Lately I’ve really been feeling it – the exhaustion, anger, sadness, and even hopelessness that can come with staying informed of all of the injustice that happens in our world.
Sometimes it feels like that’s what it means to be a feminist in this world – to see things as they truly are, to feel and carry the weight of the violence and trauma that surrounds us.
In some ways, it is. Seeing the systems of privilege and marginalization for what they are, over and over again, leads to very justifiable feelings of anger, sadness, and guilt. The emotional labor of staying informed and speaking out can wear on us – and when the violence just doesn’t stop and the perpetrators aren’t held accountable and the systems feel too big and powerful, it can be easy to give into the feelings of hopelessness that things will never change.
The work of being a feminist – speaking out, showing up, and staying informed – can be emotionally draining, and it can be challenging some days to find hope, to make space for joy and celebration, and to prioritize our own and our community’s mental health and emotional wellbeing.
We can acknowledge these challenges inherent in activism, while also noting that the opposite is far worse. Sure, in some ways, ignorance can be bliss – though this is really only true for people in positions of privilege. But for those who are marginalized, awareness and action can be a matter of survival, and can mean the difference between shame and liberation, hope and hopelessness.
Taking on a feminist perspective certainly benefits our movement, and any work that we do to change the system is beneficial for us all. But how does this identity affect our sense of ourselves and our wellbeing?
Six in ten women in America identify as feminists, according to a recent national survey. So I ask this question: How might feminist thinking, identity, and action be beneficial (and even revolutionary!) when it comes to our individual and community wellbeing?
Here are five ways.
1. Increased Confidence and Empowerment
I’ll never forget when I first became a feminist.
I was fifteen, such a difficult age for some girls, as our bodies start to change, and our awareness of our bodies as sexual objects, of our expected roles in society, and of the messages about who we should be start to crystallize.
I remember feeling so ugly; I wasn’t confident about who I was or could be. I assumed that I deserved to feel insecure, to be made fun of, and that I was the only one.
Then I came across a feminist book that told me my body was mine, and mine alone. It told me that society tells girls that we should exist for others, and that our bodies must conform to impossible standards, that I was being conditioned by cultural messages to hate my body. The book told me that these were systemic problems, not individual. And it told me that I was not alone.
From there, my confidence grew. I was angry in a way that felt empowering – I could make my own decisions about how I received and reacted to sexist messaging; in fact, I could reject them altogether, and join in with others who did, too.
My sense of myself and what I could be grew as I reimagined the fairytales I was told as a little girl, the idea of being saved by a man or being the most desirable of women, of looking any particular way that pleased others more than myself.
There’s something beautiful about the first moment a girl finds feminism – that first sense of not being alone, of being connected to the experiences of others, the knowledge that there are larger systems underlying these problems, and that I could play a role in changing them.
Developing a feminist identity at such a young age in a world that is so hostile to girls can have a radical effect on one’s sense of self.
Being able to critique cultural pressures, as we learn to recognize and resist oppressive cultural messages about our bodies, our value, our roles in relationships and the world can create a new sense of personal and collective power in all of us.
2. Protective Against Psychological Distress
Did you know that women are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression as men? Women who are unemployed, less educated, and have less access to wealth are at even higher risk, as are women of Color and immigrant women.
While the development of psychological disorders like depression and anxiety are linked to biological factors, systemic and social factors play a huge role in their development, diagnosis, and recovery. And while systemic factors like sexism, racism, and unequal distribution of wealth play a major role in their development, the cultural conversation, in the US at least, tends to stigmatize mental health disorders by positioning them as individual problems to be treated in isolation, perpetuating self-blame and shame in those who suffer from them.
So what can feminism do for these seemingly individual mental health issues?
This is, of course, related to #1 – the feeling that comes with a feminist awareness, of not being alone in our experiences and externalizing blame, or the letting go of internalized sexism that keeps us blaming ourselves for experiences and feelings related to living as marginalized and oppressed people. These things deeply affect our psychological well-being.
Research also shows that feminist identification and perspective can play a huge role in body image and protecting against body image dissatisfaction, and that women with higher levels of feminist identity had lower levels of disordered eating, despite experiences of sexism.
It’s also been confirmed through research that women who identify with feminist values tend to have better overall wellbeing, particularly when it comes to our sense of purpose, our autonomy, and personal growth.
Self-efficacy, or one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed and accomplish goals, is also significantly associated with feminist identity and attitudes. So feminist identity, attitudes, and behaviors are not only good for our community and affecting broader change, but are significantly beneficial to our own well-being, including our psychological wellness, our relationships to our bodies, and our belief in ourselves.
3. More Egalitarian Relationships – And Safer Sex
“No one wants to date a feminist.” This awful myth has been perpetuated about feminists since the beginning of the movement. And while it may seem obvious to us that this isn’t true, it’s worth pointing to the research.
