When I was a young girl, I had a hard time understanding the dynamics between my female peers and the way they treated each other. For one, I can’t recall ever feeling incredibly “girlish” — at least not in the way it seemed like most other girls did. I always felt awkward and out of place. Looking back now, I can see how a lot of those feelings were a result of growing up in an abusive household, where I was the only daughter amidst 4 boys, and the only child who did not biologically “belong” to my physically and emotionally abusive (then) stepfather. I was nobody’s princess.
In fact, the only time any parental figure ever referred to me as a “princess” was when the aforementioned stepfather would use the word in a mocking tone, intending to humiliate me. My biological father never actively gave a shit about me one way or the other, and the man who was entrusted to help my mother raise me treated me as though he hated me. My mother was very young and working full-time, which meant that she was gone a lot. When she was around, she was never very affectionate with me and we didn’t spend a lot of time doing “girl things” together.
The combination of neglect and abuse left me constantly swinging between two extremes: I was either made to feel invisible and unwanted, or I was under extreme scrutiny and the easiest household target for abuse. The strongest feeling I can recall having as a child is wanting desperately to disappear: either as a favor to others, or as a favor to myself. That, and wishing that I was a boy because so much of the abuse and humiliation I endured seemed to be a direct result of my being a girl. As I began developing intellectually and emotionally, I found myself longing for female companionship — anything to make me feel less worthless for having been born a girl to a family that didn’t seem to want me.
In elementary school, I wound up being a part of the “popular” group of girls, but no matter how hard I tried I just never felt comfortable. I didn’t know the rules. There were so many social constructs that just made no sense to me and I always felt like the other girls were in on some secret that I wasn’t allowed to know. I can still vividly recall the way that certain female cliques would plot and scheme ways to humiliate other girls. Being intensely sensitive and a natural empath, I could never understand why the girls felt the need to destroy each other for absolutely no reason. Though I would try and play along sometimes in order to feel like I belonged, inside it made me feel sick and ashamed of myself. Eventually, in middle school, I began detaching from the girls I went to school with. My feeling was that I’d rather have no friends at all than to have friends who would hurt and abandon me just for sport. This was when my role as an outsider started to really solidify in my mind. I didn’t fit in with the girls in my class, popular or otherwise, and I certainly didn’t fit in with the boys. I felt like a full-on freak.
As I entered high school, I was happy to discover that there were some older students around that were easier for me to bond with. They seemed less malicious and concerned with gossip than the people my age did. I began to think that maybe I was just more mature than other kids my age and that the nasty behavior I had witnessed and experienced was behind me. To an extent, at the time, I was indeed in a safer friend group. The older girls never treated me as horribly as the girls my own age did (though some of the same competitive and catty behaviors were exhibited from time to time), and the older guys I hung out with didn’t really tease or sexualize me in any way. The lack of sexualization I experienced as a young teen was crucial for me, as I had absolutely no interest in sex at the time and any sexual harassment or abuse at that age would’ve completely destroyed me. In general I still think of them fondly, though we began to grow apart after a couple of years.
The school I went to was a very small, rural high school, and the incestuous nature of the social scene was suffocating for me. As an introvert/extrovert, I can be very outgoing and charming, but I also need a lot of personal space and privacy. Plus, I still didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin by any stretch of the imagination. Something was always bothering me about the way my peers interacted. l was constantly analyzing how they portrayed themselves and it all seemed to be based upon rules that I had no interest in adhering to. I didn’t really have a framework in place for understanding any of these feelings, I just knew that as time wore on I didn’t seem to like anything or anyone anymore. I had developed an entire inner world that needed constant nurturing: one which drove me, yet again, to detach from my peers. I quit all of the sports and school activities I’d been involved in and started focusing strictly on music, which had previously been more of a sacred space than an active lifestyle choice for me. My relationship with my mother was more estranged than ever. We were constantly at odds and I did everything I could to get out of the house and away from her. Though she had by this point divorced the monster and remarried a much nicer guy, I still resented her for not protecting me and the lack of communication and understanding drove a massive wall between us. That’s when I started driving long distances to go to punk and hardcore shows and began making friends with other types of teenagers from other cities.
Shows, hardcore shows in particular, became the only environment in which I felt like I could be myself. No one expected me to be pretty or quiet. I could scream all I wanted to. Being a part of the experience was the only thing that mattered, or so I thought. It wasn’t long until I found myself in a new girl clique, which pretty much ruined everything.
