It’s happening: I’m finally addressing my relationship with my feminism, which I call ‘hypocrite’. This is a post I’ve always wanted to write, but that I’m writing just now, on the back of recent conversations I’ve had in the pole dance industry, in academia and following the publication of a set of books and papers I’ve enjoyed. Buckle up for my last blog post of the year – it’s a wild ride.
Why ‘hypocrite’ feminism
*Trigger warning: weight and body talk, mental health talk, mentions of abusive relationships and sexual assault*
I have started wanting to write this post when my ex called me out about my relationship with my body and with feminism a while ago. He pointed out the discrepancy between me celebrating bodies different from my own – particularly bodies that were bigger than my own – while being painfully insecure about mine, always checking for weight gain or changes in my appearance. Being called out about this annoyed me, because it was true: I love and admire everybody’s body, and even if I’m more interested in what my body can do rather than on what it looks like, I still worry about it changing. What does this say about my real, subconscious opinion about other people’s bodies? Why am I harsher towards myself than towards others? And how do I change this?
I wanted to write about this, but I wasn’t sure how. Either way, I started noticing patterns in other situations in which my celebration of others didn’t reflect my negative self-talk, and its inherent prejudices and stereotypes – a mix of baggage from poor mental health, binge eating and growing up with the toxic role models and media scrutiny of the early 2000s.
So how does feminism fit into this?
I’ve been calling myself a feminist for years, and an intersectional one at that. But as someone who went back into academia only in 2016, my feminism was influenced by Emma Watson and Beyoncé before I actually studied any feminist thought and theory. As such, palatable, capitalist feminism that is influenced by my own experiences as a white, cis-gender woman was my first contact with feminism.
My feminism includes trans folx and sex workers. I consider myself body- and sex-positive. But that’s when I talk about other people, not about myself. When it comes to me, I am not as celebratory and supportive of my own body, of my own experiences as a domestic violence and sexual assault survivor, of my own relationship with capitalist feminism’s “hustle” social media culture as I would like to be.
I have chosen not to call this discrepancy “bad” feminism in this blog post, because bad feminism has sold books (some great, like Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, and some… less good) and been made into memes, so talking about my own contradictions like that feels equally capitalist. What I’m calling it is hypocrite feminism, and if you bear with me and this post, I will tell you a lot about my hypocrisy.
But here’s the catch: I realised that the contradictions about my values reflect broader contradictions already present within feminism – both my own and in the movement itself. So without trying to reinvent the wheel – since feminism has been written about and theorised by better experts than me – I wanted to write an updated essay on my own relationship with feminism that goes beyond dry, salesy ‘girlboss’ feminism but also beyond what is a too often inaccessible academic form of feminism.
Feminism and academia
It seems pointless to start a blog post about my relationship with feminism without talking about its history and the main beliefs within it. As this is a blog post and not a history lesson, here’s a very short summary.
The term “feminism” originated in France at the end of the 19th Century, coinciding with the first “wave” of the movement, which pushed for women’s right to vote across the end of 1800 and the start of 1900.
Feminism is, according to author Amia Srinivasan, “a political movement to transform the world beyond recognition,” asking: “What would it be to end political, social, sexual, economic, psychological and physical subordination of women?” And while Srinivasan’s recent best-selling book The Right To Sex features a set of sex-negative opinions that do not align with my views, it does provide a very accessible chronicle of some of the key moments and thought in the evolution of feminism in the past two centuries.
Some of the key feminist talking points that still affect us originated during the so-called “second wave” of feminism, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. At the time, some feminists took an “anti-sex” stance – rejecting heterosexual sex as a form of rejection of the patriarchy – while others recognised women’s sexual needs, preferences and appreciation for heterosexual relationships, kink, sex work and the like. Still, while feminism in the 1960s and 70s was crucial towards making gender equality a part of mainstream discourse, it was mainly white. So one of the first important challenges within feminism became the push towards intersectionality, a term coined in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap in discrimination and subordination – bringing feminism closer to its “third wave” in the early 1990s. Feminism is now in its “fourth” wave, characterised by its use of social media to raise awareness of inequalities. Yet, the movement remains divided.
While feminists may share a desire for equality and the passion to fight for it, the question of who is included within that fight – and in particular, which women are included – is something that has increasingly been taking up column inches, media space, social media posts and debate. In the words of Shon Faye, which are specific to the United Kingdom: “In British feminism the only divide perhaps more acute and bitter than that over trans people is the divide over sex work.”
