As I drift relentlessly towards my mid twenties, I find myself at an age that brings with it a sexual freedom unavailable to the average awkward-adolescent, but at the same time am at a stage in my life where I am encouraged (by society and biology) to think about other very female issues – namely marriage and children – and what sort of role I hope to play in the future I have now to begin carving out for myself. I am fortunate enough to be the product of a generation which is open to greater possibilities and fewer restrictions than any other before it. Yet this very lack of structure and definition assigned to my genders’ place in the world has left many young women my age struggling to balance what they want with what they feel they should want. As such, many of us now have more difficulty than ever answering some of the most fundamental philosophical questions humankind has ever encountered: who am I, and why am I here?
You would think that the openness and equality we strive for would mean that we can now be whatever – and indeed whoever – we want to be, but as society has reduced some of its traditional expectations of women, other women have increased their more radical expectations of their own kind. Everyone’s choices are examined and criticised, always letting the side down on one front or another. It is very difficult to live in a happy medium between staunch feminism and traditional femininity without always being considered an outsider in both camps.
I’m something of Schrödinger’s feminist. That is to say, I am simultaneously a feminist, and not a feminist, and it is only upon inspection that I fall into either camp. I’m often labelled a feminist by other people – most frequently by men and traditional women – who associate my pro-female-empowerment views with feminism. Conversely, I can also say that without exception every militant feminist I have ever come across has denounced me as entirely unworthy for not feeling oppressed enough.
I was raised around strong, caring, intelligent men and women. Some with traditional roles and some who did not wish to conform. As such, I have always understood that a person’s potential and influence is not tied to their gender, and living up to our own expectations of ourselves is far more important than restricting ourselves to the expectations placed upon us by our society or culture. Women are no longer dependant on their male counterparts for security as they once were, and with that independence come a world of opportunities once only open to half the population. Equality is important to me, but I still dislike the 90s ‘ladette’ culture which strove not only to abolish the last of the confines of previous generations gender-roles, but discouraged women from admitting any gender distinction at all. I am a woman who appreciates the chance to live in a world which values me the same as any man, but without ever having wanted to become one. I want the freedom, not the phallus, but with that newfound liberty comes a lot of ambiguity, and more responsibility for my own happiness and security than any other generation has had to contend with.
As I navigate a path for myself through the world as an educated and enquiring woman, I have come to understand the importance of approaching my life as a fully rounded individual. I’ve found great pleasure in owning and exploring my sexuality and sensuality, and the joy and control I have over both. I enjoy developing my understanding of how my femininity and female-ness influences the way in which I interact with the world, and harnessing the potential of my own sexuality is something I have found incredibly empowering.
This is where I begin to clash with some of my more staunchly-feminist friends – to an extent I only discovered fairly recently when I mentioned to a few that I was thinking of taking up burlesque classes. The outcry was immediate and, at times, vicious. Feminists of all shapes and sizes pitched in to tell me that burlesque is nothing more than sleazy exploitation; women parading themselves around for the benefit of men. As far as they were concerned I might as well have said that I’d dashed off to put a down-payment on a window in Amsterdam, only stopping long enough to dance – in pvc platform boots – on Emmeline Pankhurst’s grave.
This issue has been the subject of many a heated discussion. As a fan of burlesque I adore the passionate, empowering teachings, which place the woman in control of her sexual self and allow her to explore, and exploit, all that she is for her own fulfilment. Anything which teaches women that they are confident, carnal creatures is a plus in my book, especially as it encourages self respect as well as self esteem. Most women in true burlesque are not “used” for the gratification of a male audience. Yes, many men denote pleasure from the act, but the tease is all about the controlled deliverance of pleasure by the woman, rather than the keen receipt of it by the man. The sensual seduction is not only an art, but teaches women the thing which much mainstream media does not – that women are advocates of their own sexuality, not merely objects of someone else’s. This distinction, while clear and comfortable to me, is opposed by many; men and women. Sometimes that is because they are religious or conservative, but more frequently in the UK today it is just because they are feminists or supporters of feminist views.
So, it’s simple then – that makes me a ‘bad feminist’? Well, as with everything in life, it’s not even that straightforward. You see, I also clash with many burlesque supporters. In recent years burlesque has been co-opted by “real women” who champion the practice as an example of the beauty and excitement offered by ladies with more generous, voluptuous figures. As I am naturally very thin, I find myself at odds with many amateur burlesque performers, who are as militant in their promotion of “real women” as a lot of strict feminists are. Whether campaigning for stores to stock bigger bra sizes, or promoting the burning of them, often I find that neither group of these women is willing to welcome a skinny young thing like me into the ample bosom of either sisterhood. I am no less “real” a woman because I don’t have an unhappily-large bottom, and I am certainly no less independent because I enjoy exploring my sexuality with men. Yet the women who have disagreed with me on both those fronts are united in their feeling of entitlement to criticize me for being somewhere in the middle of their perspectives. I have the confidence and embracing sexual openness of the burlesque sponsors, but physically conform more to the mainstream body type they often rebel so vociferously against. I also believe that women are equal to men in influence, potential and esteem; but I’m still happy to embrace the differences between the genders, and enjoy spending time with men who offer perspectives and approaches which vary from my own.
All this brings me back to the question of who I am – or at least what sort of woman I am – and how that will affect the decisions I make and the opportunities I immerse myself in. Can I be a wife and enjoy a sexual, practical and intellectual union with a man without it being considered that I have sold-out as a feminist by assuming a stereotypically submissive role? And is it possible to be a stay-at-home mother without sacrificing some of the hard-won autonomy of a liberated, feisty, dominant woman? I have, fortunately, time to find a place in the world which suits me, and am in possession of enough self-assurance that I will continue to do so without too much concern regarding others’ perceptions of the choices I make.
My thoughts on motherhood and marriage can wait. For now, I’m having enough difficulty deciding whether or not I am a feminist, and trying to work out if I will ever be fat enough to be a real woman.
© Kate Lawrence 2010