Emily Heist Moss asks: Are we obligated to reject our socialization?
One of my favorite yoga teachers has this routine she does at the beginning of class. We are all in tadasana, waiting for instructions. This is not a hard posture; it’s basically just standing up with your arms raised and paying a little extra attention to how your joints stack up. She tells us to consider how lucky we are to be able to stand on our own two feet. When you think about it, she says, we’re balancing our entire body weight on a small square of ground no bigger than a shoebox. Lots of people—elderly people, infants, people with disabilities–can’t do what we’re doing so effortlessly right now. Be grateful, she says, because this basic posture is actually pretty phenomenal.
A few weeks ago, a commenter left a response to my piece on makeup that suggested I might subscribe to a certain brand of feminism that expects women to “reject their socialization.” I love that turn of phrase, but her accusation has got me thinking. Is that what I want? Do I want people to shrug off decades of expectations and assumptions, to insist on pushing away all the traditions and conventions to which they’ve become accustomed? Yes. No. Sometimes.
What I want is for those of us with privilege to remember that the basic right of questioning our socialization is not so basic at all. The fact that we have time and energy to worry and write and debate these comparatively small decisions—to lipstick or not to lipstick—is a blessing. We are incredibly lucky to stand on such solid ground that we can push back, that we can make people uncomfortable, that we can ask “why?” over and over again. The ability to make these choices for ourselves, regardless of what we choose, is a gift that many people in the world don’t have. So do I believe we are obligated to reject our socialization? No, but are we obligated to poke it, test it, turn it upside down and shake it? Yes.
I was dealt a lucky hand, and you probably were too. Of all the places to be born, in all the eras, to all of the parents, in all of the bodies, I was born in Massachusetts in 1988 to upper middle-class, highly educated white parents. I am blessed with physical and mental health. I have a family that supports me no matter what I do, and a circle of friends who encourage debate and discussion. Things could be very, very different.
Most women in the world, by a huge margin, have it infinitely harder than I do. They have fewer resources, less support, and governments and families that limit their access to education, health care, and employment. I could have been born in Afghanistan, fighting my way to a mountain school without walls. I could have been born in one of the 127 countries where marital rape is still legal (we banned it here in 1993). I could be one of the 603 million women who live in countries where domestic violence is not a crime. Even here in the United States, I am one of the lucky ones. I have am educated, I am employed, I have health insurance (even dental!). Should something I need not be available for me, I was taught how to advocate for myself and I know my rights.
If someone has to question our socialization, who better than me? Or you? Women who are still struggling with covering their most basic needs, protecting their families, or fighting for access to education don’t have time to fight these small battles. The socialization we are pushing back against tells us that women are too emotional for leadership, that we are only as valuable as we are attractive, that childbearing is our primary purpose in the world. These grand problems may seem unrelated to the litany of minute decisions we make about our lives and our appearances, but that’s naïve.
Our choices don’t exist in a vacuum. On an individual level, I couldn’t care less who changes their name, who gets a breast lift, who stays at home with the kids. To dictate any of those to other women would be to pretend I know better than them what they need and that’s the opposite of my kind of feminism. But on a macro scale, the choices we make, in aggregate, help shape that very socialization. If every woman on television has DDs, it changes what we think is normal for our own bodies. If every woman we know takes her husband’s last name when she gets married, it makes it harder for our daughters to know that they have options.
That is not to say that one should push the envelope just for the sake of pushing it. Rejecting socialization just for the sake of rejecting socialization, to use our commenter’s original term, is not the point. The point is to at least talk about these decisions, about how to wear and perform our gender, about which conventions work and which ones don’t, because we can. The point is to remember that we are lucky enough to live in a society where voicing our opinions and debating our choices is allowed, even celebrated. The point is to remember that the very thing that seems so basic, standing on your own two feet, is not so basic at all.
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.