Feminist Formations, Part II

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[Adriana in kindergarten — determined to climb jungle gyms.]

Note: This post is part of a three-part series where we reflect on feminism–first individually on our feminist beginnings (Anita last week, Adriana this week) and then together about how our feminism has evolved and what role it plays these days in our lives.

Anita’s the one who set us this writing task, even before we’d started to dig into Sara Ahmed. As best as I can recall, she said something like, “Hey, let’s write about when we first knew we were feminists!” With those few words, she sent me on a memory scavenger hunt, trying to put together a narrative that ends me up here, now, today, in this body with these feminist ideals and practices.

This is what I can remember. I remember writing most of my college essays on female writers; I remember being concerned with representation and issues of power and participation. I remember long conversations with friends about our sexualities, which meant, for me, a lot of disentangling pleasure from guilt and worry and fear. I remember this feminism I grew into through college and grad school as mostly cerebral –Ahmed suggests, indeed, that to become a feminist is to “stay a student” (11), by which she means feminism is always trying to “make sense of things,” to “describe the world we are in” (27). Ahmed talks about “companion texts”–feminist classics–that provide moments of coming into awareness and knowing.

But wait. I can go further back. Shadows of high school simmer on the movie screen of my past. I remember feeling awkward and unfeminine. I remember wearing hand-me-down clothes and struggling to feel cute. I remember being one of the only girls in the advanced computer science course. I also remember being surrounded by my brilliant female friends. We dreamed big. Yet those dreams sat alongside reminders of our bodies and their fragility in the world. I walked down many a street in Richmond hearing catcalls, crossing the street to feel safer. I remember the band teacher who was a little pushy and a tad too familiar; I remember feeling …not scared, but anxious and annoyed. I remember wondering why me.

I remember my mother working long hours, and the way that I was tasked with my brothers. Being the oldest girl meant responsibility, meant homemaking, meant taking care of others. I hated this. It felt unfair. But I also loved my mom. And my mom would come home tired most days; I knew–I’m not sure how or when–that she deserved my respect for all her sacrifices for us.

I remember elementary school library trips. Reading biographies of Florence Nightingale, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart. I must have been around eight, and I was looking for she-ros. I feel an incredible tenderness for that eight-year old me; I don’t really know what she was thinking, but I remember what she was reading. Beyond those biographies, I was imbibing worlds where girls (as in A Wrinkle in Time; Susan Cooper’s The Dark King series) had adventures and Did Things. Meanwhile, in real life world, I learned to mistrust my body. I didn’t do sports or play on jungle gyms. I remember, in fact, feeling awe and wonder and girls who could do cart wheels or spin around the horizontal bar. I have no clue how it happened that my mind grew more fierce and daring while my body grew lesser so, but Ahmed points out that often feminism “can allow you to reinhabit not only your own past but also your own body. You might over time, in becoming aware of how you have lessened your own space, give yourself permission to take up more space; to expand your own reach.” (30)

And so one thing this short history of me reminds me of is that there are very embodied ways in which I’ve come into feminism, from learning how to lift weights to the choices I made about my pregnancy. Both of these experiences gave me a greater sense of strength and knowledge about my body; both involved speaking back to the world and refusing its expectations. “What, you weightlift? You’re a woman? You use machines, right? I’m sure you don’t use free weights!” “Here, let me touch your belly!” “Oh, you’re gonna be a beautiful mommy!” It was an amazing thing that my body in motion was its own reply, a big deadlift-fuck-you-and-your-assumptions. Similarly awesome to learn that I had the right to refuse to let others touch my body.

Ahmed says, “a world can shrink when we shrink” (25) but it is also true, in my experience, that you can turn that tide back. You can grow, and thus grow the world.

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