Feminism has come a long way since the beginnings of its first wave back in the late 19th century. Today, 6 out of 10 women say they are feminists, with many citing the movement as something empowering for them.
Given this, it’s easy to think that as feminists, we promote gender equality by default — that we are the farthest thing from sexist possible. Even for those who may not be comfortable being called a feminist, growing up as a woman and experiencing the effects of sexism firsthand can make you more mindful of sexist behaviors, right?
Unfortunately, misogyny — or the culture of contempt for women, which keeps roughly half of the world at a lower social status for the simple coincidence of being assigned female at birth — has many faces. Trickiest of all is the face that hides itself so deeply and cleverly: a face we can call internalized misogyny.
Internalized Misogyny Is Learned Behavior
Internalized misogyny, or internalized sexism, is unknowingly projecting sexist ideas onto other women – and perhaps even yourself. It’s the product of decades upon decades of women being degraded subtly in media and everyday interactions, and perhaps crucially, a product of certain kinds of women being idolized and put on pedestals.
We have centuries’ worth of media (largely created by men) showing us how a good woman talks, walks, and presents herself. It categorizes us into virgins, mothers, and whores, and delights in certain women’s suffering.
It tells us certain jobs are meant and not meant for us. And most despicably, it blames victims of violence and assault for the tragedies they go through.
These years upon years of history have left us with preconceived notions about how women should look, act, and be.
While feminism has made great strides, many of us still have these preconceived notions buried deep within ourselves. Every now and then, they come out of the woodwork, and we snap at another woman or make a snide remark rooted in sexism without even realizing it.
It can be daunting, especially when you consider yourself a staunch feminist, to realize that you are capable of misogyny, too. But the fact of the matter is that society has conditioned us to shame, doubt, and undervalue ourselves and other women in a million tiny cuts, and the only way forward is to be conscious of it and then, cut by cut, to unlearn it.
Am I Guilty?
As much as we’d like to think that we’re the exception to the rule, we have more than likely perpetuated it in some way or another. Here are some ways that we experience internalized misogyny without even realizing it:
“I’m Not Like Other Girls”
Some women like to think that they’re a rare exception to their gender: Unlike other girls, they are carefree, or independent, or like video games, or don’t like makeup. Also known as the pick-me girl, someone who says they’re not like other girls has internalized the misogyny around us. In order to gain male approval and seem “better,” they look down on other girls.
There are so many examples of this, and a quick stroll through the “Not Like Other Girls” subreddit — a community with over 266,000 members — will show you that people actually take notice.
As one of the most up-voted posts of all time on the subreddit explains, this “not like other girls” thinking stems from us being taught that women are one-dimensional human beings that only like certain things or act certain ways. “How can women be viewed so poorly that little girls everywhere all think they’re unique just for having independent thoughts and interests?”
When you claim that you’re superior to other women for not liking things that women stereotypically like or doing things that women stereotypically do, or are the way women stereotypically are, you’re perpetuating misogyny and insulting other women by deeming them inferior.
Men may be the historic suppressors of female sexuality, but women often judge women for their sexuality, too.
Several years ago, Maya Yonika wrote an essay called “Is Female Sexuality Really Repressed?” where she explored why women feel the need to shame other women for their sexual behaviors and choices.
In her essay, she poses the questions, “Why had I been so judgmental? Why do women tend to despise the archetype of the prostitute? Why do we, in general, feel so much sex and bodily shame as women?”
She cites a study by R. Baumeister & J.Twenge that found that women have used sex to access power: “The evidence favors the view that women have worked to stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage.” Put simply, we shame and suppress the sexuality of other women because we feel it devalues our own.
When we call other women “easy” or “cheap” for sleeping with men on the first date, or shame them for using their sexuality to their advantage, we are continuing behavior acquired through centuries of patriarchal conditioning.
After all, the same behaviors by men wouldn’t elicit the same responses, would they?
Everything Is a Competition
Internalized misogyny has resulted in a toxic culture where women compete with other women. In a post on Feminism India, Aastha Jani explains that this type of culture — where womanhood is seen as “competition” and not “collaboration” — has resulted in the deterioration of strong female friendships.
