I was not born a feminist. I did not even finish high school as a feminist. In my third year of college, I signed up for a women’s studies course. I’m not exactly sure why; I think it was a matter of scheduling, and wanting to take an introductory-level course, as school has always been challenging for me. I mention this because I did not even walk into that course as a feminist. On the first day of class, the professor asked those who did identify as feminists to please raise their hands, and I didn’t raise mine. It’s not that I didn’t understand the question, it was just that…I didn’t understand the question. Three years into my higher education, I still had no idea what feminism really was. That’s why I try not to lose my shit when I run into guys who still make “jokes” about hating feminists because all feminists are angry as a means of making me angry, therefore “proving” that feminists are angry—or when I see that random Facebook users comment that Amy Schumer is only considered a feminist because she is “fat and ugly,” or that racism and feminism have nothing to do with each other. While plenty of assholes and Internet trolls exist on this earth and do make it their bizarre mission to instigate arguments and piss people off, the majority of people who seem ignorant are exactly that. They have no idea what they’re talking about, because no one has educated them on the subject, and while it makes my head spin, I can only get so mad about it, considering that I don’t know whether or not I would be writing this essay if I hadn’t taken that women’s studies course just a few years ago. I can share my opinion that middle school, high school and higher education programs should not only include, but should require gender studies classes. I can try to use this blog as a platform to help contribute to people’s understanding of feminism. I can still picture the smile on my professor’s face when she promised that each and every one of us would consider ourselves feminists before the semester was over. My view of the world, my view of myself—my life—was never the same.
While I can’t blame strangers on Facebook or at school or in the streets for gaps in their education, I can and will call out magazines, social media outlets, and other channels of pop culture, which claim to preach feminism when convenient, for hiring people who clearly don’t have a grasp on the subject, and for letting those people write misguided articles that perpetuate stereotypes, stigmas, ignorance, and general negativity, and for perhaps even capitalizing on the fact that feminism is a popular topic, intentionally confusing the issue to increase engagement on social media. In spite of free speech, I believe that high-profile publications, both in print and online, have an obligation to try to serve as part of the solution, and lately, as many of my readers who follow along with my Facebook page already know, most of the publications I enjoy and follow online—some of the most prominent publications in the world of fashion and that cater to women—have recently and persistently published a slew of antiquated, inflammatory articles and essays that directly contribute to social problems, and swiftly hinder progress.
It’s not as if I grew up without any strong female figures in my life, or that I was taught to avoid feminism. I think growing up, aside from the fact that no one had formally explained feminism to me, I assumed I didn’t have permission to claim the title because of my interest in fashion, which is something people have used to denigrate me for as long as I can remember. When I first started high school, almost ten years ago, I felt that it was largely considered not just uncool, but also apparently indisputably shallow to care about your clothes. I wore what I wanted regardless, and received my fair share of compliments, but someone went out of their way to make me feel stupid, guilty, immoral, and just all-around bad for loving clothes basically every day. Looking back, I realize that what my peers punished me for was not really my interest in fashion, but my desire to be different, and their inability to move past the social stereotypes that no adults were correcting. While the word “superficial” was always closely attached to the conversation, everyone seemed to ultimately take issue with the fact that I didn’t show up to school in the unspoken female uniform of the era: jeans, a Northface fleece jacket, and Ugg boots, all of which typically cost about $200 individually. People liked to use my passions as reason to point a finger at me, call me spoiled, and assert their incredible down-to-earthness, but the only real difference between most of the accusers and myself was that my outfits stood out aesthetically. The irony that I let people use my appearances to call me superficial continues to astound me. I guess if your wardrobe has variety, it’s fair to assume that you spend more money on your clothes, but that’s not the point. If you are reading this and are already aware of intersectional feminism, as well as general common sense and goodness, you know that passing judgment on and shaming people based solely on their socioeconomic background and/or the clothes on their back is inappropriate and unproductive. (I’m aware, by the way, that kids get bullied for much worse in high school. I’m aware that these complaints do come from a place of privilege, but pain is not a contest; no one deserves to be judged on a surface-based level.) What I’ve learned since my teen years, among so many things, is that “feminism” means I get to care about whatever the fuck I want, and express myself however the fuck I want. I didn’t play soccer. I didn’t need cleats. I didn’t play an instrument. I didn’t need lessons. My first love in life was to express myself through personal style, and clothes are my outlet for doing so, and that is valid, and it is no one’s place to tell me otherwise. I have learned that anyone who thinks that this has any effect on my intellect probably isn’t very smart. In college, in the same year that I took women’s studies, I participated in a literary internship that gave me the opportunity to spend some time with author and now-famous feminist, Chimamamanda Ngozie Adichie, who told me that shoes “are her favorite subject” before anything else. She didn’t know it, but in that moment, she freed me from a lifetime of shame. These days, when I encounter people who would like to belittle my passions and what I do, I sometimes get annoyed, but mostly I pity those who live so far in the past and who feel the need to put others down for living lives that don’t exactly mirror their own.
