I still remember what it felt like to walk through the halls of a high school and know you were an ugly girl. It always seemed as though every woman was looking down out of the corner of their eye, ranking, affirming, finding a crazed peace in the idea that I wasn’t a threat to their femininity. I still remember ducking my head to keep from looking in the restroom mirror, instead side-eyeing the homecoming queens who catted at each other about boyfriends during lunchtime makeup sessions. In me was a deep fear of a competition I then couldn’t name but understood well, the rivalry I knew I had with every woman to attain a certain level of worth linked to our budding sexuality. Though unnamed and surreptitious, I knew it was a war for the attention of men. I ducked my head and tried not to play.
As a student of feminism I have found names for the puppet-master system and its weeds, patriarchy with arms of –isms. In the following years I have moved from abashedly craving and being rejected from the male gaze—which had been implicitly and explicitly reinforced as the symbol of worth—to craving a rejection of the male gaze, to being overwhelmed by the remarks, the calls, the gazes, the lip licking. There are times I want to go back to being invisible; we can’t win. In this we are trapped: either rejected from the male gaze and made to secretly hate the beautiful, or drowned in that gaze and made to be suspicious of the beautiful. Our relationships with womyn, including ourselves, suffer from the pressure and often remain unfulfilled. In this heterosexist, cissexist system that tells womyn they can aspire no higher than winning the attention of a man, we learn to view our sisters as competitors. Every female relationship threatens the “safety” that society tries to feed us. We are told we cannot all win.
We must actively reject this patriarchal definition of our relationships, our sisterhood. We must work to create spaces for ourselves to explore the possibilities in womyn’s relationships. One of my most beloved feminist authors, bell hooks, writes in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” What value is it to us, as womyn, to prioritize service to maleness at the expense of our own femininity, however it may be expressed? How does the acceptance of and aspiration to be patriarchy’s “ideal woman” stifle our own expression and connection to the world? To find empowerment we must first turn to our sisters and ourselves. When womyn find strength and consciousness in addressing the oppression upon our gender—and in turn race, class, sexuality, ability status, etc.—we can be a greater agent for ourselves in changing a patriarchal system. We must find foundation in ourselves.
When we reject the notions that other women are inherently rivals; that our value in society is based firstly and foremost in our relationships with men, not other womyn or even ourselves; that “maleness” is the standard to which the “best” normalize to; that we must be “not like other girls”, we will find sisterhood. When we reject these stories told to us to keep us apart we will find sisterhood. In this rejection of womyn being defined by men, we lose the sense of fear and apprehension that patriarchy places upon our relationship with other womyn. Through this embrace we can discover a new definition of femininity and build a strong community upon it. In sisterhood we foster creativity and communication; we tend to places deep in us that are kept unlit in other spheres. In sisterhood we will find happiness.
“When we drop fear, we can draw nearer to people, we can draw nearer to the earth, we can draw nearer to all the heavenly creatures that surround us.” – bell hooks