George-Armand Masson, a French writer and painter said “Life is an onion we peel while crying”.
As a psychologist, and a human deeply and passionately committed to explore and study all the layers of what it means to be human, I can attest that it absolutely feels that way.
Like peeling and exploring layer after layer of life, often while crying. Sometimes from joy.
Activism, like any deeply human endeavour, is an intense practice of this peeling.
Feminism, like any kind of activisms, requires constant change and self-inquiry. Slowly but very surely, social justice shapes us, invites us to revisit our sense of self and our views of the world and others.
And sometimes, oh boy, it so fucking hurts.
My current layer in peeling brought me to circle back to my relationship to my body and my physical appearance.
Being a (very, madly, deeply) radical feminist, the intellectual stance is very clear on the matter : we’re supposed to cultivate body neutrality and the rejection of the beauty myth, ageism and the demonization of fatness.
Despite how much the Internet tries desperately to make it sound easy, it’s really not. What makes sense doesn’t necessarily comes easily to us, because our culture doesn’t make much sense in terms of humanity.
As a woman, I’m harassed all days by contradictory messages.
I also grew up being one of those little girls who were told repeatedly, as if it was some kind of badge of honour that “I might grow up to be a model”. Even if I was very brainy and could hardly imagine being fulfilled being a model, even very young, it absolutely fucked with my mind.
It was one of those many things that made me attractive and pleasing to other people, contrary to my brain and my honesty, when both were praised in my brothers.
Like Glennon Doyle puts it painfully but beautifully, telling us about strangers drawn to her by her solar smile, beautiful ringlets and bright hazel eyes and their reception of hearing her speak clearly and confidently.
“They are drawn by my smile but repelled by my boldness. They recover quickly by laughing, but the pulling away is done. I have felt it. They wanted to adore me, but I complicated things by inserting myself in their experience of me. I begin to understand that beauty warms people but smarts cools people. I also understand that being loved for beauty is a tenuous situation for a girl”.
That’s one way of subtly socializing us to shut up and be beautiful objects to be admired, mortified by the shame that comes from social rejection.
Things get even more complicated when we are less beautiful with age, or God forbid, when we put on some weight in our teen years and/or focus more on being smart. And I did both.
When people stop talking about our potential modeling career, it can feel both superficial and painful to notice we lost something, rendering us less lovable, doubling up on shame.
My mother is a beautiful woman, and being a hairdresser, she treats her appearance as a first way into selling her services, she’s very careful about it. She is constantly impeccably dolled up, in her used to be a bit boyish way, driving motorcycles and getting into fights. I’ve rarely seen her without her short haired being professionally brushed. I don’t know what her natural nails look like. Even her sweats on Sundays are ironed, fitting and impeccably matched. I don’t know if she ever wasn’t careful about what she was eating.
Between this and being French, I’ve been taught very clear rules on how women are supposed to look like (and behave). I complied to some of them, while being lucky enough to feel allowed to be rebellious about others. But still , I carried the pain of complying in many ways and putting myself into this tiny suffocating box I was more convenient for others in.
Feminism put all of this into question. Financial struggles made it easier, helping me realize how capitalism was enmeshed in all this : you can’t comply to those rules without throwing a LOT of money into the practice.
Being more isolated and focusing on intellectual and artistic endeavours also supported this journey of unlearning. It’s easier to not comply with societal rules when you don’t face society as much.
I stopped going to the hairdresser, stopped most shopping and gave up the little make up I was using in the course of a few years. I practice hair removal at a third of what it used to be. It brought me some very liberating moments, and I’m incredibly happy my life is mostly devoid of such problems.
It’s more difficult when others are involved of course.
When my partner gets obsessed by what we eat because he ate putting on some weight, being very clear on what he thinks and feels about thinness.
When my Mom looks concerned because my hair, not dyed for the first time in twenty-five years, letting my white hairs show more than hers.
When I go to the swimming pool and feel scrutinized by the very tanned and fit people my island is full of, my impeccably hairless female peers looking at me both like I’m invisible and had let myself go in a visually offensive way.
But lately, I’m more bothered by the joy it took away from me, that has less to do with my appearance and more with the rituals.
I used to LOVE to get prepared in the morning. In the years I felt the best and most confident about my looks and body, I had come up with a highly effective yet mostly effortless routine. Choosing clothes got very fun because I shopped regularly but only pieces I deeply enjoyed. I LOVE wearing fabrics I love to touch and feel against my skin, how the shape of clothes can visually sing when paired.
