I used to claim to be a feminist. However, a friend of mine, liked to call me out on this. “Yeah but seriously what difficulties have you faced being a woman compared to a man?“ he would challenge. My resolve would unfurl rapidly. I knew my existence had been so privileged – did I really have anything to complain about? I would normally mumble something unconvincing about gender pay gap which I really knew nothing about at the time.
This was a long time ago in a far away land, before “me too”, before wide spread social media, before Emma Watson grew up, and well before I had actually worked in companies with hiring strategies that saw women underpaid and overworked all the while patting themselves on the back for their “diversity and inclusion strategies”. Another one of those moments where lived experiences are so much more compelling that the hard data – even if less accurate.
What I couldn’t explain then, and still struggle to now, was the depth of this feeling. My life had been impacted, I just couldn’t find the words to describe my experiences. I actually started trying to write a blog post in December 2014 about it but never got anywhere. Seven years later I am still musing on what it means to be a feminist and why it matters, if at all. While I think representation and the pay gap are all important topics. For me it runs deeper than that, much deeper. It’s about respect. It’s about being enough. It’s about being allow to try and fail and then be able to ask for help rather than automatically being told “don’t lift that” “here pass me that jar” “give me your bag” “don’t go alone”.
In my lived experience – all that chivalry only goes one or two ways. Either you believe it. You buy in to your own inherent weakness – you don’t try to keep up with the boys because ‘you never could’ so why bother? Why not just expect someone else to do the heavy lifting? Why know what you are capable of? Why risk it? Or alternatively you become a pigheaded stubborn piece of work – who constantly needs to prove them-self worthy. Guess which path I took?
As a teenager I was a Tomboy – partly driven by these feelings but with no way to properly convey them. I felt I had to walk like them. Talk like them. No tears. No emotions. No softness. I had to know the rugby score. The cricket results. I had to excel in STEM subjects. I had to prove my strength, my intelligence. Then maybe, just maybe, I would be enough.
And while in my 20s I accepted I could wear dresses and wasn’t completely allergic to the colour pink. I still tried to prove myself – this time with adventure sports. I still had to try keep up with the boys.
I remember one 13hr orienteering race I was in a team with two much stronger males – they wanted to take my pack from me. I had an ultimatum from one of the team “either your give us your pack now and we keep walking but faster – or you keep your pack and we start running again”. I ran. It was stupid, defiant, and undoubtedly the worse thing for our team. But by then it was so ingrained, an almost inseparable part of my personality.
It’s taken me another 10 years, ongoing fatigue issues and several mid-life crises to really start to be able to accept help and not see it as a reflection of weakness in my personality. To be able to admit that I get scared. To admit that I am actually a huge cry baby. To not see the softer, more compassionate side of myself as pure fallibility – something to be ashamed of.
A good friend of mine grew up in Ponsonby, has temped in tanning salons, and I assume knows how to apply eyeshadow like a pro. She comes from world so foreign to me but I admire Vanessa because she constantly reminds me that being soft and being strong are not mutually exclusive. She has maintained her uniqueness while still improving her climbing grade.
And then there is Rose. One of New Zealand’s best current mountaineers and possibly trail runners if she cared enough to compete more. Not that she’d tell you either one of those things. I am amazed by her unassuming nature and ability to ignore the need to confirm to anyone else’s standard. She makes me shake with laughter with all her wonderful unfiltered quirks. She is exactly and precisely herself.
The obvious fact is I don’t have the answers to gender inequality. I don’t know if deserve to call myself a feminist – with any real conviction. I don’t know if it matters but I do know:
“We all move forward when
we realise how resilient
and striking the women
around us are”
~ rupi kaur