Last week, I read a post by Feministing editor Chloe Angyal in which she admitted to starving herself for two years even while she was working as a public feminist on one of the most high-profile feminist blogs in the U.S. She goes on to ask forgiveness of her readers:
The reason I want to ask your forgiveness is because feminist leaders are not supposed to fall down this hole. Feminist leaders, especially those who are former Presidents of the Princeton Eating Concerns Advisors for god’s sake, are supposed to know better. After all, we know all about the Beauty Myth and we know how photoshop works and we know that it is a radical act to resist the homogenized impossible unattainable commercial vision of what beauty is. We know all this. Which is why, when I fell down that hole, I couldn’t tell anyone about it. On top of everything else – on top of being miserable and ashamed and really fucking hungry – I felt like a bad feminist, and I left like a flaming hypocrite. I felt like I was letting my readers down.
I’ve been mulling over her post since reading it, trying to make sense of the mess of feelings and thoughts her words have inspired in me. I certainly sympathize with her; after all, when you publicly identify as a feminist, you are announcing that you are an idealist in a way, and it can be crushing to acknowledge that you are falling far, far short of your ideals. It’s challenging enough to work these things out on your own, but to do it in public? On the internet? Where perfect strangers feel no compunction about seizing on your failings and turning them into weapons against you and your ideals? It’s a miracle anyone is open about anything on the internet at all.
I can also empathize with her. I considered myself a feminist for all of the years I was in my troubled, violent marriage, and I could never quite figure out how to square the dichotomy, how to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t quite figure out how to extricate myself from this marriage that was essentially the textbook definition of an anti-feminist relationship, that I couldn’t quite summon the nerve to do what I knew in my heart to be right. I already felt such shame over my situation as it was, but the awareness that I was falling far, far short of my ideals was perhaps the most shameful thing of all.
But this is the thing: that shame has since subsided. This is partly because it has been several years since I was involved in that relationship, and I have done a lot of healing work to move beyond this. But it is also partly because I’ve learned that I am not alone. I am not the only feminist who has been in an abusive relationship – not even close. And Chloe is not the only feminist who has struggled with body issues – not even close. I know so many women – strong, intelligent women – who dislike their bodies, who feel ugly, who struggle with self-acceptance and self-love.
In fact, I’d say that if the only women who were allowed to identify as feminists are ones who adhere to the Perfect Feminist Template, then there’d be no feminists left. Certainly this is in part because we are all human beings, with all of the imperfections and frailities that being human entails, but it’s also because the forces we are arrayed against – consumerism, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, a history of violence, psychological trauma, you name it – are just so powerful. The tools we have to protect ourselves – education, economic and political empowerment, critical theory, supportive community, love – can be potent, but sometimes they aren’t enough of a bulwark, and they get us despite our best efforts to evade them.
Rather than piling on ourselves – for even having the problem in the first place, then for failing to live up to our ideals – we’d do well to cut ourselves some slack. No one is going to come along and revoke your feminist credentials if you sometimes look in the mirror and hate what you see.
What we can also do is be open about our struggles. Silence forces us to shoulder the burden of shame alone, and it also contributes to the idea that we are somehow unique in our suffering, that no one else around us would understand, that we alone are flawed in this particular way. The reality is that almost all of us have hearts that serve as battlegrounds, and that most of us are fairly good at hiding that fact. But we don’t have to fight these battles alone. We can take our weaknesses and turn them into strengths, into empathy and compassion and understanding. In the end, these are the things that make us good feminists – and really, good people – not adherence to some imaginary standard of perfection that no one ever attains anyway.