The VUWSA Women’s Group is a representative group on campus, open to anyone who wants to engage in discussion about the safety and wellbeing of women and girls at Victoria. We have the Women’s Space near the Hunter Lounge which works as a safe space for women and non-binary people on campus, and we meet semi-regularly to discuss whichever feminist topics we can think of and just have a bit of a yarn. This year I was elected to be one of the co-presidents of the Women’s Group. It’s a strange and varied role. Although we’re a rep group, the mission and structure is more open ended than most. Our communication is mostly done via social media with fluctuating levels of engagement from the wider student body, and our battles seem to be forever changing and never ending.
For this issue, I was originally going to write a piece about female empowerment in this incredible age of social media. Or rather, I was going to write a piece on the lack of it. I was going to spend quite a long time moaning about Kim Kardashian and whether or not she really is as empowered as her 2016 International Women’s Day essay would make us believe. But as I was finding research for it, it dawned on me that it might have been rather hypocritical. I had placed myself on a pedestal above her and for whatever reason was assuming that I was exempt from this scrutiny myself. I had to ask myself, was I as empowered as I thought I was?
Usually I am very good at knowing things about myself and yet, while trolling through countless Buzzfeed articles about Kim K and trying to resist looking up the price of Kylie Jenner’s lip kits, I realised something. My five or so months as co-president has taught me a lot, and one of those things has been that decisions I make in the present are still being influenced by the memory of my father—to the extent that I am not sure now where my autonomy ends and a desire to impress him begins. He died when I was fifteen, and since then I have been surrounded by women pretty much all of the time. But it’s the way I work to impress men in my life, who have come to act as substitutes for my father, that has me questioning my own empowerment.
I thought I knew where I stood in the discussion around empowerment. I am a pretty massive fan of make-up (see the paragraph directly above and the reference to Kylie’s lip kits). I like the fact I can make myself look fresher with just a few strokes of foundation and mascara. Seeing as I inherited some pretty dramatic eye bags, this comes in handy. Here’s the kicker though: I can look myself in the mirror and say till I’m blue in the face that I wear make up only for me as a way of empowering myself. But the truth is, I don’t.
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I know, that if I looked deep down inside, I would have to admit that I wear makeup because I am living in a society where my outward appearance is a thing to be valued by my male counterparts and that I want to appear attractive to these men. If I wanted to get real marxist I could even say that our capitalist society is a key player in this, as the sale of ‘women’s empowerment’ in the form of beauty products is done not to make women feel better about themselves, but to make the owners of these companies very very rich (Unilever I’m looking at you). In the same vein, my constant pursuit of success seems to derive from an overwhelming desire to impress the men in my life, rather than any empowerment I have for myself. The men I attempt to impress have taken the position of my father, in a kind of paternal pursuit of validation.
There are countless aspects of my life in which I think I am doing something to please me, but maybe I am doing it because I am a woman living within a western patriarchal society. Of course I am not speaking for everyone, but I wonder if I am speaking for someone.
It’s been nearly seven years since Dad died; he died when I was 15, and I’m now 22. There are enough years in there for me to know that I’m doing okay. But I have come to realise that during those last six years I have approached men in roles of authority in a way that I feel has been influenced by his absence; often I spend too much time trying to impress them in what I think is an attempt to gain validation from men who have come to replace my father. Those close to me will agree that I have a bit of an obsession with fake family members. Every guy I’m close with is either my little brother or my big. My lecturers are my father figures or my fun uncles. There is no doubt in my mind that this has derived from the abandonment I felt and still feel due to my dad dying. I seek him in people that do not get a say in this, while simultaneously pushing myself to gain their acceptance.
What does this say about my feminism? Of course I believe in gender equality and social equity. I understand why we need it, I strive for it, and I hope to educate those around me as much as I can. But is my feminism tainted by the constant need to impress men in authority as I channel my dad through them? I am aware that maybe this is something I should discuss with a psychologist and not a random bunch of strangers via a student magazine. But I figure now is as good a time as any to start asking these questions. Being a co-president of the Women’s Group has forced me to confront these issues within myself in a rather aggressive way. It has only been in the last six months I have really started to admit these things to myself, and it has made me ask the question: am I really the best person for this role if I allow myself to be influenced like this? Am I empowered enough to fulfill this role in the best way possible? Feminism is a difficult road to walk down enough without self-doubt getting in the way. But I did begin to doubt myself. Was I the best person to be in my position when my feminism was constantly hindered by what I would call a pretty basic obstacle?
I sat in front of my computer, staring at pictures of Kim K, and this all crashed down around me. But through this turmoil of dilemmas I began to wonder—is this just me? Or is everyone striving to disproportionately impress the men in their lives because of this patriarchal society that we find ourselves in? Have I just assumed it is more prominent in my life as the absence of my father is so blatantly obvious? Is everyone struggling with these issues just as I am? God I hope so.
If everyone is, then I wonder even further—what are we to do about this? The Women’s Group works tirelessly to make sure that the sisters are doing it for themselves. Maybe it is about time I started doing that too. Honouring a ghost with good grades and a full CV is not going to bring him back, and continuing to channel him through other men in a grief driven attempt to remain close to him, while discrediting my own achievements, seems to go against the fundamental principles of the wider feminist movement and what I personally stand for.
There is a difference between wearing makeup to try and blend into a tough and sometimes scary society, and ignoring your own hard work because you’ve been programmed to think that it has to be credited to some man—somewhere, wherever he is. For me, this man happens to be my father and he happens to not be alive. On the one hand, this makes things somewhat tricker, but on the other, being dead is rather permanent. There is no point wondering what he would think of my decisions, my achievements, and my failures—he will never know about them. What I have to focus on now is impressing myself and gaining validation for myself by myself. Wearing makeup is rather secondary to making sure that I know my own worth, without the eyes or memory of a man letting me know what that is. Tomorrow I will continue to wear my foundation and my mascara to hide the eye bags that my Dad left me, and I will look in the mirror and I will say “I am a sister and I can do this for myself.”