I Want to Become a Feminist Role Model

"I need feminism because with it, I can achieve the purity of vision I need to understand what surrounds me and start creating the change we need." (Photo credits: Ileana Jimenez)
“I need feminism because with it, I can achieve the purity of vision I need to understand what surrounds me and start creating the change we need.” (Photo credit: Ileana Jiménez)

When I entered my high school fierce and fabulous feminism course, I did not know what to expect.

Most of my classmates seemed to have a clearer vision than I did. When asked what we believed feminism to be, many cited expectations on gender roles, the right to vote, political justice, and social oppression.

Some related the word “feminism” to specific feminist leaders, including older relatives, and others shared personal stories. Yet, for how personal, captivating, and touching, these narratives did not seem to be exclusively theirs. No matter how meaningful their stories were, their struggles and experiences were still an inch away from their reach, comprehensible but not quite concrete.

It was not difficult to identify a theme in the ideas that started emerging. These narratives told the history of a world that cyclically revealed and concealed its cracks, in the shortness of breath between moments of balance and attacks of indignation. Meanwhile, my class’s interest in feminism told the story of young adults who see themselves as feminism’s successors, left in an in-between of an unclear time with admirable models from the past and little to decipher in their present.

I myself could only see little in my reach. Confronting my anxieties and uneasiness with the attitudes developing in these times – some of which I could see before the beginning of the course, others that only revealed themselves to me through the conversations we had in class – I felt powerless. And I found shame in my grievance.

I was born in a Western, developed country, where I was brought up with care and comfort. In Italy, I received a full and diverse education, without ever being denied of the choice of experiencing something different. I am, doubtlessly, privileged, while many individuals my age are not.

Objectively, I could not complain. The environment I was surrounded by told me that I must not complain, and I was ashamed of my dissatisfaction. My surroundings pressured me to conform, to become part of the many that were easy to satisfy, except myself. My culture pressured me not to lament for what I could not accept, for I would make myself unacceptably critical and difficult to fit into the predetermined role that I was given.

I was powerless, because silencing myself, I was silencing all that was around me. I deprived myself of the full richness of my potential and the support that, perhaps, I could have found in my surroundings. My authenticity survived, yet it was scratched and humiliated.

Before, numb and inhibited, I had no room to imagine change, and I am sure it was partially because, as the need for change was simultaneously being repressed not just by me, but others too, I felt alone. The mere awareness of the presence of support can drastically affect behavior. Having someone else reach your objective may take part of the satisfaction away; to me, it would have been enough. I wanted to perceive a glance of discontentment from someone, anyone else, to earn more credibility before others and a little more courage for myself. I loved my way of being, but in time it had become difficult for me to embrace it fully, particularly in the presence of others.

Girls' potential must not be underestimated (Photo credits: http://missrep.tumblr.com)
Girls’ potential must not be underestimated (Photo credits: http://missrep.tumblr.com)

I found that such exposure is very difficult to find, especially at a certain age. It is much easier to ignore the brutality of words from some people, than to stand up for others who may feel the same way. It is easier to embrace than ignore the contradictions of some, than pointing out the wrong that they’re doing, while concealing it with an ephemeral idealism.

It was difficult, I now realize, for me to fully embrace who I was, because I felt that very few were truly doing it. I had the impression that, as we grew up, exposed to the most derogatory and violent images of people, obsessively broadcasted by the media, we partially wanted to deny ourselves that horror that so many were pushed to make theirs.

In oppressive daily conversations about diets and appearances, I remember girls citing endless lists of names of actresses in suffocating, invisible clothes, or peers with equally invisible and suffocated bodies. When, occasionally, they would refer to themselves, they would use the same tone. Nobody ever expressed a warm tone of love of self, not even a minimum glance of self-respect that contributes to getting up in the morning.

They would monotonically complain about their looks, their weight, their features, analyzing each trait so critically, so perversely, so unmercifully that they were not talking about themselves anymore. They seemed to repeat, following a punctilious script, the narrative of complaint and dissatisfaction that had already been prepared by someone else. Embracing these anonymous figures, they faded into a constructed love for materialism and did not consider the harm that they were doing to themselves and their surroundings.

I find that the poisonous obsession with self-image will find no end, as long as it is accepted by society to be so obsessed. The media has a powerful effect on our thinking that I had not considered in a critical way. With so little consumption of daily junk food for the mind, I was barely affected. Yet, as the stories move through us, through casual conversations or images of our own selves that we promote, the spread of the obsession has grown exponentially.

In a way, we have transformed the world we live in into a living advertisement, where values are replaced by what can be communicated most effectively, quickly, subconsciously, only to be invisibly ingrained within ourselves.

I am struck by this line: “Nobody tells an actor, ‘you’re playing a strong-minded man.’ We assume that men are strong-minded. A strong-minded woman is a different animal,” said Meryl Streep. It is for this reason that, after these 12 weeks in a high school feminism class, I want to embrace change, to promote it, to make it my own struggle.

Representation Matters (Photo credits: http://missrep.tumblr.com)
Representation Matters (Photo credits: http://missrep.tumblr.com)

Feminism has given me the tools to transform ideas into concrete action. Reaching the conclusion of my high school studies, I cannot say that I am in a position of certainty. I cannot say that I’ve never been affected by conversations I’ve had with friends, by the glossy magazine covers with dizzying plunging necklines, by peers’ hints that were meant to suggest that I was trespassing the boundaries of my role in the room.

Proudly, I’m still a different animal.