Similarly to the feminists who rejected women’s sexuality as a form of resistance against the patriarchy, many contemporary feminists now reject the inclusion of sex workers and trans women in the fight for equality. Most argue that this rejection is a reaction to the view that sex work in particular is the ultimate trauma inflicted on women by the patriarchy, and that trans women are a danger to cis women. To me and to many others however, this standpoint is a testimony to the fact that, too often, feminism – in the academic, theoretical sense – is exclusive, a closed shop to those who have no time to interrogate whether they should or shouldn’t be sex workers, or whether they should or shouldn’t come out as trans.
As British feminist Sophie Lewis wrote in the New York Times, British feminism’s transphobia (and, I would argue, its whorephobia too) come from the fact that British academia and its very closely related press are very middle class: “middle- and upper-class white feminists have not received the pummeling from black and indigenous feminists that their American counterparts have, and thus, their perspectives retain a credibility and a level of influence in Britain.” This inevitably overlaps with Britain’s colonialist history, meaning that British feminism in particular fails to notice that not all women have the same means to “liberate” or “save” themselves, and need support instead of exclusion or criminalisation. As Shon Faye writes in The Transgender Issue:
“The concept of women as undifferentiated global female sex class, more or less exploited in the same way for the same reasons, can only work by downplaying or minimising any internal distinctions or hierarchies or exploitation within that class. Yet black and indigenous or (otherwise anti-colonial) feminisms render such a specious consensus on universal ‘female experience’ largely untenable.”Shon Faye – The Transgender Issue
The fact that, too often, anti-trans and anti-sex work feminism ends up campaigning with the alt-right, religious extremists and those promoting carceral forms of justice – as seen in the case of anti-Porn Hub and anti-OnlyFans campaigns – makes theoretical feminism all the more detached from the real-life issues of those it wishes to exclude.
But feminist thought isn’t only exclusive on the basis of identity and work – it’s exclusive in form, language, accessibility. It’s marred by gate-keeping.
As a “new” academic I can’t help but notice that, to many of my students and my readers outside of academia, academic papers seem dense, difficult to read, inaccessible. Only a fraction of them is open-access, and to read many of them people who don’t go to or work in a university would have to pay high fees (sometimes in the thousands) to access academic journals. And that’s without factoring in the costs of an actual degree, currently at £9,000 per year in British universities and even higher in Australia and North America.
Which brings me to the next issue: because so much of women’s subordination is also economic, what is seen as “true” feminism rejects capitalism, as it goes hand-in-hand with the patriarchy in subordinating women and minorities.
So how can “true” feminism be accessible to those it wants to liberate if the institutions where you can learn about it are inaccessible for their cost, form and exclusion of marginalised communities? Who is feminism for?
I myself have lamented that feminism, now, sells. Whether it’s Beyoncé gigs or Dior t-shirts, or the countless pink books saying: “I’m a bad feminist, but it’s ok!”, it’s often argued that the message of feminism has been diluted, and that it’s all celebrities’ or influencers’ fault.
In a way, I agree: a lot of the “feminism” I read about in influencers’ posts is co-opted to sell something. Not many of them engage with the contradictions within feminism, or with actual feminist thought. Often, they – and me, I put myself in that box too, even if “influencer” is not a word I use to define myself – aren’t too open about the contradictions of their job (selling something and being a cog in the capitalist machine of social media marketing) and the feminism the claim to subscribe to.
Yet, it seems impossible to exist and have a career now without, somehow, “influencing” something, without having an online persona. According to Otegha Uwagba women in the public eye are expected to “self-commoditise” to have a professional life, and while we may find people trying to obliquely sell us something annoying, I also believe that these people, these palatable feminists, are the first contact uninformed social media users will have with feminism. Emma Watson and Beyoncé were my first contact with feminism, and while they weren’t digging deep into it, they were promoting equality and empowerment. That’s a big change from what we saw from some mainstream celebs of the 1990s and 2000s. I vividly remember reading Emma Watson’s interview in ELLE magazine’s feminist issue and blocking my abusive ex’s phone number. From then, I became more interested in feminism and I dug deeper. Because feminism was, suddenly, visible to me.
I also can’t help but think that a lot of female celeb- and influencer-bashing in relation to feminism comes from people who view anything female as frivolous. In her book My Body, model Emily Ratajkowski explores the conflict between being smart and using your body to work, noting how, when she was moving from modelling to acting, she was outright told she had to look more ‘serious’ and show her body less to not be seen to be looking to appeal to the male gaze. And yet, I can’t help but think that these accusations of frivolity in connection with using one’s body to promote certain things isn’t levelled at men at all.
