It’s really no surprise to anyone that I spend a lot of time reading and Twitter and blogs; what really catches me off guard is when something current puts a fine point on things that I’m wrestling with inside of my head. The combination usually results in a torrent of tweets on the subject for 140-character consumption or, in this instance, a complete blog post. I won’t say that this is the most cohesive of topics I’ve ever covered, but I definitely have a lot of things to say.
Take the Sociological Images post written by Caroline Heldman that lit a fire under my ass this week; it’s a 3-part series on Sexual Objectification and Women. Part 3 specifically pertains to how we as women can help break the habits that we participate in when it comes to being beholden to the male gaze and more-over, male validation of our sexual identities. The language in the post has a definitely “mental health” nuance to it that wasn’t lost on me. A lot of my therapy visits lately have focused very strongly on the idea that my self-worth and anxiety problems have ties to how I seek attention and meet expectations from the men in my life. This is not just something that is unique to me or a function of my brain chemisty, this is due to how women in general are socialized.
Do you drink coffee? Do you drink it a lot? Imagine how hard it is to wake up in the morning if you don’t get a cup of coffee into you. You feel sluggish. You get headaches. Overall you feel gross and weird. When you actually get some into you, you feel alive and awake again. This is what male validation does to me and what I’m working on undoing. We are trained from birth to think of ourselves in relation to how men view us: aesthetically, sexually and even personally. We struggle to mold ourselves into what the men in our lives, in our society want us to be. It’s pretty easy to see then, why this has a hold on some people. I get a little jolt when I seem attractive or pleasing to men. Brains love stuff like this and thrive on it, and while I’m not a psychologist, in the slightest, it means that working yourself out of this kind of Pavlovian response is beyond difficult. But it is necessary for continued mental and personal health. I can’t live like this, especially when it runs in such deep conflict with my particular identities as a sexual woman and a feminist.
Looking back on my life, especially in light of this revelation, I see what I’ve been grappling with as the source to many of my unanswered anxieties. The intersection of needing male validation with my status as a queer woman, as well as a trauma/abuse survivor makes all of this intensely problematic. How am I supposed to fully express myself in a sexual way towards all gender expressions when so much of my time and attention is tied up in pleasing only men? Why am I seeking so much praise and love from the same group of people who have routinely hurt me in my life? It is stuff like this that makes unwinding the tangle of emotions, questions and mental health concerns so difficult. When I find myself so wrapped up in a break-up that I carry feelings of worthlessness and suicidal ideation for years, I know I have to change. It’s not fair to me, it’s not fair to my lovers and friends. It’s like living half a life. Up until this point, though, I’ve just been too scared to “get myself off” of that male attention, literal or socially abstract. Even after my transformation into an aware feminist, it’s still so much a part of my everyday life that I find myself unable to know a starting point.
This is where I feel the the SI article had some good tips, even if I didn’t agree with all of them. (Don’t hassle retail employees, they are just trying to do their jobs!) But it at least gave me a place to start really undoing some of the basement-level (as I like to call it) drives for male attention and respect. Much like how I was taught in therapy to sit down and work through what causes my anxiety and “undo the chain” of catastrophizing and fixation, I feel the same needs to be done with problematic elements of socialization. The article addresses this in a lot of very common sense ways that might seem hard at first, but are definitely do-able.
The biggest part of this is just saying, “I don’t need you” to the idea of men’s attention. I know it seems extreme: don’t we want the men we DO care about to pay attention to us, to care? Well, yes. But that’s because they are important to us. But their ideas about us should not supersede our own ideas about ourselves. Do you see the distinction? You don’t even have to believe that phrase at first. A big part of breaking through anxiety for me was the whole “fake it until you make it” mentality. I don’t believe I’m really okay at first, but repeating it enough until I am at least helps the process along. The process is as such:
- Identify why male validation and gaze exists, why we are trained to find it important and how it is expressed.
- Reject it from the outset, in both mindset, word and deed.
- Discredit their validation and how important it actually is.
