So, two things got me thinking again. I finished reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, and I received the December edition of Victoria’s Secret catalogue in the mail (I am apparently residually on their mailing list after buying underwear there a few times).
I have refrained from mentally engaging the complexities of gender related issues since I graduated from college. I had a feminist professor who had a knack for getting me all riled up. She was a beautiful combination of high heels and tri-athlete, challenging every societal norm that slightly marginalized women. I couldn’t even sit through dinner with friends without finding myself hot and agitated, having been referred to, throughout the night, as a “chick,” a “hey man,” and a “you guys.” They say “ignorance is bliss,” and I agree, because enlightenment sure is exhausting.
Tired of always being mad at my male friends, father, brother and anyone who accidentally called me a “girl” instead of a woman, or referred to God as a man, I decided to give up the feminist act and just live my life. I have since shied away from gender discussions and turned my critical attitude inward. Trying to make societal changes through argument and accusations only leads to frustration, which only leads to bitterness; this just keeps a person down. Since college, in lieu of stirring up gender related conflict, I have instead gotten married, traveled, bought a house with my husband, worked a variety of jobs and given birth to two beautiful boys.
When that Victoria’s Secret magazine landed on my front step, I opened it up, furrowed my brow and flipped through the pages mindlessly. “Cute underwear,” I thought. “That would be a great nursing shirt,” I found myself saying out loud. My husband and my two-year old came beside me to peer over my shoulder and check out the goods. Asher, in all of his beautiful two year old innocence, said, “Mommy?” pointing at one of the Barbie Doll models with breasts three sizes larger than mine and much “less nursed” looking. Breasts, to him, still solely signify nourishment, and any woman with breasts, is without a doubt a “mommy.”
“Look at these models!” I said to my husband, “they are tiny!” I have said this before many, many times. This used to be one of my favorite hot topics, ranting about how ridiculously unrealistic underwear model’s bodies are, but in this particular moment, with my two year old staring down at the page and my husband smirking over my shoulder, I felt that familiar agitated burning feeling sneaking up on me. Some of the women were literally made to look plastic; their skin iridescent and shiny, slightly bronzed and glimmered. Others were so disproportionately small in the hips in relation to their breasts that I felt actual pain in my lower body just thinking about the simple mechanics of walking up a stair case with these measurements.
“No baby, that’s not Mommy, Mommy is real.”
The Help got me thinking in a whole different direction. Since finishing the book, I had spent hours sitting, watching my babies, thinking of how my life has changed since becoming a mother; thinking about what it means to be a woman and a mother right now, at this time, in this country. In what ways are we similar to the characters in this widely read novel set in 1960’s Mississippi that grapples with issues of racism, sexism and human cruelty? In what ways do we bring our fellow females down in our actions, speech or judgments? How are we making conscious efforts to lift each other up? During an era when half naked Victoria’s Secret models seductively stare my two year old in the face and pop culture continues to promote derogatory, over sexualized messages about the female body, what are we doing to support and encourage one another?
I realize now that angrily picking apart the overuse of generic masculine pronouns in our language gets me nowhere on my quest towards encouraging other females to embrace who they are. In fact, it demonstrates nothing supportive in my cause. Instead of portraying myself as a victim-like, uptight female, I would rather be perceived as a woman who is comfortable in my own skin. Now a mother of two boys, I find that I am faced with a huge responsibility. I want my boys to be vessels of change in this world and I believe that it starts with teaching them how to love and trust themselves so that they may have the capacity to love and accept others. I believe that teaching through demonstration is the most effective way to pass on knowledge. My first goal is to be overtly respectful and loving towards my own body. One way I have chosen to do this, is to openly breastfeed my babies. I do this because it is a way that I can publicly embrace my valuable role as a mother and a female. The more women who are made to feel comfortable doing this, the more mainstream this significant act will become. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the next generation of little boys could grow up appreciating breasts as something more than sexual objects?
I am also on a quest to be purposeful with my language. The subtleties of language can have a dramatic impact on children as they learn about the world around them. It means speaking in uplifting ways about both males and females, and in ways that don’t blindly categorize. I always appreciated my Grandfather, who without a doubt, assumed that I would be running the motor and pulling shrimp pots every time we went out on his boat. The confidence in his voice when he said, “Alright Erin, you’re up,” said, you are just as capable as the boys. When he stood in the kitchen with an apron on and helped my grandmother make raspberry jam, he was demonstrating to me, at an impressionable age, that kitchen jobs were not gender specific, but dependent on an individual’s interests and hobbies.
Men like my Grandfather are the reason that I have decided not to be an angry feminist. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone, or force people to change their ways. I just need to be happy being me; pursuing my life without self inflicted limits and preconceived notions, embracing my individual female identity, and encouraging the women and mothers that surround me to do the same. After all, being a contented feminist is much less tiring than being an angry feminist, and it may be more influential as well.