My individuality has evolved, drastically from time to time, over the past few years, challenged by all of these influences. Sometimes it was rejected for its seriousness, for its shy introversion, other times excused and overlooked for a shade of class, a shade of skin. Now, it has found its place; perhaps momentarily, perhaps more durably than before.

Seeing the world through the lenses of feminism, only now I can embrace my full authenticity, and the relief and welcome I find is blissful and awakening. I can now see who I want to become; my future career is still excitingly hazy, but I have found a starting point. I know I have a role, a single, essential one, for now, which is to be a motivator for myself, and am now becoming the best example I can be for my sister to embrace.

Jasmine Burnett of SisterSong NYC & Trust Black Women at the Rally for Women's Health NYC (Feb. 26, 2011)(Photo credits: www.brooklynvegan.com)
Jasmine Burnett of SisterSong NYC & Trust Black Women at the Rally for Women’s Health NYC (Feb. 26, 2011)(Photo credits: http://www.brooklynvegan.com)

“If I’m not who I need to be for myself, I can’t be anything for anyone else.” The words of Jasmine Burnett inspire me and I can identify with them deeply. I want for her what I have searched for myself for a long time. She is authentic. She is a vibrant voice that exists outside of the mainstream, who promotes the change we need in this mentality of obsession over superficial materialism. Yet, first, I have to work on who I need to be for myself and the process has been exhaustingly long.

It’s been difficult for me to find the strength to define myself and, afterwards, the courage to stand alone – I’ve watched many of those who were close to me change to follow the tastes and wants of others, to feel the warm embrace of conformity, of involvement with the mass.

My difference seems captivating at first to my sister’s young eyes, but as she enters a more corrupt, strict environment of teenage bad-mouthing, I am aware that the alternatives become increasingly appealing. Experiencing the difference was awakening for me; it was an experience of pain, relapse, discovery of strength and eventually, order. Valuing my morality as much as I do now took longer, but seeing my environment through different lenses was a key element.

Seeing myself not just as a mere “different animal,” but a creature who could unlock a greater potential, manifesting the dissatisfaction and rage that had to remain unspoken and, beyond, an unconditioned love for my authenticity and that of others’, was a great step. In these moments, I discovered myself and I neglected others. I was called “selfish” and “unemotional,” and “cold” for not being a caretaker, for not bursting into tears when saying goodbye, for not behaving as an emotionally fragile and delicate girl. I kept focusing on who I was, instead of who I was expected to become.

Learning to love my body, and contradicting all the lessons that surrounded me, has required time. But as I eventually appreciate the features that, physically and mentally, make me who I am, I am glad to know that I am not alone. I’m authentic in the same way as those who embrace feminism and recognize it as a core part of their lives. I can now say that I identify as a feminist, recognizing the blindness I was in before.

The stories that my classmates shared at the beginning of September are now my own story, as much as my story is now a narrative of authenticity that is the core of who I want to become and who I hope my sister will become.

I want to make sure that she won’t have to go through this all by herself. Watching the gorgeous young woman she’s growing into, I shiver as I did when she first told me, at the age of 12, that she was not accepted for her body, that she was unsatisfied with the way she looked. I fear that before she finds herself, someone else may brutally take her authenticity away with spiteful empty words.

What will never stop astonishing me is that, most times, it is not the media guided by “adults” that does the most damage, but the peers who, affected by it, enforce this on one another. The film Miss Representation reports that 53% of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. I invite the readers to consider this piece of information, as I did, and start glancing around themselves. The gorgeous girls who, today, are 13 like my sister, who embrace the initial beauty of their teenage years with a look of innocence, cannot be protected in their teens years as they were in their childhood.

The risk of losing them and their potential as strong, authentic women increases more and more with every minute. By the age of 17, 78% of girls are unhappy with their bodies. I hope that these increasing numbers will vanish over time, and that girls’ attention will shift towards things that can give them more satisfaction and personal growth, than their mere appearance. I hope that they will start learning to love themselves and their bodies and their life-long companions, but I can’t wait for a change to spontaneously occur.

In Miss Representation, Marie Wilson offers the words of Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

I want to raise awareness here, through those I am close to, to help my sister and others build an environment they want to live in blissfully.

I know that we’re not alone. There are few who’ve dared to speak up their minds and indignation, following Audre Lorde’s eye-opening mantra: “the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation”. Many of these important feminists are remembered through the Judy Chicago‘s breathtaking artwork, “The Dinner Party”, which has revealed to me many insights and has given me incentive to look for more feminist role models.

Feminism is Human Rights. Are you a Feminist? (Photo credits: http://missrep.tumblr.com)
Feminism is Human Rights. Are you a Feminist? (Photo credits: http://vitaminw.co/change/communicating-feminism)

During the fantastic 12 weeks of this high school feminism course, I read the words of many strong, brilliant, fierce women that promoted the awakening of a lost mentality, of the care for values before the care for images – and, in their narratives, I found a sense of comfort.

I find it heartbreaking that some of these voices are unknown to many who, without knowing, would need them as much as I did and do. I know the media will keep sheltering us from the dissatisfaction, the disappointment, the rage.

I need feminism, because through it I can see these flaws. I need feminism, because through it I have the tools to share my insight. I need feminism, because with it I can achieve a purity of vision I had never known before.

I need feminism, because it has helped me develop a more critical form of thinking. I need feminism because I am tired of waiting for someone to promote the change that I need for myself and the improvement that I want to give to my sister. I am a feminist, because I am, as all others, a “different animal.”

I am a feminist, because these issues, these struggles, these values, these beliefs are my own, and I can’t wait to continue sharing what moves me so.

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