Over time, it should cause us to see our opinions of ourselves and actions relating to that as being healthy, important and the determining factor for how we conduct ourselves. But don’t get mad if you can’t “get this” immediately. Much like anxiety, breaking stuff like this that is so deeply ingrained is so hard. When it permeates the culture, our media and our personal lives, don’t be frustrated if you fall back into it without even thinking. It takes a concerted effort and a lot of vigilance. But hopefully for my sake, and our sake, we can accomplish this.
One morning, we might just wake up and not need that cup of coffee to jolt us.
Smokin’ Hot and Unable to Be Friends
One of the biggest problems that the list illuminated was not only how pervasive male validation is but how much it keeps us women apart from eachother:
The rules of the society we were born into require us to compete with other women for our own self-esteem. The game is simple. The “prize” is male attention, which we perceive of as finite, so when other girls/women get attention, we lose. This game causes many of us to reflexively see other women as “natural” competitors, and we feel bad when we encounter women who garner more male attention, as though it takes away from our worth. We walk into parties and see where we fit in the “pretty girl pecking order.” We secretly feel happy when our female friends gain weight. We criticize other women’s hair, clothing, and other appearance choices. We flirt with other women’s boyfriends to get attention, even if we’re not romantically interested in them.
This is something I’ve been struggling with for most of my adult life. In middle school and high school I had no problems at all being friends with women and accepting them into my life, even as a burgeoning baby-queer, but as soon as I got to college, most of the brainwashing had already taken place. I was a viciously jealous and territorial lady who found herself at odds with my darkest desires to be close to women – as friends, partners, etc. This need for men to want me, to see me as better than other women, to “win” their love and attention was gross and it is completely stemming from how patriarchy structures the focus and attention on men’s desires paramount to everything else. If women don’t compete with each other, if they don’t see the need to compete because men’s views on them aren’t important, it falls apart. But how many years of relationships has it cost me? Why did I need to do that? I don’t WANT TO BE competitive with women in my life ever again. I don’t NEED to be. It’s stupid! It’s childish! Who gives a shit what men think of me, or think of me in relation to others? We’re all different and weird and unique. The idea that someone is prettier or smarter or more “worthy” of a relationship with a particular dude is a really fucked up idea. We’re not animals and we’ve moved past just that need to get our genes out there. Some of us aren’t even interested in procreating.
Undoing centering men’s opinions about myself will lead to me being able to let women back into my life in a healthy way. I’ve made some really great strides towards this, especially where it regards online spaces: women flourish and we find ourselves seeing strength and beauty in eachother. My World of Warcraft guild is full of women that I consider close friends that I want to know for the rest of my life. This has been a major force in renewing my commitment to my own place in the world of women as it doesn’t relate to men. It’s kept at least a part of my life, particularly one that had been so bad about it before, off of needing men to constrain and support my identity and worth. We as women game together and provide attention that isn’t weighted down by societal expectations.
The downside to this is whenever a woman who still buys into this comes into the mix. Am I strong enough to resist the temptation of bad habits? Like an ex-smoker that sees a group of people puffing away outside, the desire and the weakness always feels like a ghost lurking in the background. Brushes with women like this in the past have made me slide back into those things I hate most about feminine competition: the relentless, exhausting chattiness and “talking up”, preening for men, and aggressively nitpicking myself and the woman in question. Within the confines of a game, where competitiveness is already asserted as a function, it becomes even more noticeable. Group discussions become draining where once they were fun because you’re constantly trying to one-up eachother, trying to look good. Things like dungeons or PVP become intense challenges about who does better “numbers.” And really, it isn’t their fault. I’m not mad at them; I’m really mad at myself for letting it get to me again, to not embrace this woman and get her out of it. Or to remove the problematic male element from the scenario, if there is one. But I’m weak a lot. I know this. What Heldman is asking with the “absolute love and tolerance” feels like too much to ask sometimes. I know I’ve failed in the past to overcome those weak moments, despite my best efforts. The best I can do is try.
I feel that this series has really underscored a lot of complex feelings I’ve had lately or in the past couple of years as a feminist and a queer woman, especially in my little online world, so I am looking forward to more. I feel like my sanity and my interpersonal behavior will benefit from it.