One study found that people in romantic relationships with feminists report greater sexual satisfaction and greater relationship stability and quality than those with non-feminists. And another study found that women who identify as feminists tend to have more egalitarian relationships. This was largely due to their expectations about sharing power and labor.
It turns out that feminists are also more likely to expect and engage in safer sexual practices. One study found that college women who identified having feminist beliefs had greater sexual self-efficacy than those without feminist beliefs and were more likely to initiate condom use with a sexual partner when faced with hostile sexist experiences.
These are important to consider when considering how feminist awareness can affect our relationships with friends, lovers, and partners, and what feminism has done for our sexual health and emotional wellbeing.
In a culture that continues to promote an unequal distribution of labor in relationships amidst a rape culture that blames victims of intimate partner violence while simultaneously shaming and minimizing the gains of the feminist movement, the impact of feminism on creating healthier and more egalitarian relationships cannot be overstated.
Feminist beliefs are changing the landscape of relationships, promoting safer sex, more egalitarian expectations surrounding sexuality and labor, and overall interpersonal wellbeing.
4. Healing From Systemic and Interpersonal Trauma and Oppression
Although our country’s medical model has tended to view psychological disorders as individual and biological, they are increasingly being understood as impacted by the systems around us, particularly by systems of oppression.
Sexism, like all forms of oppression, is bad for your mental health.
Experiences of discrimination, including and especially daily microaggressions, have a significant and detrimental impact on psychological health, as well as physical health (linked to health problems like hypertension, breast cancer, obesity, high blood pressure, and substance abuse).
The psychological distress is compounded for those with multiple positions of marginalization. Internalized sexism and heterosexism, psychologically harmful in their own right, also further increases other forms distress.
Experiences of trauma, both on a systemic level (such as poverty and incarceration) and interpersonal/individual (such as sexual abuse and intimate partner violence) are deeply rooted in these systems. And feminist therapists have helped radically shift our understanding of causes of trauma as fundamentally connected to sociopolitical issues.
This means that how we think about healing from trauma must also be rooted in feminist awareness, and that feminist identification and activism can be significantly healing for trauma survivors.
Feminist therapy advocates, for example, that increasing awareness of and taking action against rape culture can be a major tool for healing from a sexual assault.
The thing is, we often don’t make the connection of how we’re feeling with the daily experiences of discrimination and violence, because our culture tends to extend blame for one’s own material conditions and experiences.
These compounding experiences of systemic trauma contribute to insidious, chronic stress. It is clearer today, more than ever before, that the psychological scars of poverty, racism, sexism, and heterosexism are in deep need of healing.
5. Connection to a Larger Community
Collective action has always been a core organizing principle of political movements. And coming together to connect – to see that the “personal is political” – has also played a significant role in the feminist movement since women first learned that “it’s not just me.”
Feeling connected to a larger feminist community is probably my favorite part about being a feminist.
Sure, you can take action regardless of whether or not you identify as a “feminist,” and there are both valid and horrible reasons to choose not to take on this identity. But one cool thing about identifying as a feminist is that it connects you with a global community. And research shows that participation in collective action provides needed emotional support and an outlet for the difficult emotions we experience, like anger and stress.
So while being a feminist may mean we have the increased burden of staying informed, speaking out, and carrying the emotional weight of anger and stress, it also means that as we can connect with the larger feminist community to take action to change those very structures, we gain the support of others to heal from and sustain our emotional wellbeing amidst these challenges.
So here’s the thing: While identifying and participating in the feminist movement can certainly be good for you, it doesn’t make you any less of a feminist if you are struggling with a mental health disorder. There’s no shame in being a feminist and having depression, in being a feminist and having an eating disorder, in being a feminist and being a victim or survivor of sexual abuse.
These things will unfortunately continue to happen, and while we work to speak out about the issues we care deeply about, we can’t let those who struggle with mental health be kept invisible. Stigma and shame surrounding psychological disorders have a strong force in our culture, and serves only to isolate and further harm those who struggle with these issues.
It’s so important for us to do the work of supporting one another as we navigate this difficult world. This might mean encouraging a friend to get help from a mental health professional when they need it, or speaking up about your own struggle with mental health if you feel ready to do so. It might mean placing mental health advocacy at the center of your feminist work.
When we promote self-care within our feminist spaces while organizing around the idea that oppression is bad for your mental health, we can position mental health as the feminist issue that it is – and start to build communities that support one another while speaking out to enact systemic change.
Laura Kacere is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and is a therapist, yoga teacher, and pit bull mama living in Chicago. Laura moved to Chicago to study mental health after years of reproductive rights activism in Washington, D.C. She is passionate about about working at the intersection of feminism, mental health, and the body. When she isn’t working or on her mat, she’s usually watching Buffy, eating deep dish pizza, and wishing she had more string instruments. Follow her on Twitter @Feminist_Oryx. Read her articles here.
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