Men show their sexual prowess in countless ways without being ostracised. Because of this, I can’t help but see those painting influencers / pretty people as frivolous as inherently misogynist, or at the very least speaking from a place of internalised misogyny. Influencers promoting beauty products or fashion look too silly in some commentators’ eyes to also be feminists while, in reality, they can do both. My ass is out for everybody to see, and yet I defended my PhD thesis and earned my PhD not because my ass was out, but in spite of it. I am no different from other PhDs in intelligence, research skills or communications. If anything, I can have more of an impact, because I have thousands of followers to promote my research with.
Still, despite the digital labour going into producing content, gaining and interacting with followers and being perennially visible online, ‘influencer’ feminism has its pitfalls: it may increase the visibility and appeal of a complex and sometimes inaccessible movement, but it is also trapped in the churn of reaction to current trends, in polished looks and sometimes unattainable beauty standards.
“Do I look bloated?”
“Do you think I’ve gained weight?”
These are questions I constantly annoyed my ex with when we were together. Simultaneously, I would be talking about the benefits that pole dance has had on me and my life, about how it changed my focus to what my body could do instead of how heavy it was. “I haven’t weighed myself since 2017,” I would say, proud of my disregard of my weight. I would discuss how beautiful ALL bodies are, and how we should all stop commenting on bodies and weight, stop putting so much emphasis on a number.
“So why are you asking me if you look bigger, then?” my ex asked.
I never knew how to answer.
The answer came during Ela Aur’s Pole Weekender talk about fat acceptance in the pole dance industry, which I recently summarised. As Ela put it, when people talk negatively about themselves “looking” or “feeling fat” – with ‘fat’ being viewed as a bad word – they contribute towards creating spaces that don’t feel safe for fat people. Ela said: “If you equate ugliness with fatness – with how my body looks on stage – then how could it possibly be ok for it to be on stage? Why would you look ugly but I don’t?”
This type of negative self-talk is something usually thin or medium-sized people engage in, without realising how their own negative views of themselves affect others in the spaces they are in.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my body. I love my stretch marks, and I tolerate my cellulite and acne scars for the simple reason that I know I train more than most people, and yet they’re still there. I am in awe with what my body can do, with what it has carried me through, and I see myself naked more than your average person because of my job as a pole dance instructor.
And yet here I am, monitoring every change in my body in the back of my eye. Being afraid to take a much-needed break from training for fear of losing my six-pack. Why do I do this to myself, when I don’t do this to other people?
It may sound cheap to bring up the upbringing and trauma cards, but considering how much of my self-knowledge is informed by therapy, they seem like the obvious root of the problem. As I recently wrote, growing up in the late 1990s/early 2000s in a very politically incorrect country, where ‘weight talk’ was and still is part of conversation, has meant worrying about my appearance throughout my most formative years. Having fluctuated in my weight due to mental illness, binge-eating and the like means I have always somehow associated gaining weight with not being OK mentally. Because of this baggage, this negativity about my body is always there, and I often realise how I am not as kind, encouraging as positive towards myself as I am towards others.
Sex, porn, pole and survival
I will never forget when, while working as a PR account executive on a section of Durex’s blogs, I was asked to write an article about porn. Writing comes easy to me, and as someone who often had to churn out more than a couple of press releases per day, I’m quite confident that if you give me a topic, I can make up loads of paragraphs on it on the spot. Sadly, my article was a selection of clichés, moral panics and generalisations, so much that my then manager and now friend Julian told me: “You’ve never watched porn, have you? CARO!!! I’m gonna give you a task: go home, watch some porn and masturbate!”
I am as much a hypocrite in my perception of my own body as I am in my sex and love life life.
Pole dancing has opened my mind and my social media feeds (censorship willing) to different realities, different kinks, to relationships outside of monogamy and binaries. And while Julian will be pleased to know I have now indeed watched porn – mainly lesbian porn made ethically and/or by women directors – I am still not as adventurous as some people would assume I am. Watching porn isn’t my thing. I like the idea of ethical non-monogamy, but I have so many trust issues from failed relationships and abuse that the idea of sharing partners makes me feel really insecure and anxious.
My experiences with sex, desire, love and survival are contradictory. Although I often talked about abuse never being survivors’ fault, I’ve only recently started to forgive myself for my own experiences of domestic violence and sexual assault. I preach that everybody is worthy of love, but it’s taken me years of therapy to apply that belief to myself, and sometimes I still don’t believe that.
