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Why Women Hurt Women: Understanding and Overcoming Internalized Sexism - Interchange Counseling InstituteInterchange Counseling Institute  
A NOTE FROM STEVE:
I was asked to write this piece for an anthology on Internalized Oppression. It is both like and unlike the other articles you'll find on this blog. It's like my other work in that it attempts to solve mysteries of the human experience, to make patterns of behavior visible that otherwise operate incognito in the background. It's unlike my other pieces because it's written for an academic context, citations and all. You probably won't be able to finish it in one sitting. If you make it to the other side, however, you'll leave with a profound understanding of how to be an effective ally for girls and women, particularly if you are one. Profound thanks to my co-author, Marielle Amrhein, for collaborating with me to bring the world an awareness of internalized sexism and it's antidotes.

Why Women Hurt Women: Understanding and Overcoming Internalized Sexism

by Steve Bearman & Marielle Amrhein

(Originally published as Girls, Women, and Internalized Sexism: chapter 8 of the book Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups, edited by E.J.R. David. If you like this chapter, please check out the book!)

Introduction

Notice how it comes up when I start writing this chapter. I am a woman. I have worked with hundreds of women and girls around the world. I have a masters degree from a prestigious university. I am articulate and intelligent. And still as I write my part for this chapter, some part of me is already judging, comparing, and deferring to the primary author who is a man. I struggle with feeling ashamed for even having this feeling. The feeling did not come from something he said. In contrast, he has shown he values, trusts, and wants my input, ideas, and experiences for this chapter. Yet still I worry that I am not going to be good enough or sound intelligent enough to be a co-contributor.

~ Marielle

I can’t tell you how many people have asked me why, as a man, I care so much about internalized sexism. I have as many answers as I have women in my life who have been hurt by sexism. I’ve so often felt helpless when I witness them unable to see their own power, or locked in self-criticism about their looks, or putting each other down to try to feel better about themselves, or sacrificing their own needs and desires for those of men. Even after decades of work on myself as a man in a sexist society, I still struggle to be an ally to women in overcoming the effects of sexism, to do more good than I do harm. As an outsider, I strive to see things clearly that can be invisible to someone who’s grown up internalizing sexism. I want to help make the invisible visible, so that Marielle and all the women in my life can come to fully believe in themselves, be allies for one another, and work together to create a world without sexism.

~ Steve
When we asked some of the women in our community to share their experiences of internalized sexism with us, here are a few of the responses we received. There are more throughout the chapter.

I used to flirt a lot. This group of women in my community started ostracizing me. I found out, after the fact, that they were assuming I was having sex with all the men I flirted with. I wasn’t, but they didn’t ask. I still feel very hurt. I’ve only just now realized that that’s why I stopped flirting.
During a visit, my mother-in-law said to me that the house needed a deep cleaning. Before her comments, I was content with how clean my floors were, but afterwards I was upset and confused. I didn’t really know what my own thoughts were on the subject. All I could think of was what my mother-in-law thought was appropriate. After some tears and feeling betrayed by my mother-in-law, I came to see things more clearly. She thinks clean floors are more important than I do.
I was on the boys soccer team in middle school and one of the boys said to me, “Hey, you’re good.” I quickly replied, “Yeah – for a girl!” In retrospect, I think he was just acknowledging that I was good. I was the one who devalued my skill by comparing myself with boys.

Sexism occurs on three levels. To overcome sexism, we need to understand all of them.

  1. Institutionalized sexism occurs when sexism is woven into political, social, and economic institutions. Laws that limit women’s rights, or a media that portrays women primarily as sex objects, are examples of institutionalized sexism.
  2. Interpersonal sexism occurs on a more individual scale within interpersonal interactions. Someone expressing a stereotype that portrays women as inferior, and therefore deserving of fewer rights than men, or sexual harassment wherein a man nonconsensually treats a woman as a sex object, are examples of interpersonal sexism.
  3. Internalized sexism, often left out of the discussion, is acted out within or between women, even when no men are present. A woman believing herself to be inferior, and undeserving of equal rights, or women treating other women or girls as if their worth is based on their sexual attractiveness, are examples of internalized sexism.

As can be seen above by looking at the cases of unequal rights and of sexual objectification, these three levels are interrelated. Eliminating sexism, therefore, requires change on all three levels. To dismantle the system of sexism, internalized sexism must be identified and uprooted. This chapter provides some ways to do this. First, however, let us make sure we understand the full range of what sexism is.

What We Usually Think Sexism Is

Women and girls make up more than half of the world’s population. Though the cultural communities they inhabit vary dramatically, sexism nonetheless is built into every community’s cultural norms and practices, its moral code, its notions of common sense, and often into its laws as well. The term “sexism” is meant to illuminate not merely the ways in which females are treated differently than males across the world, but specifically the ways females are mistreated and disadvantaged by the difference.