When one of NYLON Magazine’s online writers smugly captioned an article listing facts about Kendall and Kylie Jenner’s high school graduation with “1. They graduated?” on Facebook, it struck a nerve. I had heard that tone before. I had been the target of it too many times, and I couldn’t just sit there and pretend it was ok, especially after NYLON had just shared an excellent essay by a young woman who proudly identifies as fat, and explains that crop tops helped her accept herself. Feminism has no room for favoritism. If you think it’s ironic to defend the Jenner girls in the name of feminism, well we have arrived at my point: don’t bother taking into account that neither Kendall nor Kylie Jenner is even 20 years old and both have full-blown careers and make millions of dollars; the fact that these young women represent what you may consider superficial values does not negate their accomplishment of earning high school diplomas. There is no tasteful reaction to someone’s academic success other than applause, or silence (if you can’t something nice, don’t say anything at all), no matter who that person may be. As someone who always appreciates a good joke, I can confidently say that while it may be a fine line, there is a definite difference between comedy and downright girl-bashing. NYLON’s two words, punctuated by a sarcastic question mark, implied that because the Jenner girls are associated with pop culture, and more specifically, with fashion and beauty, they automatically don’t have what it takes to complete their high school requirements—that pursuing a career in modeling or getting lip injections directly connects to one’s performance in home-schooling. So, I went ahead and took the liberty of tearing NYLON a new, freshly waxed asshole. When my initial comment on the article started to pick up “likes” and replies echoing my frustrations, NYLON wrote back to me with a disappointing excuse, telling me by name that they were being “totally, totally facetious,” and of course not at all condescending or hypocritical, considering almost all of the writers at NYLON presumably earned their professional positions based on both their academic backgrounds, as well as interests that much of society deems low, unimportant, or superficial—interests they share with Kendall and Kylie Jenner. NYLON’s petty reaction reminded me so much of confronting kids for talking behind my back in high school, or for rolling their eyes at the mere sight of me. The magazine’s lame attempt to deny their flagrant insensitivity was absolute bullshit, and it only bothered me and my sudden band supporters even more. Something lit up inside of me when I saw the response I was receiving from strangers, and it’s still growing brighter and stronger every day.