These expectations about desire, sex and love translate into my pole dancing. I have been tirelessly working to improve my technique, my lines, my skill as a dancer, to look more than just sexy: to look powerful, and like a professional people would pay to teach them how to pole dance. But dancing is also personal, emotional, creative. It’s often about more than a pointed toe and a flawless concept, but also about feeling. As a spectator, I prefer “messy” dancers who give their all to someone technically flawless but dry. And yet, while I judge my own dancing, my own style, I’ve got what Lauren Elise and Beanie The Jet have defined as “movement supremacy” in pole: yet another unrealistic standard of perfection, even in a practice that is sexy, creative, freeing, new and in continuous evolution like pole dancing.
Excuses or solution?
So where do all these contradictions and little hypocrisies leave my feminism? My feminism is flawed as, I think, is everyone’s. Everyone’s feminism is flawed not because we are all hypocrites who suck at life, but because we have to compromise on our integrity daily to survive.
In her book We need to talk about money, Otegha Uwagba writes:
“[T]he difficulty of trying to reconcile feminism – the logical endpoint of which has to be anti-capitalism – with more prosaic economic concerns is as complicated as it ever was, perhaps even more so thanks to the increasingly unrelenting conditions of modern globalised capitalism. For me, and I imagine for many other women, that challenge is further complicated by my desire to thrive under the prevailing economic system even as I recognise its many flaws, and my understanding that doing so requires me to have a certain amount of capital. Though girlboss feminism is rightly criticised for its tendency to frame wealth acquisition as feminist praxis, as a Black, female, first-generation immigrant who has witnessed first-hand how acquiring the trappings of wealth (namely a private education) can mitigate an otherwise marginalised social position, part of me finds that critique a little tough to swallow.”Otegha Uwagba, We need to talk about money
I can’t claim many similarities with Uwagba’s life. I am white, and not privately educated , but I am an immigrant with elements and experiences of a precarious working situations. As such, I can’t help but relate with the difficulty in reconciling feminism with being fully anti-captialist – which I am in theory, but haven’t been able to be in practice.
This difficulty in reconciling feminism, which to me represents the fight for gender equality and the inclusion of all women in this fight, is replicated in the other aspects of my life that I have raised above: in my relationship with my body, in my relationship with sex, with work – on social media, in the studio and in academia – and with my own movement.
Reconciling feminism and expectations of feminists with the trappings of a capitalist, patriarchal society means facing these contradictions and making decisions and compromises every day. Guilt, or at the very least a sense of hypocrisy, then become a part of the equation, a Catch-22: how can we eliminate the hang-ups that make our feminism less coherent, less inclusive, less judgemental and self-critical, when some of those hang-ups and contradictions are currently crucial for us to survive?
Although she is seen as a palatable white, celebrity feminist, I really liked when Emma Watson responded to a critique about a topless photoshoot by saying: “Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it.”
I think Watson’s reaction perfectly encapsulates what it means to be a modern feminist: it means that, just because you subscribe to feminism as an ideology, you need to be absolutely perfect and free from any moral, physical or ideological hang-ups. This is all despite the fact that women live with centuries of trauma, and that marginalised women carry even more of that trauma on their shoulders and in their psyche.
But before we are feminists, we are human.
Feminists are denied their humanity, because they believe in a revolutionary ideology. Yet, while women have now been interrogating their relationship with power, race, sex and the like for decades, few people seem to ask men how they reconcile their personhood with centuries of patriarchal harms.
As the (very short) summary of divisions within feminism that I’ve shared above has shown, feminism in itself is hypocrite and contradictory – just like every political ideology. Somehow though, it’s still held up to higher standards. Feminism is nonetheless necessary, and in constantly interrogating ourselves about what it means to be a feminist, changing ours mind is essential.
Since listening to and reading those words by the amazing people I’ve mentioned, I’m actively questioning how my own lack of self-tolerance, self-love and, frankly, rest, can affect other people. But I’m also cutting myself some slack. We all exist in a similar world – if with different privileges and experiences. We all have to make some sort of compromise in order to exist in a world where women are still largely unsafe, underpaid and not fully free.
Given that, for some feminists, agreeing not to harm others with their power and views already seems too much to ask, I’d say that many of us who do fight with marginalised communities in our feminism are on the right track.
I thought my contradictions made me a hypocrite, and my feminism less inclusive. They do. But now I also think it’s what makes me human: I am not just an academic, an activist, a pole dancer and a feminist – I am also a person, with baggage I need to work on getting rid of. As I continue being a hypocrite feminist, I can’t wait for a world where reasonable change – and more therapy – will allow me to contradict myself less.