Writing by Tamzin Elliot. Illustration by Antonia Popescu.
Hint: that voice in your head telling you that ‘you’re not like other girls’? That’s it, that’s the patriarchy.
Instagram was a stressful place to be in the summer of 2020. Everywhere I looked there were people discovering Pamela Reif or posting screenshots of Zoom happy hours with friends. As someone perpetually insecure about their body and friendships, I can safely say that the isolation caused by this insecurity was the isolation I suffered from the most. But why did I feel this way? Internalised misogyny, that’s why. Internalised misogyny fucking sucks.
The patriarchy is ‘a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it’.[i] When we are constantly surrounded by power structures dominated by men, we internalise and digest this as the norm, and as a result we see ourselves as lesser. This is internalised misogyny, or, the patriarchy destroying us from the inside out. One example of internalised misogyny is self-objectification. Women internalise sexual objectification to such an extent that in our own eyes we become objects to be looked at and judged on the basis of our own appearances.[ii] Sexual objectification encompasses everything from the hypersexualisation of young Black girls to shaming sex workers, who are empowered enough to profit off their own bodies in a society which has told them their body is purely for male consumption. All of this has been internalised as a natural way of thinking. Self-objectification creates deep insecurities, specifically in our relationships to other women.
Basically, the patriarchy makes us think that there is a limited amount of power and success available to women, meaning that we have to compete with each other for it. We are forced into the mindset of ‘every woman for herself’, in which every other woman is a threat to our existence. This social conditioning is the birthplace of the ‘bitchy, backstabbing woman’ stereotype. It’s a bit like when the University of Edinburgh explains, rather patronisingly, that funds available to support students’ mental wellbeing are strictly limited, that there’s only so much money to go around, but then pull million pound grants out of their arses for new buildings. Only in this scenario, success is the currency that women have limited access to whilst men are entitled to as much of it as they want. This pushes us into isolation from other women, because their success makes us insecure about ourselves and often turns into jealousy. Here’s x amount of success for you and x amount of success for her. She has x number of friends, which makes x number of friends you can’t have. Internalised misogyny never learnt to share as a child.
We’re told ‘you can’t be xyz because she’s xyz, but you can be abc instead!’. You then feel you have to work to prove that abc is superior to xyz, whether you truly believe that or not. Competition time; also known as the ‘I’m not like other girls’ trope, which most of us first encountered during our phase where we hated pink. Not only does internalised misogyny suck, it’s also clearly stupid.
Why would men want to empower us when they literally profit and thrive off our insecurities? And don’t even get me started on the capitalist vulture that is the self-care industry. Instead of teaching us to love ourselves and each other, it’s far more effective to force women into being insecure, because insecurity is an isolating experience. Alone, we feel powerless. Women who have each other’s backs are a force to be reckoned with. Women coming together is powerful. Celebrating women is powerful. Loving women is powerful. Even not being powerful can be powerful; being vulnerable with my friends has been one of the most empowering experiences for me as I navigate womanhood.
I consider myself a very open person, but even so it took me a long time to have this conversation with one of my closest female friends. This is someone with whom I share everything – from the fascinating contents of my food shop to the current, and often questionable, state of my vagina. I felt insecure around her because of her intelligence, her large circle of friends, her confidence, her body and her infectious personality. Convinced I was doomed to be the uncool one in our friendship, I’d previously tried to distance myself from her. I’d assumed that she didn’t want to be my friend, but really it was just the irrational notion that because she has those things, I can’t possibly have them too. She’s smart, so I can’t be; she’s pretty, so I’m not. Fast forward ten minutes into a deep heart-to-heart via Instagram message, and it turns out she feels exactly the same way about me. The success of the women around us should be celebrated and revered, not torn down and envied.
Working through insecurities in a world that forces them onto you is difficult, even more so in a society which doesn’t encourage positive female relationships. That’s without mentioning the challenge of being physically isolated when you already feel mentally isolated. Women need access not just to collective spaces of progress, but collective spaces of healing, because there is power both in our success and in our vulnerability. Internalised misogyny didn’t learn that either.
[ii] Dawn M. Szymanski and others, ‘Internalized Misogyny as a Moderator of the Link between Sexist Events and Women’s Psychological Distress’, Sex Roles, 61.1–2, 101–9.