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Three Things Even Enlightened People Do That Can Disempower Women

1 Heart it! Heidi Tran 19
October 30, 2018
Heidi Tran
1 Heart it! 19

When it comes to our conversation about empowering women, we still have a lot of work to do to change our society’s mindset. But even if we’re angry as hell about the historical treatment of women, and even if we have the best of intentions, some of the things we say or do might feel disempowering to others.

Shaming women for their shame

Everywhere we go, it seems we’re bombarded with messages about what we “should” look like. Negative feedback from the media, from people in our lives, and from people who watch us as we walk by, adds to the message that we don’t measure up.

We are experiencing a gradual change as more women (and men) begin to consciously focus on crafting messages that help foster body positivity. It’s great that we’re talking about this, and I love the ways we’re trying to encourage and support women in feeling beautiful the way they are – no matter how much or how little they fit with society’s ideals.

But the effort to help women feel good in their bodies can seem more like a movement to pressure women to feel good in their bodies, without any real supporting tools to do that. The insistence on body positivity can feel militant to some women – like they’re being chastised for not being confident enough (which translates to “not being enough.”)

Recently, I was trying on clothing at a women’s boutique. In the fitting room next to me, I heard a woman telling the salesperson that she just didn’t like the way the jeans fit her. “I have too much of a pooch for these,” she said.

Instead of saying something like, “Let’s find you some jeans you feel great in,” the salesperson said, “I don’t wanna hear that! Be confident!” I know she was trying to be supportive, but it came off as more of a reprimand. As if telling someone they should be more confident is all it takes to make it so.

We’re scolded, even if with the best of intentions, for talking about a body part we’d change; we’re told we’re too inhibited if we’d rather not jump naked into a hot tub with a group of friends. We’re supposed to embrace and love our bodies, just because we’re told we should. Of course we should. But that can take time, and some work to disentangle from internalized negative messages.

A woman who is still in the process of falling in love with her body may not only have to deal with body shame, but also with shame about her body shame. This can lead to the need to demonstrate an outer confidence she doesn’t quite feel, which can lead to doing things she’s not comfortable with.

As a teenager, I hadn’t quite grown into my body yet, and felt terribly self-conscious about my appearance. Because I was constantly being told by well-meaning adults that I should “be confident!” I felt wretched that I wasn’t. In fact, I felt like more of a loser for not being confident than I did for looking the way I did (or at least, looking the way I thought I did). In my efforts to “prove” to others that I was a confident and strong young woman (without yet having the internal scaffolding of real self-confidence), I took some potentially dangerous emotional and physical risks, which resulted in my feeling even worse about myself at that time.

Encouragement and support, compliments and praise – let’s keep being generous with all of those things. And let’s also respond with empathy instead of shaming someone for their shame.

Author and speaker Brene Brown writes, “When we tell our stories or share an experience with someone and they respond with empathy, most of our shame loses its power.”

Boundaries: Let’s talk about hugging

Recently, at a gathering, as we were all greeting each other, one woman insisted on hugs from everyone. I gave in to a loose hug, but she insisted on a “real” hug, drawing me into a crushing, squirm-inducing embrace. I felt bullied by her, and I’ve been wishing I’d handled it in a way that asked her to respect my boundaries, instead of letting her impose hers on me.

Though I don’t think of myself as a “hugger,” I happily do a lot of hugging, …just not routinely the type of “let’s-smash-our-bodies-and-breasts-against-each-other-and-rub-our-stomachs-and-whatever-else-against-each-other-even-though-I-don’t-know-you-all-that-well” types of hugs.

Our society has often judged others for not setting clear boundaries (“Why didn’t you just tell him no?), implying, for example, that what happens to a woman is a result of not having been clear with her boundaries.

But when the boundary involves hugging, it seems to be ok to criticize a boundary that we think is too rigid. A hug can be a warm demonstration of affection, or it can feel like a violation, even when it’s well-intentioned. This threshold is different for everyone, and we should respect it.

There’s nothing wrong with a non-hugger who wants to skip a hug, or who doesn’t hug us as tightly as we think they should. We don’t know the person’s story. Forcing a big, deep hug onto someone who clearly doesn’t want it doesn’t make us “warm and loving,” it just makes us intrusive and bullying. Why don’t we instead just be present with them?

Sexual freedom is not the same thing as “I’m open to anything with anyone.”

Ok, we know this. But as a reminder…

The woman who enjoys a few kinks with multiple partners and the woman who enjoys a low-key monogamous relationship are both sexually liberated. Our freedom and ability to make sexual and relationship choices for ourselves – not the number of partners we have, or our “willingness” – is what sexual freedom is all about.

It surprises me when I observe an otherwise “evolved” person making assumptions about what sexual freedom means. This ranges from the assumption that lesbians are willing to have threesomes with men and their girlfriends, to the idea that a woman who doesn’t want a one-night-stand is sexually repressed, to the simple assumption that sexual freedom means that to be truly free, women should be up for anything.

Journalist David Quinn observed, “The only sexual rule today is ‘consent’, and men have been taught that women are potentially always sexually available because that is what ‘liberation’ means.”

True sexual freedom comes in feeling that you’re the master of your body, and that you can say “yes” to what you want, as well as “no,” without apology or explanation. Sexual freedom means we acknowledge that we are the owners and masters of our bodies. WE decide when and what we want to do with them, and who we want to do it with.

Respecting wherever someone is in their process; honoring boundaries, wherever they fall; and avoiding assumptions – these are some of the roots of empowerment. It might be that the woman who complains about her stomach pooch is just seeking a little empathy. And maybe someone would rather not get a hug, but would love it if you were just present with her. When we feel safe, honored, and listened to, we are empowered.

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1 Heart it! Heidi Tran 19
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