These girls were basically queens of the local hardcore/emo/metalcore scene that I had immersed myself in. They had all of the right band merch and went to all of the right shows. They were tough but also feminine, mastering that early 2000s androgynous scenester look with apparent ease. They all had expertly designed LiveJournals and perfectly angled Myspace photos, constantly rotating who was in their top 8 due to the relentless fluctuation of scene hierarchy. I was in awe of them and somehow managed to penetrate their tight knit group, though I lived two hours away, was a few years younger, and was by no means as “cool” as they were.
The androgyny aspect especially appealed to me, as I was totally clueless about how to express myself “properly” as a girl. Though I didn’t really have an interest in it anyway, I had started to feel ugly. When this group of girls embraced me I finally started to figure out how to do my hair and makeup, how to pick out clothes that complimented my body, etc., in ways that were conducive to my interests in music. I felt like I’d finally found my place in the world and set out to be as close to them as I could as quickly as possible. I took early out from high school just so I could move to the city and live with them. I became sort of the “guard dog” of the group. I was bigger and stronger than most girls (I guess I still am), and had a lot of pent up aggression that wasn’t being channeled properly. They would stir up drama on the internet or at shows and then send me in on the front line to do the dirty work. I was happy to do it because I felt like I was being a good friend, that I was protecting them in ways that no one had ever protected me. I even went to jail for beating up one of their boyfriends who had become physically abusive. But within a year or two, I noticed that the same female on female bullying bullshit was happening. Eventually I became a target, for whatever reason, and once again I detached.
The next several years of my late teens and early adulthood found me disillusioned and disheartened by the majority of my experiences with women. Time after time I would find myself in situations where I would bond quickly and intensely with a female friend and then eventually, she would turn on me. My relationships with these women felt intensely romantic in many ways. I would give everything I had to them: my possessions, my time, my money, my energy, all of my heart. I got matching tattoos with a girl after knowing her for only three days. She moved into my bedroom shortly thereafter and we lived together until I kissed a male friend of hers who turned out to be an old flame, something I was unaware of at the time, but it drove us apart nonetheless. I was devastated. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t know automatically that I would never do anything intentional to hurt her and why it was always so easy for my girlfriends to discard me. Eventually we patched things up and remain close to this day, but the constant fear of abandonment remains.
In many ways, I’ve felt more heartbroken at the hands of some of my platonic female friends than any of the people I’ve been in sexually romantic relationships with. At this point in my life, I had not come even remotely close to accepting the fact that I was queer and that didn’t help things either. All of these experiences with women resulted in an intense amount of internalized misogyny and self-loathing. I began saying things like “I’m more like a guy”, “Girls are too bitchy for me”, “All girls are insecure and jealous”, etc. My socio-political framework had only just started to develop by this time, my early 20s, and I referred to myself first as a sort of nihilist humanist. “Why should I be more exclusively supportive of one specific gender when neither gender seems to support me?” I began building a wall around me and exuded nothing but the toughest and most aggressive sides of my personality. I didn’t want to let people in anymore. I’d grown tired of disappointment and this defensive, “every man for himself” attitude stayed with me for several years. I was lost.
After having played in bands for a while and seeing firsthand the way that women were both dismissed as potential equals by their male peers and pitted against each other as if there could not possibly be room for more than one talented female within a 20 mile radius, I started wondering if maybe I had things wrong. I started educating myself about feminism and wound up fully embracing it as a concept, but found that I was still struggling internally with feelings of self-hatred and mistrust of women. This resulted in me behaving as somewhat of a hypocrite for a while. My relationship with my mother had improved over the years but I still treated her with a certain amount of disdain and disrespect. I started a band featuring mostly female players and went off on baby feminist tangents whenever the opportunity presented itself, yet I still found myself being dismissive of and resentful towards women, including myself.
I began working as a dominatrix in a household of other women who were for the most part incredibly educated and passionate about feminist issues, and yet I still found myself either directly or non-directly involved in catty shittalk and competitive behavior over clients, looks, seniority in the workplace, etc. The contradictions sounding off within me made me feel even more unsure of myself than ever. I couldn’t fucking figure out what was WRONG with me. Why could I understand and embrace, intellectually, the importance of feminism, and yet emotionally I could not love myself or other women in any real way? Why did I still look to men for inspiration and advice, insist on always having at least one male player in my band so as not to be lumped in with “girl bands”, and seek out and become hopelessly attached to the most abusive, selfish and manipulative men I could get my hands on? Was I just completely insane, at best, or at worst, was I a fraud?
