The first time I realized I was a part of the inferior gender I was eight years old attending a new youth group in Needville, Texas. Sister Rachel explained to us that men were weak and easily tempted so it was up to us to dress modestly. She continued by telling us that we should always obey our husbands and fathers because the Lord left them in charge. She wasn’t thrilled when I asked, “If men are so weak why are they in charge?”
Needville is overrun with this kind of religious fervor. It now has a population of about 3,000 people, and 11 churches. That’s one church for every 272 people, compared to Brooklyn’s one church for every 2,000. I spent my most formative years in a town full of evangelicals, Catholics and WASPs.
The school system mirrored the community’s religious fervor, targeting not only women but anyone whose beliefs didn’t align with conservative doctrine. For example, the superintendent demanded that a Native American boy cut his long hair to fit the dress code with no regard to its cultural significance, teachers refused to teach a pregnant student, and students were threatened with suspension when they tried to memorialize the students killed at the Stoneman Douglas shooting because it implied anti-gun beliefs. The beloved principal once warned the girls against wearing revealing dresses to prom on the morning announcements by saying, “The prom isn’t a hoe show.” Twice, Needville got attention from national news outlets for some of these things, and both times the more outsiders criticized the town, the more insular and defensive it became. In the case of the “hoe show” comment, no one in the faculty saw a problem with a grown man in his 50s calling the group of minors in his care “hoes.”
Though not all of these examples related to sexism, the sexist attitude of my community affected my internal thoughts about myself and my gender. The constant self-policing to make sure I didn’t say or do anything that would brand me as the “wrong kind” of woman and get me called a slut or a bitch by my peers was exhausting. I took refuge in Tumblr with its own specific kind of feminism. The kind of rhetoric I started spouting eventually landed me the unofficial nickname of “wetback feminist bitch.” I wore that as a badge of honor, accepted that most of the student population hated me, and revelled in hating most of them back. Eventually, however, I realized that I had started doing a different kind of self-policing sponsored by Tumblr. The Tumblr brand of feminism doesn’t allow for nuance or mistakes; the second someone says or does something vaguely problematic, they become a cartoon villain version of themselves. I didn’t want to be part of a culture that accused people of ableism for using the word “stupid.”
Shortly after denouncing Tumblr, I found myself in Brooklyn, finally away from the small town that was bent on convincing me of my own inferiority. I expected to be unburdened by internalized misogyny. However, at every turn, the voices of the nuns, principals, and teachers resounded in my head: Stop being a slut. You’re dressing like a skank. You can’t do math because you’re a woman. Every time I walked down the street, the liberal teacher’s voice in my head said, please don’t become one of those girls that doesn’t wear a bra in public. For the entirety of my first fall semester, every time I wore a skirt that was more than three inches above the knee, I felt the judging eyes of my principal on my legs and convinced myself I was being a distraction. After priding myself on my open-mindedness for so long, it was infuriating to learn that Needville had won and imbued me with a deep seated sense of self-doubt and guilt for going against their conservative values.
The recovery process for me has been long and is still ongoing. I realized that I was only holding myself to the standards of my hometown, standards I would never hold another woman to. I was forcing myself to follow rules that I would never try to impose on someone else. And I realized that this was a dangerous form of self-hatred. So, I began a new form of self-policing. Each time I started to feel guilty about my actions, even something as small as wearing thigh high socks, I’d think, “Is this going against a value I hold, or is it a value my high school principal wants me to hold?” and if that didn’t work, I’d ask myself, “If a woman I greatly admire and respect did this exact thing, would I think negatively of her?” Just interrogating my way of thinking is helping to dismantle my own internalized misogyny, bit by bit.
Now that I’m officially back in Texas for quarantine, my progress feels palpable. Recovery is rarely linear, and recovering from a lifetime of being conditioned to be misogynistic is no different. However, now that I’m home surrounded by the places that shaped me, I feel much closer to the finish line than I do from the start of the race.
Art by Emily Goto