Patriarchal values and expectations pervade all aspects of our society – from our laws to our culture. But while these values are rooted in patriarchy, women too play an integral role in the preservation of misogynistic cultural norms and social practices. Women are educated from infancy both explicitly and implicitly on “appropriate” ways to act, think, and feel. These cultural conceptions of womanhood are so deeply ingrained that they dictate performances of femininity, even behind closed doors. The following are ways in which I have seen myself and other women commonly internalize misogyny:
Pressure to engage in casual sex and dating culture at the expense of one’s own needs
In a culture where dating apps have made casual sex the norm, there is an increasingly apparent expectation of informality and impermanence regarding romantic relationships. This is particularly apparent on college campuses where partners are considered dispensable, and expectations of relationships are rarely serious. Hand in hand with this culture comes the pressure to remain “chill” in relationships: this means refraining from developing strong romantic feelings or hiding any feelings you do have. This norm of detached, casual relationships is enforced with advice like “don’t catch feelings,” or “date multiple people so you don’t get attached to one.”
Modern dating culture can have negative impacts on all participants, confining them to an expectation of casual dating even when their priorities may differ. While there are certainly those who break gendered norms in dating rituals (i.e. women who enjoy casual dating and no-strings-attached sex, men who prefer committed relationships, etc.), I have found myself and other women my age at odds with the expectation of casual dating more often than men our age. Time and time again I’ve watched women dismiss their own needs for commitment or exclusivity for fear of rejection or being labeled “crazy”. I recall a feeling of powerlessness against this culture from my first few years of college – what was to stop my partner from leaving if I admitted to having feelings, since he could be dating someone new within the week? – so much that I convinced myself I was only looking for casual sex as well. It wasn’t until after chastising a friend for having developed feelings for a boy who ghosted her that I recognized the hypocrisy of my words. I wasn’t just scolding her for wanting honest emotional intimacy with someone; I was scolding myself, too.
The tendency to doubt your own judgment or emotional stability as a result of dating culture, or to act disdainful towards others who express a need for commitment is one of the ways I’ve seen the women around me internalize misogyny. If we are really feminists, we will abandon the pressure to conform to any dating norms – as all norms have negative standards for women – and instead accept that there are different strokes for different folks (including needing exclusivity and commitment, and that neither preference is more valid than the other).
Linking self-worth and appearance
On days where our hair misbehaves, our waistbands pinch too tight, and our skin is breaking out, women are taught to feel a diminished sense of self-worth and a diminished sense of entitlement to exist in certain spaces. I, for one, have felt less than enthusiastic to head out to a bar on days I don’t feel my most attractive. Moreover, in a culture where looking put-together means looking pretty, inequitable expectations of women’s appearances bleed into the professional world. For young women in particular, looking professional means looking attractive and when we don’t feel our best, we often feel unprepared to perform well at work or school. Women are pressured to look polished, where notions of professionalism follow a socioeconomic and racially-specific kind of pretty: women learn to conform to a white, upper or upper-middle class expectation of beauty, giving some women advantages over others in job interviews and other professional settings. Girls and women are taught that hair should be smooth and orderly or pulled back/put up; clothes should be clean, pressed, and well-fitted; and makeup should be applied to cover any flaws without being overly done. While expectations of personal presentation certainly exist for men as well, they aren’t nearly as deciding. For women, appearance is a reflection of character.
Shame associated with sexuality
Women’s sexuality is policed legally through contraception and abortion legislation and socially through cultural norms. There is a delicate balance determined by men’s ideals: a woman should be sexually experienced enough to be good in bed, but not so experienced that she’s considered promiscuous. Any deviance from this sweet spot is taboo: both virginity and having too many partners are ascribed as undesirable by patriarchal norms. The rules of sexuality for women are so entrenched that women will even lie about their experiences to other women. I have friends who have claimed to have done things they didn’t, and others who deny experiences they did have. I, too, have lied about previous experiences to cater to patriarchal expectations of sexuality.
Moreover, sexual desire for women is stigmatized. Although women’s voices have begun to change the culture, admitting to desiring sex is still largely considered crass: there are still plenty of women who are uncomfortable admitting that they masturbate, as our patriarchal world view only sees women’s sexuality beginning and ending with men. And not to mention – these are only the expectations in heterosexual relationships. Cis male-dominated opinions and priorities pervade sexual dynamics even where men themselves are absent, with fetishization of lesbianism among heterosexual men, de-legitimization of bisexuality, and near denial of asexuality’s existence altogether.
Discomfort being assertive
Another trend I’ve noticed in myself and other women around me is discomfort associated with being assertive. Women in my life are quick to feel they are overstepping boundaries when asking for something: be it a date, a raise, or at times, even a request for information. The discomfort associated with trespassing these perceived social boundaries results from the ways in which women are silenced for straying from social norms of timidity and acquiescence. Women may be labeled overbearing, desperate, bossy, or unladylike in circumstances that men are considered driven and self-assured. Hesitation women feel in being assertive is a result of societal restrictions placed on what women are entitled to and how we are expected to behave.
This list is not written to blame women, but to show how patriarchal influences can be underhanded and insidious and to address the ways in which we have internalized misogyny in our day-to-day lives. I hope that with continued examination of how our behaviors sometimes stem from patriarchy, we can further reflect on our own actions and beliefs and be able to choose for ourselves how we want to live and grow in our feminism.