That Third-Wave, Though: Feminism + The Power To Be Yourself

By Laura Harvey

Many people question or even deny the continued need for feminist activism. Women already have the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to abort an unwanted pregnancy. What more could they want? And perhaps this is true. Technically, on paper, I can do most anything I want—I have the first and second waves of feminism to thank for that. They broke down blatant legal injustices so that women might rise in society, might find equality.

As a woman born in the 1990s, I have faced few genuine inequalities. I was educated at a progressive all-girls school and now attend a prestigious university. Though my own proclivities prevent me from pursuing these paths, I think it completely plausible that I could run for office or build a rocket. There is nothing preventing me, shall we say. I have access to reproductive healthcare and will not have to marry anyone until I choose to.

But the more that I grow up, the more that I traverse diverse corners of the world on my own, I see the whispering problems that still exist. Maybe I can technically do anything that I wish, but there is always some group of people there to tell me and other women that it’s wrong.

If I decline a date, I’m a bitch. If I kiss a boy but don’t have sex with him, I’m a tease. If I have sex with a boy that I don’t know well enough, I’m a slut. If I abort a baby, I’m a murderer. If I have a baby too young, I’m a teen-mom. If I’m thin, I’m anorexic. If I’m curvy, I’m a fat-ass. If I put my career over my family, I’m a shark. If I put my family over my career, I’m a soccer mom. There is no winning.

And if I dare to support women’s rights there is no shortage of terms meant to discourage me. I run the risk of being man-hating, ball-busting, lesbian feminazi bitch. I must have hairy legs and be dry as a prune. I must have been snubbed by men. I must want to put them down.

And, most disappointingly, there are women on both sides there to criticize my efforts to navigate my generation’s feminism. Perhaps I am too feminine because I like to wear dresses and I have chosen to join a sorority. Or perhaps I am too masculine because I have asked a boy on a date and I don’t require that someone buy me dinner before I kiss them. Again, no winning.

Today, women are told that we can have it all, but that statement requires a caveat that anything we choose will come with a hefty dose of shame, free of charge.

If I could define third-wave feminism, I would say that it is a wholehearted rejection of the value judgments that women face for each step they take in the world. Third wave feminism seeks to tackle an issue far less concrete than a law or a policy: it is fighting a whole mindset. It is a rebellion against the social construction of the woman. Womanhood has been so singularly defined that it has become a rope around the throat drawing ever tighter. The third waver sticks out her tongue, says do whatever the hell you want. In her article for Jezebel, Callie Beusman sums up this issue quite well. When referring to policing of women’s sexual behavior, she writes “the fine line between [healthy and slutty] does not really exist. It’s just an arbitrary line that allows us to malign women as freely—and illogically—as we please.”

Now this idea of “maligning” sounds relatively harmless—why not just turn the other cheek? We are taught that words are just words; only actions and laws hold power. These kinds of insidious foes, however, play out psychological warfare on women.

Take the issue of body image. Women are literally dying to be thin. I do not say that as some form of rhetorical hyperbole: no, I have seen it and I have lived it. According to a survey conducted by UNC Chapel Hill and SELF Magazine, 75% of women in the United States suffer from at least one disorder eating behavior, such as skipping meals or purging. This comes as no surprise to me. When I think of the women close to me, there are my two best friends who both struggled with anorexia. There is my mother who was bulimic for many years. And there are countless more that have sub-clinical issues like over-exercising or crash dieting. There are the small comments—I feel so fat today, I’m not eating dessert, I need to look good for spring break, Oh my god I’m such a fatty—that only seem small when examined in isolation. Believe me, though; they are just a droplet in the ocean of self-loathing that we women wade through.

These behaviors and feelings are the direct result of societal attitudes and preferences. Again, that sounds relatively innocuous; for me, though, those forces were nearly deadly. As a little girl, I can remember the subtle cues. First of all, no one on TV is fat. No one. They’re not even normal; I swear the women don’t even have enough body fat to be reproductively healthy. Then, there are the little comments. I can remember my grandfather commenting on what a big appetite I had for a girl. I can remember a girl at the pool telling me that I looked fat in my new bathing suit. For a young girl, this is not a laughing matter: this is an attack on her worth. Being thin, in the warped mindset of our society, is the key to happiness because it makes you desirable, enviable, beautiful. Whatever your problem, losing a few pounds is sold as the answer.

By sixteen, I was anorexic. I ate less than 1,000 calories per day, religiously ran at least one hour per day, and lived by a rigid set of rules. I lost thirty pounds in just a few months. I recovered from that phase of my life relatively quickly, but not before people commented on how wonderful I looked. My disease was beautiful to them, I guess. Shockingly, this is not the worst that happened. By eighteen, I was trapped in a cycle of bulimia. It was secret and it was destructive. I arrived at my classes, my head spinning and my hands trembling because I had thrown up my breakfast and gulped down a diet coke to keep my stomach from audibly grumbling. At night, I locked my door and lay in my bed, too tired to get out of bed and pretend that I was anything but miserable. I consoled myself with the fact that I wore a size extra-small. That was like a gold medal to me. Nonetheless, these were the darkest days of my life. The pain I felt was like that rope I mentioned wrapping around my neck: I wanted to die.

