The V Word

Mike sent me this article about the three high school girls who were suspended for using the word "vagina" during a reading of The Vagina Monologues after they'd been warned not to use "the v-word." I told him via email that I'd seen it, but couldn't even muster the energy to comment on something so pathetic. Except, as tends to happen, Mike and I started talking about the article anyway, and it turns out I do have something to say.

Mike said that when he saw the headline, he "figured the brouhaha would be over one of the girls saying 'pussy' or 'cunt.' But, indeed, the filthy, dirty, obscene word is…vagina. Amazing."

It really is amazing. What's even more amazing is that any of us women manage to reach adulthood with a shred of self-esteem, that so few of us truly succumb to the anger inside us all. Even those of us who supposedly don't "care" or "pay attention," those who allegedly think feminism is a crock, don't escape the unavoidable messages just like this one that tell us over and over and over that our bodies are filthy and shameful and less than.

I remember the first time I read Freud's theory of penis envy, and the hypothetical he laid out about two children playing "doctor." The little girl first sees the boy's penis, then looks at her own body and discovers "the horror of nothing to see." That description haunts me—the sense of women's bodies as missing something, as incomplete, as less than.

Women have but three options to manage a lifetime of being told they are less than: They can accept the pernicious myth, which usually entails hiding their resignation behind some conservative ideology that deviously attempts to make submission sound valorous, usually by disguising it at a way to honor men, children, and/or a god of some description. (Note: I'm not talking about all conservative/religious women or all stay-at-home moms or all women who prefer a division of marital labor along traditional gender lines; I'm talking about women who genuinely believe women are to submit to men and profess to be okay with that.) I can, strangely enough, understand why this option appeals to some women. If you can convince yourself that you were put on the earth to get married, have lots of babies, and serve your family, to cook, clean, wash dishes, and scrub floors, and nothing else, if you can be happy being a second-class servant, then all the messages telling you you're less than won't bother you a whit, but instead confirm your identity. No struggles with the cognitive dissonance of being overtly told you're equal by society, while your equality and sense of self and personal autonomy and self-esteem are being constantly undermined by a steady drumbeat of negative messaging. No frustration at the lack of progress. None of the pain and humiliation of subjugation. Celebrate your oppression, and the world celebrates with you.

That's not really a viable choice for most women, however, which leads us to our other two choices. Try to ignore it all; try not to think about it; shove it down in your gut and pretend it doesn't matter. Or be an active feminist.

Active feminism can, in many ways, seem more upsetting, because you do have days of sheer despair. But ultimately it's healthier to have a method by which to process the stuff of sexism, because even though carrying it with you, addressed and understood and contextualized, is bloody hard, internalizing it is worse. That which tells us we are less than is corrosive, corruptive, toxic—and a lifetime of it left alone to fester can destroy a woman from the inside out, as she is slowly robbed of her self-esteem, her self-respect, her self-confidence, her sense of, trust in, and love for herself.

There are women who say they don't think about these things, and they may not, in the sense that an active feminist does, drawing connections between "the little things" and the big picture. But internalizing a lifetime of negative perceptions about your sex, your body, and inevitably yourself doesn't come without a cost. Women who don't think about these things nonetheless feel them. It's a mistake to believe that the "post-feminist" fun-loving gals at work or the local bar or populating the sorority house across the street, who claim ignorance at what all the feminist fuss is about or express hostility at the mere mention of the no-fun stridency of women's equality advocates, don't feel the mordant pang in their guts when they are smacked in the face with the reality of less than. They do. And pity them truly that the fear of being seen as humorless trumps their desire to find a way to experience themselves as whole.

Feminists, one must realize, come to feminism because they feel these things and simply choose not to ignore them; it's not that that they experience something other women do not. Feminists find feminism as they search for a way to cope, to process, to deal. Feminism is, more than anything, a valve that lets escape the pressure of less than, lest we implode from the crush of its weight. That valve is more important to me than I can say, because one good v-word deserves—and needs, yet—another.

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