Ramblings of an imperfect feminist

B tries to reconcile her ideal vision of herself with some contrary historical evidence.

I preface this piece with a slight apology. Yes, yes – I know sorry is a dirty word. I know it should be eradicated from my vocabulary. But, alas, here I am. I’m sorry about the piece you’re about to read. The words that follow are ill-structured, scrappily strung together and possibly a little too verbose. It’s simply how I communicate. In this instance, it’s how I grapple with nostalgia and regret; the complex dichotomy between female sensibilities and feminist opinion. The pang of painful memories, when you’re confronted with things you once did, or, in this case, didn’t do.

I live in a time where they tell me it’s never been better to be a woman – we’re politically represented, the conglomerates are instituting gender parity policies and we’re bridging the wage gap

When I read the prompt for this edition, I treated myself to some historical retrospection. The milieus of eras long since elapsed, the movements of the 1900’s. I tried to position myself within that social zeitgeist, with the view that I’d have championed feminist values and rallied for equality. I cradle the border between Millenial and Gen Z, I live in a time where they tell me it’s never been better to be a woman – we’re politically represented, the conglomerates are instituting gender parity policies and we’re bridging the wage gap. The old white heterosexual man at the helm of societal and financial control is a relic. His assumed superiority no longer.

So – given things are mostly good – I asked, if I could turn back time, would I march the streets with my fellow women, hand in hand, demanding the vote? I’d like to think so. If I could turn back time, would I grow out my armpit hair and have posters of Gloria Steinem on my walls? Most likely. If I could turn back time, would I vocalise my support for Anita Hill as she braved congress with her sexual assault story? Would I laugh or would I cower when Monica Lewinsky’s dress was held up, for all to grovel at? 

I identify proudly as a feminist. So much so that I’ve spent isolation memorising Julia Gillard’s “misogyny speech.” It’s a party trick – yes. It’s a tik-tok phase – sure. But to me, it’s more than that: it’s identifying with her pain and with her struggle and recognising that I’m lucky. Lucky to be standing on the shoulders of the women that have come before me. The ones that were relegated to secretarial school, denied the opportunity to vote, and that fought, with might, to shatter the goddamn patriarchy

Whilst indulging in visions of feminist grandeur, of my past life as Emmeline Pankhurst, there was a niggle that – perhaps – if I wielded that elusive time-travelling device, that’s not quite who I’d be. That I’m not as courageous or daring as I like to think. That niggle, ever-present and ever-annoying, quashed any evidence of my bravery or bravado. This one moment in time that – without the gender studies classes and books by Clementine Ford and podcasts by Deborah Frances White – rendered me silent and ashamed. 

When a 15-year-old me, with freshly waxed legs, went to a pool party, I’d expected – much like my legs – for all to run smoothly. Freshly pale, and not yet across the fake-tan aisle at Priceline, I oozed that, “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman” aesthetic. And as the spa bubbled over with illegal cruisers and with teenaged excitement, the last thing I’d expected was a boy, voice barely broken, to announce that I was a prawn. A prawn? A genuine fucking crustacean? A flimsy bit of flesh that you throw on the “barbie”?

It was followed up with a, “you know, like a paper bag?” A prawn and a paper bag are entirely incompatible and antonymous things (unless, of course, you’re at the fish market). In this context though, he meant one thing: my body was my only good asset. My head was to either be (a) eaten or (b) covered up. He’d rip off my head and devour the body. He’d discard my face, with its smile and with its laugh. He’d neglect my brain, with all its complexities and parts, personality and wit. He’d, in as violent machinations as the image evokes, tear off the woman’s head, and use the body, like the fit-for-purpose, male dominated pleasure vehicle that it is. 

It was the first time a boy had – ever so kindly – confirmed my greatest fears. Not only was my face ugly, and my intellect irrelevant, but all I’d ever be good for, desired for, and worthy of, was my body. With that natural teenage boy hubris, he had, in an instant, verbalised the age-old patriarchal and misogynist rhetoric that infiltrates locker rooms and PornHub and WhatsApp groups named “the lads.”

But – on that day – 8 years ago, I did nothing. I retreated into myself. Laughed it off. Pretended something was in my braces. That the red hue that brazened my cheeks was instead a reaction to the hot spa

It’s the same boys that go to gender studies lectures at university, only to heckle the lecturer and ask, “if you’re a feminist, why are you wearing lipstick? (true story).” It’s the same mindset that encourages boys to rank girls out of 10 on body and face in their private Instagram chats (true story), to set up a round robin event publicly, online, where girls are pitted against each other, until you inevitably find the “hottest one” (true story). (on that point – what did y’all plan to do with the winner?)

It’s rooted in aggression. In dominance. It somehow sits in conjunction with this warped idea that men can compartmentalise their feelings of love for their sisters and mothers and propound genuine disgust for others. Calling a girl a slut at school but attending a Mother’s Day brunch that very weekend. The idea that once they turn 25, all emotional immaturity will dissolve, and they’ll be ready to settle down and make an honest woman out of you. 

It’s no wonder that women are notoriously body-conscious. Worry about every morsel of food they consume. Buy the flattering jeans over the comfortable ones. Wear heels to elongate their legs. Put makeup on for fear of baring all. Because men have told us, since day dot, that all we’d ever be good for, is our appearance. 

I was in no position, either intellectually or emotionally, to brandish my weapon and expose it: the brain I had, had not yet comprehended the gravitas and impact that his statement held

Earlier I mentioned that, if I’d been born 60 years earlier, I’d have actively participated in the women’s rights movement. That today, I do what I can to dismantle gender stereotypes and to further the path for gender equality. But – on that day – 8 years ago, I did nothing. I retreated into myself. Laughed it off. Pretended something was in my braces. That the red hue that brazened my cheeks was instead a reaction to the hot spa.

I can’t admonish myself for that, though. I was ill-equipped and young and eager to impress. I was in no position, either intellectually or emotionally, to brandish my weapon and expose it: the brain I had, had not yet comprehended the gravitas and impact that his statement held. I was operating under the false assumption that gender inequality didn’t exist anymore. That everything was cool. We were on a level playing field.

As a University-age student, I know – of course, with my trusty friend hindsight – that it was only the beginning. The beginning of my reckoning with my gender, with feminism, and my desperation to attract male attention, no matter the cost. 

Part of me hopes he’ll read this and feel that stab of regret. If he even remembers. He’s a good friend of mine now. He’s smart and kind and conscious. But, then again, aren’t they all?

B is a student, slowly navigating some inner conflicts and some problematic incidents in the past. She’s not putting her full name to this story – she wouldn’t wanna alienate anyone. Let that sink in.

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