Like most other women today, I’ve been worried about how I look since I was a young girl. I don’t remember when exactly it started, maybe in middle school. I remember looking at other girls who started developing breasts and thinking about how cool it was that their shirt formed a gap when it was tight across their chests. I wished mine would do that, but my breasts were still too small. In high school, I started caking layers of drug store makeup across my face in an attempt to hide my breakouts, and I would spend hours straightening my long, naturally curly hair. I wore too much eyeliner to distract areas I perceived as flaws.
Deep down, though, I knew I couldn’t compete with most girls. I didn’t look like the girls on TV, and no amount of makeup or straightening would make it true. I always felt uglier than all of my other friends who had much better luck with boys, and although my self-image improved bit by bit as I got older, it was never really great. I started self-harming my freshman year and continued through most of high school. There are a lot of reasons people self-harm, but I wanted to prove that I was tough. I felt weak and helpless in society, but cutting made me feel strong. I figured if I wasn’t going to be pretty, I better at least form a thick skin.
In college, I discovered mainstream feminism. In this feminism, you didn’t have to look pretty if you didn’t want to — looking good was your choice! Even though it was suddenly my choice, though, I didn’t really feel much more free from the expectations of the people around me. I was still competing with other girls for male attention, and society still expected me to look a certain way. The choice was pretty much made for me. I tried to look cute, without looking like I was trying to look cute — a constant balancing act.
As an “empowered” sex-positive feminist, my sexual relationships with men (and sometimes women) were often the center of my life. I was constantly trying new things, no matter how uncomfortable it made me, and trying to keep up with the porn I knew my boyfriend(s) watched.
One time, my roommates in a summer house (two “queer” men) brought home porn from the local XXX video shop as a “joke” and asked if I wanted to watch it with them. Scared of being labeled a prude, I obliged. It was Pirates of the Caribbean themed, and included a scene of Jack Sparrow putting a lit candle into a female pirate’s backside while the hot wax dripped down her legs and Jack shouted at her for being a slut. It looked more like torture than sex and made me nauseous, but I laughed along with the guys. They quickly excused themselves to their rooms when the “joke” was over, and I cleaned up the popcorn and drinks. I felt like there was something wrong with me for feeling disgusted rather than empowered by the movie.
One type of porn I did enjoy, however, was lesbian porn. Although sometimes the scenes could be just as gross, without men present it was rarely anywhere near as violent or vitriolic as straight porn. Soon enough, I was comparing myself to the girls I saw in this porn, too. I saw myself through the eyes of porn-obsessed men, and I didn’t stand a chance. My relationships with both friends and romantic interests suffered because I was insecure, and I felt constantly on guard. If I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror without makeup on, or with my hair natural, I felt ashamed.
It wasn’t until I discovered radical feminism that I slowly started to gain real self-worth.
After college, I started having conversations with my mom about her past. I learned about how she had been abused by her birth father, and I noticed the patterns of violence in her relationships and how I tended to replicate her patterns in my own relationships. I wanted to learn more about our relationships with men, and the patterns I was seeing. I was hungry for answers and started reading any feminist writing I could find. Eventually ended up at Andrea Dworkin. Before I knew it, I was a radical feminist. Suddenly, everything made sense.
While mainstream feminism paints femininity and beauty as a personal choice, radical feminism recognizes that this choice is inherently coerced under patriarchy. My choices were never really free in the first place because there were systems of power in place which pressured me into certain choices over others, yet these systems were invisible to me. This is why the empowerment of “choice feminism” felt so hollow, and why many women today have even given up on feminism altogether. The concept of an uncoerced choice under patriarchy and capitalism is an illusion.
Recognizing this gave me true empowerment. Rather than comparing myself to other women, now I just see individual women who are trying different levels of conformity to survive in the patriarchy. They are not my competition, they are my sisters, comrades, and allies — even if they don’t believe that. Rather than basing my worth on my relationships with men, I started prioritizing female friendships and activism.
After learning about the inherent exploitation of the porn and sex industries, I stopped using porn altogether. My goal was initially just to end my participation in a system of violence against women, but there was an unforeseen benefit as well: I stopped feeling pressure to look and act like the women in porn. My partner of three years quit porn shortly after me and knowing I don’t have to complete against increasingly escalating scenarios in his head makes me feel safer, more loved, and more connected with him.
Radical feminism has also helped me find a love for womanhood and the female body that is present nowhere else in society, even in mainstream feminism. The modern “empowered” woman of today is supposed to be basically just like a man, but in high heels. We live in a misogynistic culture, and the messages of the inherent worthlessness of women are everywhere. Without active counteracting, you’re bound to internalize some of it. Women-only spaces and conversations with other radical feminists have provided me a chance to deconstruct the shame of my own body that had been pushed on me since girlhood.
Surrounding myself with other radical feminists often means being around gender-nonconforming women who actively eschew femininity as an act of resistance, or at least an act of comfort. They refuse to play the patriarchy’s game, and they are all the more happy and free for it. Spending time around older feminists has helped me gain perspective on the fleeting aspect of youth, and taught me not to count on what good looks I do have as a source of comfort. They are strong, willful, powerful even — all without relying on mere aesthetics. These are the women I want to be like.
This year, for the first time since I was 14 years old, I am able to look at myself in the mirror without makeup on or with my natural hair and feel genuinely good about myself. I didn’t become a radical feminist out of a desire to improve my self-worth, but by gaining an understanding of why we make the choices we do, removing toxic patriarchal trash from my head, and surrounding myself with amazing gender-nonconforming women — I did just that. I’ve never felt more free.
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