Friday, July 30, 2010

Teenage girls and internalized sexism

Image: The cover of Britney Spears' first album, ...Baby One More Time.

I’ve gained quite the reputation as a hand-wringer and a self-flaggellator about privilege, and that’s fine with me. I expect it’s well deserved. I don’t face a whole hell of a lot of oppression, comparatively speaking - society validates me pretty well, considering how much it invalidates others. Feminism's major flaw is that it privileges me for the reasons the rest of society privileges me: my race, my trans status, my evident able privilege, my size. So I try to mention these things frequently, though probably not often enough. As long as I’m writing about oppression, I figure I should make obnoxiously clear that I’m not really an expert on many of its most nefarious manifestations.

But in spite and because of these flaws, I’m still very emotionally tied to feminism; feminism alone got me through years when I did feel the weight of having a non-standard body. When I was a teenager, I hated myself. I was smart, but no one would listen because I was a teenage girl with non-evident disabilities. I hated my body, and so did everyone else, because I was big and because I actively rejected beauty standards. I felt judged, harassed, and hated - by my peers, by my teachers, by society at large. It was not some conspiracy theory: I was not well-liked by most.

But feminism loved me, feminism understood me. Feminism told me that I was still okay, that I was still worth loving, that I was still worth being. Perhaps this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had the many privileges I do, but I am still thankful for the deeply flawed movement at that stage. Feminism was there for me, even when I was in conflict with my main conduit to feminism - my mom. I didn’t like my name, I didn’t like my body, I didn’t like my face, but I liked my feminism. I didn’t know what I was ten years ago, but I knew I was a feminist.

Feminism couldn’t keep me from hating myself, but it was a safe space, my only safe space.

But since I shed my awkwardness and turned into the physically lovely and confident person I am today, I have not shown the same kindness to girls in that tenuous position. I have had little regard for teenagers. Teenagers are silly and loud and don’t know shit about shit. Teenagers project their insecurity on other people. Teenagers are stupid and inexperienced.

I found myself adding to the conventional wisdom about teenagers - teenage girls in particular. That they are silly and shallow and not worth listening to. That they try too hard, particularly for male attention. That they have nothing of worth to contribute.

I wrote women and girls, female people, off because of their age. I didn’t pay attention to them when they spoke on important topics. I mocked their interests and fads (Twilight) not just because of their problematic content, but because teenage girls liked them. I laughed at jokes in South Park that compared the object of mockery to teenage girls to prove their lack of worth. And I’m not the only one: even in feminist spaces, younger people are often decided to be a lesser concern.

This is internalized sexism.

Hatred and fear of women in my once and future positions is a function of (what else?) the kyriarchy. I heard so much bullshit about women and teenaged girls as a teenaged girl that I started to believe it, and hate myself, and think I deserved this abuse. And then when I grew up and got stronger and stopped hating myself, I still believed that I’d deserved what I’d felt because I was a teenaged girl, and believed that teenaged girls deserved ridicule.

The kyriarchy insists I hear, see, believe a lot of bullshit about my body. But it’s not just about my body now: it’s about the body I had, the body I will have.* I feared being a teenager before I was a teenager, and that made the wonderful and awful changes of my body - my weight, my hips, my breasts - distant and shameful. Looking back on that body, I see not the beauty of my struggle and the pride I should have in myself for surviving, but the pain that I felt and the feeling that I deserved it. And it makes me think that I was awful, and that being a teenager is awful, and that teenage girls are awful. I envy teenage girls who like themselves and think themselves worth the same consideration I get, and I pity or sneer at the teenagers who are struggling at I was, and I fear them all.

My distaste (which I’m working through) is indicative not of the innate qualities of teenage girls. Teens are not necessarily obnoxious, oversexed, or any other particular quality. Actual teenagers are just as likely to be insightful and witty as the next person - and that’s what they are, people. Not mutant people, or incomplete people. Just people, at a vulnerable stage of their life. People who are worthy of the same respect and consideration given to older folks, as teen blogger Chally wrote at Zero at the Bone:
If it’s a surprise to you that I’m a teenager, maybe this would be a good opportunity to examine what assumptions about the blogosphere, who writes and on what topics and so on went into that. If I lose some authority or respect in your eyes because of my age, that is your problem.
I took the bullets of the kyriarchy made specially for teenaged women and somehow survived it. That is something to be proud of, and something to work against. Teenage girls are not a fearful or less-important category of woman: they are full and wonderful and worthy of respect and attention and protection. When looking at teenage girls henceforth, I will strive to take them seriously as individuals, and not some reflection on my past and future self-worth.

*In the same way, I hate and fear my future body. The age privilege I hold that I will lose as I become more lined and less youthful. The creaks of age, the fragility that might come. I am taught to fear my transition, to avoid becoming my mother - my beautiful, brilliant mother.