As a feminist and fashion-lover who’s also extremely passionate about writing, and whose life essentially takes place on social media (I’m not embarrassed. You’re reading this.), I can’t stop noticing the troublesome language that myriad publications for women, and which supposedly stand for feminism, use and put out into the world with such ease, as if even they don’t believe that social media matters. What the fuck is a “yummy-mommy?” Well, it’s Vogue’s not-so-adorable term (that doesn’t even rhyme) that perpetuates the notion that pregnancy and motherhood inherently make women unstylish and unappealing. What’s wrong with Rihanna’s latest ad campaign? Absolutely nothing; Rihanna doesn’t have to dress a certain way to prove that she’s black, or that she cares about being black. What is wrong is tossing around a term like “whitewashed” as if it carries no history or weight, and insinuating that anyone who strays from the confines of the stereotypes attached to their race, ethnicity, or culture are automatically abandoning those things and setting a bad example. (For the record, I think Rihanna often does set a bad example for young women in many ways, but I also think she is perhaps one of the most eclectic style icons of our generation, and shows us that having a signature sense of style doesn’t necessarily mean you always adhere to one niche in the world of fashion.) Why is this Harper’s Bazaar list of tips for looking “skinnier” on Instagram problematic? I don’t want to patronize anyone, myself, but I also honestly wish I didn’t have to address such nonsense: body image is a major, and often life-threatening matter to which social media unfortunately sometimes contributes on its own by posing unavoidable comparisons. People need to learn to love themselves, and that’s all the more difficult when they log on to Facebook and see a headline that suggests they should learn to hide instead. Why is this Who What Wear article about which lingerie men prefer also problematic? Well, for starters, because feminism is not just about women. It’s about everyone. It’s for everyone. Gender-equality is an all-inclusive concept, and while we’re making strides here and there, it still seems quite out of reach. (Please watch Emma Watson’s inspiring 2014 United Nations speech about gender equality and her #HeForShe campaign.) As I recently wrote on Facebook (and I’m rewording a little bit here), what so many people fail to understand about the endless stream of articles, books, TV shows, and movies that insist that everything women do and say and wear should be in the interest of pleasing men not only prompts women to remain submissive, but also pressures men into believing they have to act as aggressors, and constantly exert control over women and their bodies in order to be perceived and accepted as “masculine.” Like a lot of people, I used to think women were the only true victims of sexism, but men aren’t as liberated as we typically assume. In that women’s studies course, we watched a documentary (unfortunately, I cannot remember the title) about the vicious cycle of society’s perceived gender roles, and how society continuously imprisons men with its rigid standards of masculinity. I sat there shocked as it showed the evolution of the G.I. Joe action figure. (Why can’t I call it a doll? Why aren’t they all just toys?) Society has spent decades in an ethical debate over Barbie and her unrealistic measurements, which have always been the same, but few people realize that the original G.I. Joe looked like an “average-sized” man with totally attainable muscle mass, and has slowly evolved to resemble someone whose body-type could only be obtained by spending countless hours lifting weights, and/or with the assistance of steroids. Society clings to this “boys will be boys” perspective on male violence, when so much of that violence is the result of social constructs we’ve created ourselves, and to which there are solutions. In some ways, we have achieved equality, in that everyone in this world is at some point asked to step inside an easily identifiable box of social norms, and stay there. Most of the time, it doesn’t fit, but so many people don’t admit to their discomfort, and instead choose to conform for fear of being outcast. Why isn’t it ok to question whether or not Caitlyn Jenner’s docuseries I Am Cait lives up to the “hype”? Well, because she isn’t telling her story for the sake of ratings. (Seriously, stop saying that.) Caitlyn Jenner isn’t just the former-Olympian father figure on Keeping Up With the Kardashians anymore. She’s officially one of the foremost transgender icons and role models in the world, and in human history. To those stubborn Facebook users out there: why can’t you compare transgender teen, Jazz Jennings, of I Am Jazz, to Caitlyn Jenner? Well, for starters, because they’re two different people, but also because the transgender community is in desperate need of role models and social representation, and to limit that group to one spokesperson is to marginalize their existence, and also ignores the many other, diverse transgender individuals who’ve already come out and stood up as activists. (It’s bemusing how, when people take to social media to bash the reality television industry and claim it has no merit at all whatsoever, they often inadvertently reveal that they are not actually capable of seeing of what’s not immediately visible to them on reality TV shows.) The suicide