Why I Am a Feminist: Lisa Revisits The Beauty Myth

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.)

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people - Marie Shear | Sacraparental.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.

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth | Sacraparental.com

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).

Oh the places you'll go! Dr Seuss | Why I am a Feminist | Sacraparental.com

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.

Lisa Sengelow

You can keep up with Sacraparental via Facebook for daily snippets, Twitter for general ranting and raving and Pinterest for all sorts, including a Gender Politics board.

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)

Sexism in kids’ TV shows: what to look for and what to do about it

(Hopefully not) passing on rape culture

(Hopefully not) passing on body hatred

My Feminist Parenting Humiliation

The power of Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth - Why I am a feminist | Sacraparental.com

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