Have you ever compared yourself to other women, or felt that you were in an unspoken competition with female friends and colleagues? This is internalized misogyny rearing its ugly head.
“The very idea that women can unconditionally support each other’s success and exist as mutually empowered individuals upsets the patriarchal hegemony of society,” writes Jani. “As a result, we are brought up to feel like the world is against us, that women are ‘catty’ and they ‘stir drama,’ when in reality, there is enough space for us to feel whole without tearing each other apart.”
Remember: Empowered women empower women. It’s entirely possible to develop strong female friendships that do not need male validation.
Shaming the “Conformists”
In the early days of YouTube, there was a huge explosion of makeup tutorials, changing the beauty industry forever and giving rise to “makeup culture.” These were arguably the first “social media influencers,” and these days, we still see many makeup artists showcasing their processes and looks on social media sites like Instagram and TikTok.
Unfortunately, many still look at these influencers and involuntarily cringe. “Look at these women pandering to the male gaze,” we might say. “It’s sad that they feel the need to conform to societal ideals of what women should be like!”
Suzana Weiss explains the problem with this kind of thinking succinctly: “Though it stems from the very real fact that women are often pressured to conform in these ways, this impulse still categorizes behaviors as masculine or feminine rather than viewing them as individual choices dissociated from gender. It also devalues femininity, and that hasn’t gotten us anywhere.”
Instead, we should learn to respect the choices that other women make, even if they’re not necessarily choices we would make for ourselves.
There are many negative traits associated with femininity, and all of these lumped together form a stereotype used to devalue and demean women.
We’ve all heard it, in various ways and points in time: Women, apparently, are “too emotional,” or “too fussy,” or tend to overreact and freak out over nothing. These beliefs have birthed many memes poking fun at the perceived oversensitivity or irrationality of women, and while these are all humorous in nature, they reflect real-life problems that women — especially those in places of power — struggle with.
Aidan Ventimiglia of VOX ATL cited the criticisms of Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign in 2016 as an example: “When Hillary Clinton was running for office, countless arguments against her surrounded her gender, and not her actual campaign, opinions or skills… instead of focusing on her ideas, the people zeroed in on the so-called disadvantages of having a female president.”
Drawing from stereotypes of women’s roles as caregivers and nurturers, many thought that Clinton was a poor candidate, because the characteristics associated with these roles don’t necessarily match with the responsibilities associated with being the president of the United States. Femininity was — and continues to be — seen as actively detrimental.
Perhaps one of the worst things to come out of internalized misogyny is self-hatred.
Women tend to be their own harshest critics, and they are far less forgiving of their own mistakes than of others. We may find ourselves comparing ourselves to other women, feeling insecure in our choices, and asking ourselves whether our emotions are valid. These reactions are the product of decades of misogyny, of being taught to fit ourselves into little boxes and shun anyone who didn’t do the same.
If unchecked, this internalized misogyny can lead to serious psychological issues, such as depression, low self-esteem, and eating disorders. The problem is that it’s so ingrained in us that we often don’t even realize that it exists.
What Can We Do?
Internalized misogyny is not something that we can completely shed overnight, but as with any learned behavior deeply embedded into our culture, it is possible to unlearn it.
Culture, as they say, is a lot like air: You can’t see it, and it’s hard to measure. Crucially, you can tell the difference between being stuck in a stiflingly closed space and a grassy meadow — but only once you’ve opened the door and stepped out into the open air.
Again, empowered women empower women, and the best way to combat internalized misogyny is to recognize it. Be a positive influence to other women in your life, and catch yourself when you’re about to make snide remarks about another woman based on perceived flaws.
Ask yourself: If a man did something similar, or exhibited similar characteristics, would you have a different opinion? If the answer is yes, then it may be internalized misogyny at play.
This doesn’t necessarily mean having to like every girl you meet. Instead, it’s about treating each other with respect and respecting the choices that other women make. It’s about doing away with the caricatures of what women should be, and supporting and celebrating women as they are.