rate within the transgender population is reason enough to avoid pitting transgender celebrities against each other, and not for nothing, but how can anyone’s scope be so narrow that they fail to see how incredibly lucky we are to have a 15-year-old transgender woman and a 65-year-old transgender woman in the spotlight simultaneously? The entire angle of Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer made it clear that most of the world feels unfamiliar with the transgender experience, and we need to educate ourselves. Would you assume you could learn everything about what it’s like to be African-American from one black person alone, or that one Jewish person’s take on Judaism could sum it all up? No, because that would be absurd. (Also, not many people seem to actively wonder why we need to know what “real housewives” are arguing about in multiple cities, but I’ve read literally dozens of comments on Facebook from people who think they have to choose one transgender celebrity to support.) We learn some overlapping, but ultimately completely different and equally valuable things from Jennings and Jenner and their friends and families, all of whom have put themselves out there to promote acceptance and safety, to let people in the LGBTQ community know that they are not alone—to save lives. In addition, if I’ve learned anything from the three installments of I Am Cait that have aired so far, it’s that Jenner’s vantage point of privilege does not even begin to scrape the surface of the struggles so many transgender people face, and society needs to witness a wider spectrum of those experiences in order to increase understanding and improve those precious lives. (Jenny Boylan, Laverne Cox, and many others have been reminding us of this fact for a long time, from platforms less glamorous than the cover of Vanity Fair.) And for those of you who think it’s blasphemous to associate the word “feminism” with anyone who’s been on Kardashians other than Caitlyn, read this Rolling Stone interview with Kim and then get back to me. It definitely got me thinking: no other women talk so unashamedly about their vaginas on television as the Kardashian sisters do. None. Why am I harping on the Kardashian clan so much right now? Because I want you to understand that feminism is broad, forgiving, and can never be gauged on image alone. Because I like to spend my money on clothes, facials, and decorative manicures, and I read the product reviews on Sephora.com more frequently than I read any major newspaper, and I sing to my own reflection for hours on end—and sometimes I hate what I see—and none of that makes me dumb, or a bad feminist, or a bad person. None of that even comes close to defining my whole complex existence.
The difficulty of writing this essay is that I could go on forever. Because feminism is intersectional and so very multi-faceted, it bleeds into every virtually every aspect of human life. I won’t stop here. I’ll definitely write more essays that discuss (or yell about) feminism going forward; but I guess I’d like to close this one by saying that there is hope. Anger isn’t the only emotion I experience as a feminist. Progress has been and continues to be made every day, and I see it every day. (I’m proud to report that NYLON actually revised some of the Facebook headlines about which I complained to have a more positive, politically correct tone, and even published an interesting article admitting to their conflicting and often imprudent messages, stating, “…we don’t always have a united front when we should, but we are always figuring it out. And sometimes, our readers rightfully call us out on this fact.” (However, this article unfortunately attempts to pawn their racism and other offenses off on other companies, such as Instagram, and does not confront some of the mistakes they’ve made that most urgently need to be addressed and redacted.)) The problem with how many mixed messages I see on my Facebook Newsfeed, many of which come from the same sources, is that it makes it so difficult for people to navigate their role in society and know how to conduct themselves in social situations. When I’m confronted by someone who still thinks “I hate feminists” is a legitimate punchline (good one…), or anyone who casually/”jokingly” says anything that I find downright anti-feminist, racist, etc., I have to wonder if it’s because that person has just received too many mixed messages through social media, and simply can’t decipher the positive from the negative. Perhaps that person was essentially told, in a matter of sixty seconds, that Amy Schumer is a comedic hero for all audiences, that it’s ok to physically abuse women if you’re a professional athlete, that there is finally a woman coaching in the NFL, that Rihanna’s latest ad campaign is a disgrace to black women everywhere, that Rihanna should be able to reveal her nipples on absolutely any platform, that women should choose their clothing based on what men like, that women should feel proud of whatever size they wear, and that Caitlyn Jenner’s most recent accomplishment was wearing a formfitting dress. I can’t imagine being inundated with that contradictory, and frequently politically incorrect content without that lone, introductory course under my belt. I’m not an actual expert on feminism, but I am proof that it doesn’t take long to become comfortable with the concept if you have the resources, open your mind, and really listen.