I, like a lot of woman, have struggled with the word feminist for quite a while. I always knew that I wanted to be treated no different than a man--I mean I enjoy chivalry and please open my car door for me, but I don't want to be treated differently when it comes to competence, ability, job performance, etc. I think most people can agree that chivalry and modern feminism can exist hand in hand and if you don't well then maybe stop reading now cause you may be up in arms as my sentences unwind.
You could say my feminist journey began in the fifth or sixth grade when I was asked to great a scrapbook of sorts, chronicling an important figure in an American social movement. And while people were cutting pictures out of Lincoln, MLK, and JFK (all ballers of their time, don't get me wrong) I was writing about Gloria Steinem and explaining why I thought she was the real Superwoman, sans fabulous gold cuffs. At that age I probably didn't know a whole lot about what it meant to be a feminist but I sure felt like one. I didn't have a bra to burn at the time, but if I did you can bet I would have started a trash can fire in the middle of the school yard. I think that my discovery and eventual marvel of Gloria Steinem's rebellion is what first awoke me to the idea that boys and girls don't have to be treated totally different.
I come from a family with a very strong and fiercely independent mother who is also very happily married. However, I'm also of middle eastern ethnicity on both sides of my family where my Armenian grandmother always trained me to ask my brother if he wants anything to drink (and proceed to go get it for him even though he has perfectly functioning arms and legs), and an Iranian grandmother who I could see always treated my mother differently from her three brothers, who in my grandmother's eyes (bless her soul) were more capable than my mother by reason of their genitalia alone. As a kid I always felt very strong and smart but I always, up until my understanding that feminism existed, combated with showing that strength because I would see the elder women in my life teaching me that women should be dotting and assist the males in their lives (even if it is their snotty brother who is a mere year and a half older than them).
So, from that point I decided that feminism was something important enough to explore and define for myself. Worrying what boys thought about me exited my mind (although, as a chubby seventh grader with braces, I doubt that made any difference to boys), and being strong and smart became a priority. School was always easy for me, but I started writing more, entering poetry contests and actually noticing that I was good at something. And more importantly, I became proud of how good I was at it and wasn't afraid to acknowledge my accomplishments. But with that did come a certain amount of alienation Through middle school and high school I noticed that girls who I knew were smart and would get A's on every exam never really showed their intelligence on the quad. It wasn't cute to be smart. It was cute to laugh at a boy's jokes and wear Abercrombie t-shirts. Two things I tried for a bit but quickly realized I felt stupid and I couldn't afford to wear Abercormbie shirts.
At that age, I felt like I would be kind of a sell out or a phony feminist if I didn't maintain a level of toughness and anti-femininity. But now I see that that is totally not the case. I stayed smart in school. Mostly stayed away from boys and eventually minored in Women's and Gender Studies in college. And as I enter my mid-twenties I wonder if the fact that I am in a long-term relationship and I wear girly crap, get my nails done, and sometimes judge other girls if I am no longer the feminist I thought I was.
That is where things get problematic In this day and age, femininity and feminism are defined in vastly different ways than they once were. There used to be this type of "feminazi" stereotype against women who labeled themselves as feminists. But in an age where women are running Fortune 500 companies, taking over the higher education, dominating the workplace, and increasingly becoming the primary breadwinners of families there are no longer shackles or restrictions on the word feminist. You can have nail art, wear thigh high boots and still be a feminist. You can listen and enjoy rap music and still be a feminist. Hell, if something makes you feel empowered and it isn't hurting anyone who's to say it isn't as revolutionary as publicly burning your bra?
I do struggle with this, because at times I feel guilt about my priorities and if they align with my feminist beliefs. Image can be important to me, but I also believe that is ingrained in me because I know that society is less likely to take a woman seriously if she doesn't present herself properly. Hundreds of years of fashion and history have taught us that. So rather than start an image revolution, why not play the game? I don't think that is necessarily a betrayal of feminism.