Historically, sexism has taken a number of overt and undeniable forms, most of them instances of institutionalized sexism [1]. For example, laws in many countries limit women’s rights to vote, to attend school, or to occupy certain professions; define the ownership and control of girls and women by men, including wives by their husbands; legitimize sexual coercion and violence; and limit reproductive rights. Trafficking of girls and women for use as sex slaves remains rampant in many communities. Rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence traumatize girls and women, make family and community life unsafe, and limit women’s freedom of movement through public spaces. Discrimination prevents women from holding certain jobs, and in other communities makes it more difficult for women to secure positions. When they do manage to secure them, women systematically make less money than men, even with equivalent education and experience. Sexual harassment, on the job and elsewhere, hinders women’s success and adds daily stress to their lives. Leadership positions in business and in government are disproportionately occupied by men.

In industrialized countries where the women’s rights movement has dramatically improved circumstances for women, some of the forms of old-fashioned sexism on the above list are, thankfully, obsolete. Cultural evolution occurs unevenly, however [2], such that all forms of sexism that have ever existed persist to this day in some communities.

The Rest Of What Sexism Is

Even in places where feminism and the women’s rights movement have been successful, sexism persists, not only in overt forms, but also in mundane daily expressions, many of which are instances of interpersonal sexism. Some of these expressions of sexism are subtle enough to have little effect one instance at a time. Given both their ubiquitous and repetitive nature, however, even the most subtle aspects of sexism have cumulative effects. As an example, imagine yourself in the following scenario, and then answer the question at the end. This is a thought experiment that both women and men can use to try to grasp some of the cumulative effects of everyday sexism.

You will grow up in a world that will teach you to doubt your own capabilities, to lower your expectations of yourself, and to channel your interests toward domesticity, away from many respected professions. This logic will be reinforced by the relative absence of role models that share your gender in those professions, in powerful positions, and in the history you will learn. You will be treated as if you need to be protected and taken care of, but you will paradoxically be expected to be a caretaker for others, particularly people of the other gender, sacrificing your own needs for theirs. You will be criticized or ostracized for being too assertive, visible, or outspoken, but what is “too much” will always be a guessing game. Your opinions will often be discounted and invalidated, especially if you show emotions. If you become a leader, you will be disliked if you are assertive but liked if you are nurturing. You will be taught and shown that your worth is dependent upon your looks, your weight, and your body shape. No matter how you look, you will learn to criticize yourself, and you will be expected to spend considerable time and money modifying your physical appearance. You will be treated as a sexual being, even when you are engaged in activities fully unrelated to sexuality, and required to manage unwanted sexual attention and physical contact from people of the other gender. In many of the places you go, you will need to be vigilant against the possibility of sexual violence. Rather than identifying and pursuing your own desires, you will be encouraged to be passive in sex, dating, and relationships. If you get married, you will lose your name. In conversations and in writing that you read, pronouns and other language constructs will leave out people of your gender, considering people of the other gender to be normal people. Should you complain about these experiences, and about the stress and hardship you undergo as a result, many people will deny that anything is really happening.

Many of these influences will be subtle, but they will usually go unquestioned or unnoticed, and they will happen every day, everywhere you go, for years without end.

Over time, what effect will all of these influences have on you?

If overt, old-fashioned expressions of sexism stand out in the foreground of discussions about sexism, the kinds of everyday, mundane expressions of sexism in the scenario above form the background of girls’ and women’s lives [3] [4]. Researchers have referred to aspects of this background as subtle sexism [5], benevolent sexism [6], modern sexism [7], everyday sexism [8] [9], and gender microaggressions [10] [11] [12].

The things that we experience on a daily basis come to influence what we believe, how we behave, and who we are. When sexism is a part of day-to-day life, it gets into a person, shapes her beliefs, alters how she conducts her relationships, and how she moves through the world. Over time, sexism is, in a word, internalized.

Because sexism takes many forms, so does the internalization of sexism. Internalized sexism may lead girls and women to invalidate their own and one another’s experiences, to put each other down in the ways they have been put down, to believe that the way their bodies look represents something essential about who they really are, to lose their sense of separate self, deferring instead to the needs and agendas of others, to compete with one another for the limited resources it seems are available to them, to believe that their options are constrained to those appropriate to the female role, and to fail to recognize their own power and as a result act powerlessly in a range of important domains. Internalized sexism may have secondary effects, potentially contributing to depression, low self-esteem, body shame, eating disorders, chronic stress, diminished academic and job performance, and more [13] [14], though any such list of negative psychological outcomes will only scratch the surface of the ways in which internalized sexism can limit women’s lives.

