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Lately, I’ve written a bit on how feminist women are forced to engage in some cognitive dissonance in order to satisfy two conflicting parts of ourselves: The part that wants to dismantle the patriarchy, and the part that must live in it. This weekend, I read pieces by two feminist writers that shed some light on how that kind of cognitive dissonance functions, and how it complicates the work of feminism.

As it turns out, a lot of women are well aware that the cultural expectations placed on our bodies can be absurd, unhealthy, and largely impossible for us to fulfill. But awareness alone won’t necessarily curb our attempts to satisfy the feminine ideal anyway.

First: Sex educator Emily Nagoski, who blogs as Sex Nerd, writes about the difficulty of dispensing good sex advice. Why? Because Nagoski’s dual roles as responsible sex educator and helpful sex therapist are in constant conflict. Nagoski offers up a typical exchange between herself and a sex-advice seeker:

STUDENT: I don’t have orgasms from penetration. What’s wrong with me?

Nuthin’! Sounds to me like you’re in the 70% majority of women who aren’t generally orgasmic from intercourse. You’re completely normal.


ME: But you still feel like you ought to be having orgasms from penetration, huh?

STUDENT: Well my partner wants me to be able to, and I want my partner to be satisfied. And anyway, that’s, like, what everyone says is normal.

ME: Yeah. I know. But everyone is wrong. I wish the media and the culture and everyone hadn’t lied to you and your partner and made you feel broken. But they did and you do, even though you’re not. So what could I say that would help?

STUDENT: Well, you could tell me how to have orgasms from penetration.

ME: *sigh* …Okay.

Nagoski notes that “most of the time it takes more than normalizing statistics to liberate someone from the burden of fear.” In other words, simple awareness that our cultural ideal has been hoodwinking women into hating ourselves isn’t enough to make us stop. “What can an educator provide? Sadly, most often it’s advice about how to conform more to the cultural lie. Which makes me feel like a fraud,” she writes. “It’s like trying to send the message that weight doesn’t matter, and then giving dieting tips.”

Which brings us to Chloe Angyal‘s recent piece on the Huffington Post. Angyalexamines a Girls Scouts Research Institute study that examines how 1,000 teenage girls think about body image. Angyal writes:

of the young women surveyed, 65% think that the female bodies they see walking the runways and gracing the pages of fashion magazines are “too skinny” and 63% think that such a body shape is “unrealistic.” Forty-seven percent say that “the fashion industry body image looks unhealthy” and 28% say it looks “sick.” Fashion models, these girls believe, are too skinny, unrealistic, and look unhealthy and sick. And yet 48% wish they could look just like them.

There is a strong awareness among girls that the beauty ideal—-the race to look younger, thinner, whiter—-is not only unattainable for most women, but actually an offensive and unpleasant expectation to lay on women of all ages, sizes, races, and gender presentations. But girls are still struggling to attain the ideal. Angyal writes:

It’s one thing to want to be beautiful for beauty’s sake. It’s quite another to want to be unhealthy for beauty’s sake. Sadly, it’s a desire that many young women are acting on, at great risk to their own health. The new findings indicate that about a third of young women have starved themselves in an attempt to lose weight. Compared the findings from other studies on the subject, that number is quite low: One study found that more than half of adolescent girls had “engaged in unhealthy weight control behaviours such as fasting, skipping meals, vomiting or smoking” in the past year. That’s half of the adolescent female population, high school and middle school girls who are obsessing over their weight, going deliberately hungry, stunting their own growth, skipping class to throw up in secret, hurting themselves in the pursuit of an ideal that is simply unattainable for 98% of the population.

A simple awareness of feminist issues can’t magically negate the power of the culture in which we live. Here, validation is still dispensed based on how well you conform to the ideal. As Angyal writes, “What’s fascinating about the new findings is that they seem to indicate an increased awareness in young women that the ideal presented by the fashion industry and by the media is unrealistic and unhealthy. . . And yet, they still think those women are beautiful, and they still want to look like them.”

Why do women who know that many women can’t orgasm from intercourse still attempt to orgasm from intercourse—-or give up and fake it? And why do girls who know that the body image being sold to them is an unhealthy one still skip meals and stick their fingers down their throats? After all, speaking up for some clitoral stimulation and eating what you feel like is, in theory, a lot easier than the alternative. I think part of the reason it’s so difficult to translate feminist awareness into our lives is the particular cultural belief that being a “good” person—-and a good woman—-does require a lot of work. Girls today don’t just earn social validation by being skinny—-they establish their spot in the pecking order by unearthing how much work they spend trying to get there, obsessively discussing how fat they are, and publicly flogging themselves when they fail to live up to perfection—-even if they are still very, very skinny.

Embracing feminist cognitive dissonance can be a helpful tactic for continuing our theoretical work while still allowing ourselves to live normal lives. And a big part of living our lives includes working to receive the validation that comes with being a “good woman,” even when we know the idea of being a good woman is some fucked up shit. Hopefully, the theoretical work we do will help to contribute to the much more difficult task of changing our cultural values, even as we capitulate to them in our personal lives. But admitting that this stuff is fucked up—-and then doing it anyway—-also gives an added little boost to the cultural ideal. We know that it’s bad for us (and for other women), but we still want it—-and by wanting it even though it’s bad for us (and for other women), we reveal ourselves to be even better women in our culture’s eyes, because we’ve demonstrated just how deep our allegiance is to its ideals.