  1. Teenage girls rock! As I heard Eve Ensler say, "Every girl must hold a lot of power if we keep telling everyone not to act like one."

  2. As a teenage girl who's also a feminist, I want to thank you for that awesome post.

  3. Miranda, you're amazing! Charlotte, thank you so much for the kind words - it meant a lot on a tough day. <3

  4. Thank you, RMJ. As a teenaged person who recently starting feminist blogging, but has already been reading feminist blogs for years, I've witnessed a lot of stuff that made me cringe. It was actually the little things that started getting to me at first-people telling each other they were acting like catty fourteen-year-olds during angry comment threads, falling all over each other anytime a young person expressed a basic feminist idea, etc. Later, I began to notice the big things. You mentioned the Twilight moral panic, which is an excellant point. Yes, Twilight is anti-feminist, but there are many extraordinarily popular pro-feminist/anti-kyriarchy YA books out there that get ignored or brushed off. Another one of my major pet peeves is the problematic language and paternalism I often see directed at pregnant teens.

    So, thanks again. And more people should be as concerned about their own personal privilege as you are.

  5. Interesting. This is something I ran into as a teen rape survivor who had not yet identified the experience. A number of people felt free to tell me to suck it up, I don't have problems, etc., based on the fact that I was a teen girl, and therefore emotional and immature. Not the best foundation for confident adult women, hmm? Or for teaching teens to have healthy relationships...if society is always telling you to "get over it" when you're upset or hurt, how are young women expected to stand up to a partner that tells them the same thing?

  6. RMJ-

    Thank you for this post! I can relate to many of the experiences you share here. The shame and self-hate of being a teenager are still very vivid to me, and teenage girls remind me of the ugliness and vulnerability I felt at that age.
    My feelings of "how far I've come" not only alienate me from teens, but give me a sense of power over those who are still in that age group.
    I have learned so much since that time, I often forget how smart I was as a teen, and how aware I was of the world's problems.

    I really enjoyed reading this!

  7. I agree with you Sunset.
    It seems that everything is GO GO GO, Don't cry, don't feel pain just GO.
    But, what are "Going" to?

    I tell you now women, ladies and girls.
    Who cares who's watching?

    I was told not to cry by my abusive biological father and trained myself not to, now, I wish I had never done that. I should have just cried because no amount of abuse would ever take the fact away that
    I Am Human.
    I Feel.
    and you do too.

  8. I loved your artical. Being aware of privlege and critiquing the way you interact with others is always important. One thing you mentioned though made me raise my eyebrows; that feminism is deeply flawed because instead of encouraging you o interrogate your sense of priv;ege. you felt they rewarded you for being privleged. It's true that mainstream feminism is that way. In fact, from the very beginning (even going back to the first wave of feminism in the 1800s) the mainstream feminist movement has been more concerned with sexual inequality than with other kinds. In fact, many of the leaders of the mainstream feminist movement were, in fact, classist, racist, and heterosexist. When Betty Friedan wrote a book about the plight of rich, white women and their psychological suffering as housewives, she said that the plight of nonrich, nonwhite women didn't matter; that their stories weren't worth telling. Which is particularly insensitive considering that at the time many women DID work and many women suffered abuse and oppression that went beyond the psycholigical. Later, she tried to keep lesbian women out of the women's movement. Back int he first wave, Susan B Anthony was willing to work with black people for her cause, but when black men got the vote before white women, she became very bitter and even used racial slurs. Later, she encouraged women to work as strikebreakers at a clothing cafe were women were were desperately poor were trying to fight for less hours (only eight hours a day versus twelve or thirteen or even more) and higher wages. So, the mainstream feminist movement has always been pretty narrow in its scope of what needs to be changed. But, there's more different kinds of feminism than just the mainstream kind. There are many kinds of feminism that take way more into account than just sex. Third World Feminism looks at the interconnectedness of patriarchal oppression and racial oppression. Anarchist Feminism deconstructs all kinds of privlege and tries to build a framework for a society where there are no hierarchies at all. The mainstream feminist movement is flawed because it only sees sexual oppression, ignoring a lot of the other kinds. Many "feminists" don't mind inequality; they just want a higher rank. You just need to find a kind of feminism that works for you. I loved your blog. Please keep writing!

  9. Another teenage girl here wanting to weigh in with a "Thank god it's not just me who noticed this!"
    Sadly this is not limited to adult women but goes on among many teenage girls themsleves. I've literary heard one of my friends say that guys are better than girls for god sake!
    Then there is the repulsive belief that boys are better friends than girls... said to me by girls. Sigh.
    Anyway great post.


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