkles that developed as a result of my fleshy curves. I am appalled when I think of all the things I could have accomplished with that lost energy (literally years robbed by shame) I am deeply saddened and angered. And those feelings are inexpressibly magnified when I consider the collective creative and intellectual prowess that is being spent on belly-shame. There is no question that this self-hatred, a perpetual and derisive self-hatred.

It doesn’t end with the dieting, either. After lunch one day one of the above women was talking to her husband on the phone in front of me. The end of the conversation was annoying to her. It seemed to me that her husband was expressing some insecurity, and when the call ended, she shook her head and said to me, “He’s worse than a woman.”

She made this statement with such general disgust. I was mortified. I have since been told that “worse than a woman” is a saying that plenty of women use as a description often enough, but I could not recollect its ever having been used around me. Think about the implications of a woman describing a man as “worse than a woman”. Does that mean that men are, by definition, better than women? That her annoyance was the result of her husband’s departure from the status quo? That it is unacceptable for a man to reach so low as to be worse than a woman?

Does she realize that she is a woman, and that by invoking such a misogynistic phrase she is putting herself down? Or does she see herself as an individual and not part of the group ‘women’, so that her condemnation of femininity is not as potent a form of self-hatred? I don’t know, and I doubt that she’s ever stopped to question that colloquialism.

Of course at the root of such a statement is the basis of sexism and one of the greatest disservices our culture does us. This statement further defines and separates the concepts of man and woman. Two separate entities, they are, with the ability to be ranked (man always above woman, with all the associations of the ever-cliché missionary position). I would even say there is a cultural obligation to rank them. Male and Female, so definitively different. To be male is Supremely Superior, but to be a male who traverses the definite lines of separation is abominable . No man can express the feminine and continue to be better than the feminine. We must uphold our system of superiority!!

What a corrosive concept to perpetuate. It seeps into everything in our culture until you don’t even realize what you’re saying. Until you find yourself berating your male sons for crying over a scraped knee. Or giving your teenaged daughter a talking to about how ‘nice girls’ don’t talk like that. Or you start putting your husband down by saying that he is worse than a woman.

Women are bad because they have no choice but to express their femininity(?), but a man, a Supremely Superior being, who indulges in expressing parts of his femininity is by far worse. After all, he has a choice, right? Supposedly to choose to embrace a male’s femininity is just plain stupid and shameful. This is the lesson we are taught so deftly that we can not even distinguish the moment it begins.

This type of thinking is always subconscious, which is why it is so insidious. It infects so rapidly, because we spread the contagions without ever thinking about it. I don’t know how to engage this woman in an examination of internalized misogyny. I don’t even think it’s my place to do so. I can only be present, live my life as it is, take whatever lesson I’m supposed to absorb and pass it along.

And perhaps next time I will feel a little braver. Perhaps I will ask what she means when she says that her husband is worse than a woman.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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