I tell you this story not to elicit sympathy. I tell you this story to illustrate the fact that subtle attitudes, the kinds that come across in maybe only five or six direct comments in a lifetime, can change someone’s whole life, can end someone’s whole life. In fact, eating disorders are the psychiatric disorder with the highest mortality rate. I was told that I had to get better or I would die, point blank. My esophagus would rot away. My hair would fall out. My heart’s walls would wither. This is how much I was affected by silly, little words.

Now, I am stronger, not because the world is any easier, but because I have found other women who have taught me not to care. I am starting to make myself believe that I am more than my weight or my bra size. I look to women like Emma Watson or Tina Fey who are calling foul on the way things work. JK Rowling reflected on this issue, hoped her daughters would not struggle the way that so many women have. She said “I don’t want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones; I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny—a thousand things before skinny.” Of course, I agree with her, but it takes a surprisingly long amount of time to de-program yourself from what you’ve learned your whole life is so important. The problem, I’ve realized, is with my mind, not my body.

That problem, the one with my mind, stems from the fact that the world is not a safe place for a woman’s psyche. Even if we are healthy in terms of our body image, we are taught to fear. Taught to dress conservatively, to conduct ourselves modestly. As a young, single woman, I take it for granted that I should not walk alone at night, or really ever. I should not go to a party alone, or accept a drink from a stranger. The world is dangerous for me, simply because I am a woman.

I cannot walk from my apartment to class without a man on the street commenting on my appearance. It is so common that it has become the matter of comedic trope with my roommates. I say this not to pump my own ego, as if I am some irresistible beauty; I say this because it is disturbing and pervasive. According to a Northwestern professor’s op-ed in the New York Times, about two-thirds of women are catcalled on a daily basis. Rarely, if ever, have my male friends had this experience, the strange mix of discomfort and fear and flattery and awkwardness that comes along with being catcalled. They have never been in the grocery store to pick up food for breakfast and had a man refer to them as a “piece of fine pussy.”

I can recall just this past fall being on the metro with my boyfriend when a strange man approached me. As I write this, my immediate instinct is to point out that, yes, I was dressed as a cat and was rather scantily clad; it was college and it was Halloween and I was going to my boyfriend’s fraternity party. I am moved to excuse this man, to provide an excuse for him, to explain that my choice of clothing provoked him. But does that excuse the fact that he then proceeded to comment on my body and inquire as to where I was going and whether or not I had a boyfriend for the entirety of our ride? I don’t think so. After that, I don’t really ride the metro. I don’t feel very safe. That man never touched me, but he stole my sense of safety and agency in my own backyard.

And catcalling is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to violence against women. As a college woman, it is fairly likely that I will be sexually assaulted some time during my four years. I have at least three friends that already have been. But for the purposes of this essay, I will stick to the psychological foes that women face. I would have been remiss, however, to fail to note that more than a woman’s mind is in danger today.

So where does third wave feminism come in? We third wavers have much to thank first and second wavers for. The fact that I am even writing this essay is a testament to how far women have come over the last century. The vast majority of explicit legal injustices have been struck down. But as with racism, sexism is an insidious force that continues to thrive in the shadows. The issues that third wave feminists seek to change cannot be legislated away; they must be combatted internally. The issues are those remaining psychological barriers to the full realization of women’s empowerment—they reside even within the woman herself, as she absorbs the negativity of society.

How does one go about fixing such vague, abstract, pervasive issues? The most effective method that I have seen has been the bold, the brash, the outrageous. Women today are speaking out and mocking themselves and the world. We call ourselves bitches and sluts to take those words back. We wear pink and put bows in our hair if that’s what we want to do, almost daring the world to call us girly, silently hoping that we can shout in their faces “so what?” We take back our sexuality, the very thing that men have tried so desperately to control throughout the ages, by taking birth control and taking the lead. Women, we say, are just as sexual as men.

I am hesitant to call third wave feminism an outright movement because it has so few points of direct unity. But I think that is also part of its DNA. It is less movement, more guerilla war. It sees the futility of definition, the pitfalls of polarization. Third wave feminism is about the caustic and shocking act of being oneself, the ultimate fuck-you in a world that desires to control women by implicit means, to convince us that we are both never enough and also too much. The second wave offered concrete steps to take: dress this way, vote this way, day this. The third wave, though, offers a freedom that is at once enticing and terrifyingly expansive. Be a stay at home mom. Never get married. Dye your purple. Have casual sex. As a young woman, I seek to take back the politicization of my personal life because that notion creates some kind of absolute; I do not want to be this or that—I only want to be me. Third wave feminism is a radical rejection of everything that a woman is supposed to be; it does not offer a substitute prescription because there is no such thing.

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