A very warm welcome to first-time guest poster, Lisa Sengelow!
I invited Lisa to write this post about the impact of Naomi Wolf’s book on her, expanding on a comment she made in a feminist mother’s Facebook group we are both part of. She wrote such a brilliant piece – this post right here! – that I’m keen to extend it into a series of guest posts, loosely collected under the title ‘Why I am a feminist.’ They aren’t exhaustive manifestos, just real life stories about why feminism is so important and potent and life-changing. Here’s Lisa’s.
(And if you’d like to add your own, please email me at: sacraparental at gmail dot com.)
I’m idly scrolling through my FB feed for some semi-mindless me-time after getting my children to bed, and I see this image.
A woman hunched under a table, naked, with her face bound up in bandages, holding an orange like it’s a holy relic, looking like she’d never dare to eat it.
It’s the cover of my copy of The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, which I owned sometime in the early 90s, and which disappeared sometime between then and now, lent to a friend or lost to an overenthusiastic cull. And the feeling I get is recognition, gratitude, a feeling of awe at the impact that book had on me, and a flashback to me at 21 – depressed, bulimic, obsessed with food and hunger and horribly weak physically. Trapped just like the woman in the picture.
I don’t remember that time of my life all that clearly, but I remember devouring that book, chapter after chapter, and feeling like I had been jolted awake from a compelling but crazy dream.
I don’t remember Wolf’s arguments in detail, but what I took from her was that the ideal I was striving so hard towards – harming my body and my mind in the process – was just one of many ‘ideal’ body types that had changed dramatically over time, and that all they had in common was that they all signified male status and privilege – for example, you have to be very wealthy to afford a wife who is so constrained by her corset that she can’t walk without help from a servant. I am sure the book was full of all sorts of nuanced examples, but that’s the one that stuck. And if women and girls stopped giving a shit about looking perfect we could do so much more – have adventures, make discoveries, change the world for the better.
I remember thinking something like “why would anyone put themselves through all that just to shore up male privilege? Fuck that – I’m not going to make myself vomit any more”. And I didn’t.
I don’t know if The Beauty Myth saved my life, but it got me out of a self-destructive pathway a lot sooner that would have happened otherwise. Back then I was not “too smart to go down any not so good street” (Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is another inspirational book for me! When I read it to my daughter I change the protagonist to a she. It’s surprisingly easy).
Reading The Beauty Myth also made feminism real for me for the first time. Before then I had used half-digested feminist theory to do things like analyze power structures in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Which was enjoyable for me, but kind of distanced from my actual life.
Cut to now. Feminism is important to me because I don’t don’t don’t want my daughter (who is now 5) to go through any of that same bullshit. Or anyone else’s daughter either. I am a feminist because the issues that Naomi Wolf opened my eyes to 20+ years ago haven’t gone away; they’ve gotten worse.
So I try to live and breathe enjoying being me, loving what my post-baby body with its bad back still does for me, not giving too much of a fuck what I look like (this is sometimes hard and I am still trying to fake it convincingly till I make it), using my brain for more important things, and playing with being plain or fancy as a choice I can make anytime. (My daughter loves being fancy, which is cool, and she says I am plain and sensible. I have dreams of one day reading Sarah, Plain and Tall to her, but she’ll probably say “Mum, that’s boring”.)
But I know I can’t control everything for her, and there is a whole world out there full of everyday sexism that she’ll have to navigate without me. Hopefully as a young woman she is too smart to go down any not so good street. But if she does, I hope she finds a wake-up idea at the right time, like I found The Beauty Myth. Now I want to read it again. And make sure it’s sitting on the bookshelf and or my kindle, waiting to be serendipitously discovered by someone else.
Lisa Sengelow is a practising public servant/Buddhist/mother/reader/Wellingtonian; and a lapsed librarian/Catholic/scuba diver/cable car driver/barista.
You might also want to check out these posts on feminist subjects:
The Beauty Myth (an intro or refresher)
Women hold up half the sky (opening our eyes to women in the Bible)