So sexism, in both overt and subtle forms, gets internalized over time. Before we delve deeper into the forms internalized sexism takes in women’s lives, and what to do about it, let’s first try to understand the mechanisms by which internalization happens.

How Is Sexism Internalized?

We are born with a biological sex, but we are not born with a gender. We have to learn how to perform our genders [15] [16], to play a gender role. As cultural beings, we are built to imitate. Much of what we learn, we learn by imitating the people around us, particularly role models who are older than us. Gender roles are self-sustaining because they are passed down through the power of imitation from parents to children, from older siblings and peers to younger ones [17]. However, modeling and imitation are only part of the story. In order to get young people to fit within gender roles that cut them off from essential aspects of their humanity, we have to condition them as well, via a system of rewards and punishments. This is called gender role conditioning.

There is an exercise in understanding gender role conditioning that Steve, one of the authors of this chapter, has facilitated with dozens of diverse groups of women and men. He first asks the women to brainstorm a list of all the ways they learned growing up that they were supposed to be as females: qualities they were supposed to embody, things they were supposed to do. They may have learned these ways of being from their family members, peers, or teachers, from religious institutions or the media. He next asks them to make a list of ways they learned they were NOT supposed to be. Then the men brainstorm two such lists, and the results look something like a much longer version of this chart.

Female: Supposed to (Be) Female: NOT Supposed to (Be) Male: Supposed to (Be) Male: NOT Supposed to (Be)
Thin
Agreeable
Caretaker
Shave legs
Like boys
Sensitive
Helpful
Sexual
Strong
Loud
Ugly
Ambitious
TOO sexual
Needy
Powerful
Have bodily functions
Successful
Protect women
Fight
Strong
Self-reliant
Like sports
Get laid
Noble
Show fear
Quiet
Cry
Need help
Sensitive
Wear pink
Lazy
Affectionate with other men

One notable feature of these lists is that they divide up a wide range of desirable human qualities, denying some qualities to one gender while enforcing them on the other. Note how the quality of being sensitive is on the supposed-to list for females and the not-supposed-to list for males. Strong, on the other hand, is on the not-supposed-to list for females and the supposed-to list for males. All humans are born with the capacity to become sensitive and to become strong, and both these capacities are desirable ones, each providing personal and relational benefits. Because so many such qualities are beneficial for human beings regardless of biological sex, if we want to train young people to play their gender roles correctly, we first have to get them to abandon a full half of their desirable human qualities. How do we convince them to do this? That’s where the next set of questions comes in.

“What happened to you when you didn’t act in the ways you were supposed to act? What happened when you acted in the ways you weren’t supposed to act? What about when you did what you were supposed to and not what you weren’t?” The answers to these questions spell out the nature of gender role conditioning. Behaving outside the role (being a strong girl or a sensitive boy, for example) can lead to exclusion, ostracization, withholding of love, violence, threats of violence, humiliation, loss, and other forms of punishment. Acting within the role can lead to acceptance, approval, admiration, connection, inclusion, freedom from violence, and other forms of reward. Such punishments and rewards are not always dramatic. Most of the time, they are subtle, everyday responses to behavior that fits within or fails to fit within the gender roles: a disapproving glance, encouraging words, subtle shaming, being invited to join a group, name-calling. The subtlety of these punishments and rewards is made up for by their persistence, repetition, and wide acceptance as ways of behaving. We are conditioned, over time, by learning to seek the rewards and avoid the punishments, to act out the gender role assigned to us.

Unfortunately, sexism is built into gender roles. Even though the gender role system is dehumanizing for both females and males, robbing each group of valuable human qualities, the two resulting roles are complementary in a way that disadvantages females. The roles encourage men to dominate and women to submit to domination, women to give away their power and men to take it from them. Taking on the female role means internalizing sexism.

There are three important things to note about female gender role conditioning:

  1. Conditioning into the female role is both direct and subtle. Conditioning includes both clear, memorable, dramatic instances of reward and punishment, and many more mundane, subtle, repetitive instances that have a cumulative effect over time.
  2. Conditioning into the female role is ongoing, even now. Childhood, adolescence in particular, is a formative period for adopting the attitudes and behaviors that make up the female role [18] [17]. Still, even into adulthood, women continue to live in a gendered world, one that attempts to condition them every day to constrain their ways of being human to the ones assigned to women. Society still offers a steady stream of approval and disapproval depending on how we behave, and continues to bombard us with images, models, and expectations of what it means to be female. Even if we have done the work needed to uncover our own gender role conditioning and shake it loose, we still must find a way to contend with society’s ceaseless attempts to condition us today.
  3. Conditioning into the female role is perpetuated by both men and women. Although some aspects of sexism are perpetrated primarily by men upon women, gender role conditioning is also enforced upon females by other females. Females have a special role to play in the socialization of other females into gender roles, and in making sure that, once indoctrinated, females do not stray too far from the female role. Sexism gets into the psyches and informs the behaviors of individual women, and it plays out in interactions between women. This is why understanding internalized sexism is crucial to eliminating sexism. Just like men, women need to learn to stop being perpetrators of sexism if they are to become effective allies against oppression.

