By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Hello everyone. Just as I was settling into summer, the monsoon began, so now I’m battling the need to curl up on my sofa with a book and not work all day. However, sexism will not fight itself, so let’s begin!S asked:
When you see girls dissing other girls for reasons patriarchy tells us to (the clothes she wears, the number of partners she’s had, her body weight), how do you start a conversation with them to get them to stop?
A funny thing has started happening ever since I began to actually live feminism, and not just talk a big game. You know what I mean: I started putting practices to work, measuring them against my own standards and seeing what changed in my own life. Of course, this is a long drawn out process and has taken me several months to get to this point, but I find myself actively checking my mind when I start to do things I’ll call the Lazy Mind Reflexes. The Lazy Mind Reflex is tempted to go on loving a poet you’ve always admired even though they raped a woman (and then wrote about it in their autobiography. Same for an actor, a director, a singer and so on). The Lazy Mind Reflex will make excuses for a sexist remark because you like the person who made it, instead of questioning it and taking it apart. The Lazy Mind Reflex might even make some sexist remarks of its own.
Specifically, this morning I was thinking about my interactions with other women, especially the ones I don’t like very much. I see them at parties or whatever, and I’m tempted to wrinkle my nose and walk away. There’s no one particular reason why I don’t care for a person, just that they rub me the wrong way or whatever. But then I was wondering why exactly so-and-so was someone I disliked. And in doing that, I began to very scientifically take them apart in my head—was it her behaviour? The way she talked? The way she existed even? And, when, by the end of it, I couldn’t come up with a concrete reason, I realised that my Lazy Mind Reflex had taken control and forced me to react to this person in this way.
I may never be best friends with this person, but at least now I know that I don’t dislike her. And that’s a step forward from being like, “Ugh, I can’t stand her, why is she even here!”
Now, I’m not saying that feminism is about making you a saint. You may fundamentally disagree with someone so much that being around them stresses you out. You may be jealous. You may think she (or he) says mean things and you can’t be around someone so ungenerous. But a lot of times there’s no one thing to make you not like someone. It’s just… there. And it is that you need to question.
Since I hit my thirties, another funny thing happened. I woke up one morning, and I looked just the same, but in the mirror, I looked fantastic. Nothing about me has changed, and yet I feel fabulous. And it’s because of that I can go out now and admire what other people are wearing in a wholly appreciative fashion. When in my callow early twenties, I might have judged someone for wearing something too tight/too short/too low etc, now I’m like, “Wow, it’s amazing to see a confident woman.” More often than not, I find women criticise other women because they feel threatened in a strange sense. Why can she wear that when I don’t? Why can she talk to boys while flipping her hair around while I’m nervous around the opposite sex? It comes from being insecure yourself—this need to pull everyone else down.
One of the best ways in my experience to get this sort of remark to stop is to say, “Well, I think she looks great!” or “I think it’s fantastic that she has such great body image.” I’ve tried this a few times with excellent results, the person I was with looked again at the woman she was criticising and said, “You know, you’re right!” The evening got a bit brighter. We were all on the same side. You know that feeling you get when someone random at a bar walks up to you and says, “I love your outfit!”? That’s what it felt like then, except with the compliment aimed at someone else.
A group of girls is a little harder to reason down. I think that’s the reason the movie ‘Mean Girls’ did so well. We’ve all known mean girls. Some of us even were mean girls! Some of us continue to be.
In this case, I’d suggest making them think beyond their Lazy Mind Reflex. Ask questions like, “what about her is threatening to you?” Be warned: people often take a while to shake off old habits, especially something like pulling someone else down (it’s a bit like smoking a cigarette; you know it’s bad but it triggers some sort of pleasure centre in your brain). But if you make that your question, especially if you ask it in a non-judgemental way, sooner or later, people are going to start to ask themselves the same things.
Sometimes you need to rage against the machine, and sometimes you need to rage against your very own brain. But the best part is, after a course of questioning the things you automatically think, you’ll emerge on the other side a better human being.