On top of every other pressure that women feel in our society, we can be hampered by the challenge of try to live up perfectly to our feminist ideals. As Roxane Gay wrote in her excellent book Bad Feminist, “In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.” Gay was a guest for a discussion about the realities of practicing feminism with regular hosts Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond in what was a very auspicious beginning to the new Dear Sugar Radio podcast. They took a woman’s letter about recovering from an abusive relationship as a jumping off point for a broader discussion of the tension between being human and trying to be a perfect feminist. It’s well worth an hour of your time.
Cheryl Strayed talks about this conflict and succumbing to the pressures of our culture in the context of the premiere of the movie version of her book “Wild.” She wants to be carefree about how she looks and feel comfortable, but at the same time, she wants to feel pretty when she’s surrounded by movie stars on the red carpet. While most of us can’t relate to having to worry about how we look standing next to Reese Witherspoon, I think we can all relate to that struggle of knowing intellectually that we should be comfortable in our own skin, but facing the day-to-day reality of societal expectations.
A while back, I lost some weight, the first time in my life I had ever done so deliberately. When I got compliments on how I looked, I felt a mixture of pride and resentment. I’ve accomplished so many more meaningful things in my life, why do I get compliments on becoming physically smaller? I know in my mind it shouldn’t matter to me. And yet, I won’t stop thinking about it any time soon. I enjoy food, I enjoy exercise, I’m not depriving myself. I’m healthier and in better shape, but I’d be fooling myself if I pretended I’m not maintaining that lifestyle in large part because I want to look a certain way. The proud feminist in me knows not to care, the real, living, flawed person still can’t help it.
While I’ve been lucky enough not to endure anything like the abuse the advice-seeker on the podcast faced, it’s a vivid example of times when purity of feminism can be difficult. We all have our lines, and those can move over time. There are things 22-year-old me put up with that 34-year-old me never would. There are times when 34-year-old me just doesn’t have the energy to take on a fight. We’re a complicated mess of feelings and experiences, and while there may be a knee-jerk inclination to judge someone like the self-identified feminist who put up with a horrid relationship, it’s important to remember that none of us can perfectly embody these ideals.
To keep our commitment to feminism sustainable, we must allow ourselves to be flawed human beings, but also recognize when falling short of our ideals can hurt us. As Gay writes, “I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”