My make up was taking me 5 minutes but was underlining my favourite features. I have always found a lot of joy in choosing quirky and original jewelry. My look was playing with styles like my personality had always played with the boxes people tried to fit me in, feeling puzzled by how they couldn’t really ‘get' me. It was comfortable, but stylish, bold and fun. I felt so much joy daily putting them on.
Rituals around beauty have been around for almost as long as humans were. It’s not random that some of us are obsessed by it. Look is both wearable art and a statement on who we are. Make-up can be seen as a derivation of the marks our ancestors were putting on their skin to reclaim their belonging to their clan of origin or their role in said clan.
We found rituals about beauty in order to seduce in so many cultures, including those where it falls on the men. There’s something deeply human about this.
I’m not saying here that we shouldn’t fight again the imposition of unreasonable beauty and appearance standards on women (especially, but on humans overall).
I’m terribly not interested in debating in black and white that way. The beauty and fashion industries are awful in many many ways (including when stamped as organic or ethical), these facts are not discussed here, many authors specialized on these issues would do this so much better than I ever could.
I am talking about how personal this is as an experience, about the human and intimate side of this journey.
Each activist will have to make choices regarding their lifestyle, to keep complying or discard rules depending on their renewed perspective. While keeping in mind that there are no perfect activism. Forcing ourselves to do or not do things because “It doesn’t go with our beliefs” is not the opposite of complying with systems we don’t believe in, it’s still as disempowering. It’s still someone deciding for us what we ought to do.
Our liberation comes from self-agency, to break some rules, follow others and see how it feels. Cultivating the acceptance that not all of our life can be about our activism as well.
I’m not saying here either that “choice activism” has any actual power on the status quo (damn, can you feel how entangled this all is?).
Believing people can do whatever they want, as long as they feel like they want it denies the power of systematic oppression. Most oppression is unconscious, choice within its realms is an illusion. We were socialized to believe we wanted that stuff. Our choices aren’t always innocent, or even ours.
Finally, I’m not saying that I’m above this all because I learned about it, or even because I spent a few years away from all this. That would be so incredibly presumptuous and foolish of me, denying my innate flaws as a human.
What I’m saying is that right now, I miss the sheer joy that comes for me with clothes, make up and jewelry I enjoy. And that I’m not ready to part from this joy right now, if ever.
And that while being an activist in other ways, like I am through my work and writings, I’ll keep following my joy, which is also a deeply healing practice. And another kind of activism.
This has to come with accepting that it won’t feel good at times, it will create some clear discomfort.
I won’t stop learning and communicating about beauty neutrality, the beauty myth, ableism, ageism, fat phobia and all their counterparts to feel more comfortable about making room again for these in my life.
I won’t pretend either that there’s anything feminist about this. This doesn’t challenge the status quo. And that’s okay. Not every part of my life needs to challenge the status quo for me to be a "legitimate” or even useful activist.
Right now, I need to challenge my perfectionism, a residue of my oppression, more than to seek perfection in my activism. And I’m very okay with that decision.
I won’t be shamed into abandoning joy for the sake of beliefs. I've let go of those things before, because it felt like the more aligned thing to do. If now, exploring how to get them back into my life feels like the joyful thing to do, I will give myself the space to explore it.
I operate from the belief that true liberation comes from within first and foremost, and that following my joy heals my deepest wounds.
This for me, trumps being an 'impeccable activist’, no matter what that means, or if that actually exists.
I don’t believe it does exist, I believe the systems are too intersected for this to exist right now. Especially in an activism as radical and widespread as intersectional feminism. There’s just to much to change in one’s life to be able to do it all.
So my dear hummingbird, my hope by sharing this with you this layer of my painful peeling of radical feminism, is that you be gentle with your own contradictions, with the things that don’t comply with your activism.
That it reminds you that this is a process, what you do or are at now doesn’t have to be forever.
You don’t need to change completely and radically at once (this doesn’t work anyway).
Don’t impose this violence to yourself, take your time, question everything and know that this will be an experimentation anyway, no matter how slow or fast you go. Changing this pace will hinder your liberation anyway.
You are allowed to feel in your body what all these changes are like for you, which ones you want to keep or move. You are allowed to change your mind.
You don’t need to be perfect to show up for yourself and others.
Perfection doesn’t exist. Perfection doesn’t exist. Perfection doesn’t exist.