A Feminist Falls to Pieces
By: Savannah Downing
Recently I apologized for crying. I could not determine if it was one drink too many since being back in higher altitudes or if I had been holding in something painful that I just needed to let go at that moment. What I can determine, though, is that my first instinct was to apologize. “I’m sorry I cried.” I said it more than once. To be quite honest, I was sorry – for clocking out the evening on a poor note, placing someone in an unexpected position, and being upset on such an otherwise lovely evening. Yet, am I really sorry for crying, for that act in and of itself? Or am I sorry that I allowed someone to see me like that? Why am I so ashamed? Certainly, the little dark pits of painful memories that spilt out felt shameful enough – and that was just the content. Why did it make me feel less strong, not as witty, stereotypically emotionally-charged, and ugly because it spilt out through sobs and left me with red, puffy eyes that even contouring make-up could not fix?
Often, I write about systemic weaknesses, problems with institutions, and critiques of oppressive forces, but I always end with some call to action. This particular post will do less of that and a little bit more of examining just one example of a feminist falling to pieces and invite us to take seriously how we might process moments like these – of vulnerability, shame, and inadequacy. I have purposely withheld details from my own story because this is not just mine; it is many of our stories. ” Even Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who have made amazing contributions to sort of “popularizing” feminism, seem to shy away from a kind of feminism that seeks to embrace emotional vulnerability and uncertainty in favor of being “strong” and outspoken. And I get it; you cannot cover everything. I am not even going to attempt to do that here. What I hope to do, at the very least, is to publicize that feminists do fall to pieces, for all kinds of reasons, and therefore relate to others so that we might at least consider our own emotional, mental health and well-being as something to take seriously in feminist discussions.
It often feels like a lose/lose situation: crying makes us feel vulnerable, which is problematic if we do not know how to process it, at the same time that using this text to talk about emotional vulnerability can appear quite selfish. Call this another double-bind, if you will. As a remarkably smart and talented colleague who doubles as a really special friend pointed out, some people are talking about this idea, and she gave me some direction to see where I might fit in this whole conversation. An excerpt from a talk Brene Brown gave demonstrates her findings after years of thousands of interviews with people about shame and vulnerability. Here, she explains the commonalities between people who experienced a deep sense of worthiness and connection with others:
And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. . . The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating — as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.
In turn, based on an earlier portion of her talk, those who felt less worthy may be caught in a cycle that so often is an attempt to numb the parts of us that make us feel vulnerable, where we lose our emotional connectedness to ourselves and therefore to those around us. It is a vicious cycle that I think is notably important for feminists to consider since it is something with which we all deal at different points. Yet, across the board, we are still witnessing how women are disciplined when speaking and writing, judging their tone, facial expressions, and many times ultimately missing the point.
So what, then, do feminists do with a talk like this by Brown? Initially I respond with Yes, sure, this is great. Perhaps I would feel better if I embraced my vulnerabilities, reclaimed my self-worth, and decided to just “be myself” without holding back or falling into the cycle of trying to numb what makes me feel so vulnerable. But what does it mean when feminism is part of who you are, has been your source of healing, inspiration, and motivation, and it also taught you that what you say and how you say it, as a woman, matters in our world. So when I cried, and then when I felt vulnerable, and then I see this Ted talk, it would seem as though I am fitting into the “other” category that does not also feel worthy. In other words, if I felt worthy, then I would not also feel shameful about having cried through telling some of my most painful secrets. If feminism has done anything for me, it has been to tell me that not everything that has happened to me in my life has been my choice or my fault but that I am worthy enough to exist and thrive outside of what the world disciplines women and our bodies to be. Yet, as I try to process this event, I only feel like a feminist in pieces. I cannot just “be myself,” which is apparently what I was when I allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to tell someone my secrets and cry through them in the process, because I know that I am always at risk of losing credibility. I may not be taken seriously or may be seen as weak and damaged. Perhaps even writing this article, admitting – not defeat – but frustration might amplify this notion.
Yet, I write it because I know I am not the only one who has ever felt the emotional turmoil of trying to straddle a “free-spirited” self-confident way of thinking that might liberate us from shameful vulnerability and hyperawareness of how we present ourselves, with an increased consciousness of the reality that feminism asks us to consistently be engaged and aware. So here is a feminist falling to pieces. It happens to all of us. And while I cannot offer where to go from here, I can at least give a glimpse into someone’s life who has not quite figured it out, but really, really wants to.