My education made me a feminist for all the wrong reasons

By Marie Goodwin

Feminism today is still viewed by many as an outdated relic of the past. Unfortunately, it appears that a lot of us have been fooled into thinking all the hard work has been done.

At twenty-one, I have already experienced a myriad of pretty anti-feminist encounters that have led me to proudly label myself as a one. Although, in the past, the stigma attached to the very word ‘feminist’ attributed to my reluctance to identify myself as one. And therein lies the problem. 

My first experiences

It’s no secret that our earliest memories are crucial in shaping our worldview which is why I believe the inadequacy of sex education in schools is to blame for a lot of our misconceptions surrounding the female anatomy, relationships and gender.

I clearly remember my primary school sex ed; boys were put in one room to learn about erections and wet dreams and girls were put in another to learn about periods. From such a young age, the damaging message that periods and male pleasure are each other’s equivalents was impressed upon me. I was subliminally taught from day one that my body is simply a breeding ground of monthly pain and shame whilst my male counterparts saw their bodies as an amazing place capable of experiencing great pleasure. 

Taboos and shame

Looking back, I now realise why our society is riddled with so many taboos and misunderstandings surrounding female pleasure/masturbation and why I had so many gaps in my own knowledge of my body. 

I was watching a documentary the other day on Channel 4 called 100 Vaginas which reinforced and validated my own feelings of shame and confusion towards my genitals. It was simultaneously shocking, yet also not surprising how many women came forward to vouch for the fact that years of their life had been spent having absolutely no relationship or understanding of their vaginas (let alone getting any enjoyment from them). I found myself relating to their testaments about only really seeing it as a place to wee from or where periods and babies come out of. I find it really sad that so many women have all recounted similar experiences because we live in a society that doesn’t have much regard for female pleasure or even basic education about vaginas full stop. 

If such segregation of boys and girls at school hadn’t happened, maybe we would be able to tackle period shame, or have avoided it completely, removing the need to always be discreet about our periods as though they’re some disgusting monthly occurrence that should never be talked about. The amount of times my friends and I have had to pass each other period products in hushed, conspiratorial tones is ridiculous and something I blame the education system for. 

This realisation is one of the main driving forces that eventually made me call myself a feminist. How could I not be when I still see so many double standards and devaluing of the female experience happening all around me? School should be a place of enlightenment, yet my own experiences seem to highlight just how patriarchally influenced its curriculum still is. 

The beauty industry

When I reached puberty the double standards and misogyny didn’t stop there; in fact, it only got worse. I was very badly affected by the unrealistic beauty standards that were being shoved down my throat from mid-secondary school and upwards. 

Whether I realised it or not, throughout my entire life I have been taught that my appearance is of the utmost importance. Irrespective of any academic achievements or even what kind of person I am, my appearance will always take precedence. I only had to flip through the latest issue of Woman’s Own or Bella magazine to see just how paramount a woman’s appearance is to society. The classic sections of one of these magazines is a two-page spread littered with photos of celebrity women on holiday with vicious crimson arrows and circles pointing out all their perceived flaws like belly rolls, cellulite and stretch marks. All completely normal female features.

At the very impressionable age of 15 it was highlighted to me, that in order to be valued, worthy and accepted by society, I had to be a skinny (see page 30 for the latest juice cleanse), shaven, clear-skinned doll. It also strengthened the narrative that even in my most carefree, happy moments like enjoying myself on holiday, I would always have to be palatable to the male gaze. 

Piecing it all together 

I study English Lit at uni, and last year one of our set readings was an extract from John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ and it was the first time I’d ever read something that so accurately articulated my experience as a woman. The basic premise of his argument is that women see themselves being seen; they are continually being surveyed. Even when a woman sees herself naked, she is not seeing her true self, she is seeing her body through the lens of a man.

 For me, this was the final piece in the jigsaw to fully realising just how male oriented our very existence is. In public, I struggle to experience things authentically because I am too preoccupied worrying about how I look doing the thing I’m doing. And that’s not vanity, that’s years of conditioning telling me I must fulfil certain societal expectations in my physical appearance just so I can feel worthy and accepted and as though I can go about my day with minimal disturbance.  

All of these experiences paved the way for me eventually labelling myself a feminist as once I started to notice just how much society is geared towards oppressing women, the movement gradually became more and more attractive to me. 

Ironically, my flawed education was really just laying the foundations for me to later identify as a proud feminist. 

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