That’s when it hit me. “It” being the biggest, most monumental realization of my entire life up until that point. I had been conditioned from a young age to not only hate myself, but to distrust and basically hate other women. If this happened to me, had it happened to other women as well? Is this conditioning the reason why my mother was never affectionate with me? Was she not affectionate with me because her mother was not affectionate with her? Were the girls I so desperately wanted to be close to throughout my life just as self-loathing as I was? Is that why they directed their insecurities and their rage outwardly, at the other girls around them? What about their mothers and grandmothers? How far back and deep does this pattern go? Was THIS the patriarchal umbrella under which society has been living that I’d been reading so much about? Ultimately I decided that yes, it is. Duh.
I began engaging my femme contemporaries in discussions about the effects of internalizing patriarchy-enforced gender stereotypes and gender-based self-hatred whenever possible. I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by some of the most intelligent and insightful women, trans, intersex and gender non-conformist people on the planet (in my opinion, at least) and their input, either through direct discussion with me or through their own exploration of relative issues in writing, has helped take the dialogue out of my head and into action. One of the main topics of discussion within the larger idea that came up repeatedly was the way that women — particularly cisgender women conditioned by society to identify with female stereotypes — within the music industry (most of my friends exist in this realm, let’s face it) compete with each other. It isn’t the kind of healthy competition that propels people forward in positive ways. It gets dark and it gets vicious, but the most sinister thing about it is that it happens behind each other’s backs.
We will put on a friendly face and congratulate each other on our various accomplishments, but deep down we are seething inside, threatened by the success of another woman as it invariably seems to challenge our own. What is that about? Through talking this out with others, I discovered what I believe to be the root of this particular aspect of activated internalized misogyny: there is a misperceived lack of space due to the idea that we live in a “man’s world”. If one woman gets to the top, there isn’t room for another woman. That’s the idea that has seduced women and pitted us against each other for generations and it is a false one. So how can we undo this damage?
I am firm believer that the only thing in this world that any individual has the power to change is themselves, so that is where I focused my desire for change: inwardly. Though I have always had an intuitive understanding of social injustice and inequality, I took it upon myself to become more actively educated than ever before about privileges outside of simply being a man, such as racial privilege, cisgender privilege, heterosexual privilege, etc. However, this particular realization, the one regarding internalized misogyny and sexism, was the tipping point for me. After all, the only true discrimination I had experienced personally up until this point was gender discrimination. I’m white and I’ve always presented and been perceived primarily as cisgender, though I am actually genderfluid. At the time of this realization, I had not yet come out as queer and therefore had not experienced direct, firsthand prejudice due to my sexual orientation. The spiraling thoughts overwhelmed me and the more that these ideas began to sink in, the more I was flooded with compassion and forgiveness for every single woman, cisgender or otherwise, in the entire world, regardless of whether or not she wanted or needed it. What was important was that I needed it. I needed to forgive myself for what I did not know and to find it within myself to forgive others who still may not know it.
Forgiveness and compassion came somewhat easily to me once I had this personal epiphany. There’s that natural empathy I mentioned earlier, for better or worse! One realization does not a changed person make, however. This is an ongoing journey of discovery for me and my biggest struggle is the one in which I figure out how to actively love my damn self. All of these experiences and all of the trauma I’ve endured, most of which has not been discussed in this piece in order to avoid getting off topic, has left some pretty deep scars. But the main point I wanted to make in writing this is that the path to self-love does not come easily for a lot of women for so many reasons, and that inability to love ourselves is what keeps us apart.
How can we parade these notions of sisterhood around until we’ve actually addressed the damage that has been done to our own notions of self-worth and personal value, not to mention the damage that continues to accrue by the exclusionary tactics employed by outdated “white feminism” which reinforce old ideas about gender roles and what qualifies as “good feminist” expressions of femininity? How can we truly support and uplift one another until we can look at the success, beauty, or general excellence of another without feeling as though it somehow diminishes our own?
I know that my story is only one tiny piece of an expansive universal experience. One of the most important things I’ve ever learned is how important it is to listen to other people. So I want to take the opportunity here to thank anyone who has ever actively listened to me, including you, the reader, who is reading this right now. I’m ready to listen to you as well. I have in no way figured everything out. This piece is just my way of sharing my own experience in the hopes that it will add to an ongoing discussion that is so much bigger than me. Let’s keep talking about it.
Photo Credit: Dustin Senovic