Does Internalized Sexism Protect Against External Sexism?

Why do females actively work to keep other females within sexist roles? Ironically, women may be trying to protect girls and other women from the sexism in the world by encouraging them to internalize sexism within themselves. To make sense of this seeming paradox, let us take a look at the case of objectification.

Objectification is a feature of sexism that remains relatively untouched even in communities where other aspects of sexism have been thwarted by the women’s liberation movement [19]. The media, bombarding us with images of women, teaches us to see women as bodies and faces, and as objects of sexual desire. Men’s gazes create environments in which women are looked at and evaluated based on their appearance as part of everyday life. Objectification, at the most basic level, is the process by which we confuse what a person looks like with who they are [20]. When a woman is thought of as a whole person, we recognize her complexity and multidimensionality, the richness of her inner experience. Reducing a woman to an object means that we only view her from the outside, believing that we know who she really is based on how she looks, and assessing her worth by how well she matches the cultural standards of beauty and desirability that we’ve learned.

Women and girls are hurt by objectification, and yet women and girls objectify themselves and one another all the time. Consider:

  • The older female relative who, each time she sees you, greets you by looking you up and down and commenting on whether you have gained or lost weight
  • The teenager who says to her friend, “You can’t go to school with your hair like that”
  • The group of women criticizing a mutual acquaintance, stating, “If she doesn’t want to be treated like that by men, then why does she dress so slutty?”

Why would women hurt each other by perpetuating objectification? Paradoxically, women may be hurting each other in an effort to protect one another from sexism. There are at least three different kinds of ways a woman may be objectified:

  1. She can receive validating objectification, being affirmed, complimented, and rewarded for her appearance.
  2. She can receive derogatory objectification, being criticized, insulted, or punished for her appearance.
  3. In the absence of validating or derogatory objectification, a woman may encounter social invisibility, along with the implicit exclusion that comes from not being seen.

If forced to choose between these options offered up by sexism, most of us would probably choose validating objectification. If women help other women become validated for their looks, their bodies, and their sexualities, they can protect their fellow women from the worse fates of derogation and invisibility.

Internalized sexism often has this quality. Women enforce gender role conditioning on one another in an attempt, deliberate or otherwise, to create a protective buffer against the effects of sexism. Rather than intending to oppress one another, women may be working to improve one another’s prospects. Yet training each other to accept and participate in sexism, in order to keep from being hurt in worse ways, can only ever be a partial answer. Though their motivations are often to be caring and supportive, when women play the part of enforcing gender role conditioning upon girls and other women, they are occupying an essential supporting role in keeping the overall system of sexism intact.

Internalized oppression can be hard to see. Because we live inside of it, it can be like an invisible gas with no odor. Unless we can add some kind of stink to the gas, we will not be able to tell whether it is accumulating in the room, about to suffocate us, or to explode. We need to understand the ways in which internalized sexism is practiced from day to day, so that we can see what damage it may be doing to us. Once we understand all the practices of internalized sexism, the ways of behaving and relating that keep sexism alive within and between women, we can consider better alternatives, ways of acting outside the oppression that more than superficially protect against oppression’s worst effects.

Below, we explore six different kinds of practices of internalized sexism, and suggest alternative practices for each. The six kinds of practices are:

  1. Powerlessness :: whereby women believe themselves to be more limited and less capable than they actually are
  2. Objectification :: whereby women come to think of themselves as bodies seen from the outside
  3. Loss of self :: whereby women fail to recognize, or sacrifice, their own needs and desires
  4. Invalidation :: whereby women discount their own feelings and thoughts, specifically when they don’t match male standards
  5. Derogation :: whereby women use criticism as a form of gender role policing
  6. Competition between women :: whereby other women take the blame for the limited resources and hardships imposed by sexism

Keep in mind that while these practices tend to be universal to the experience of women, they can take dramatically different forms in different cultural contexts, spanning the range from overt to subtle. Women may experience relative freedom from some types of internalized sexism while still being susceptible to others. For example, a woman may occupy a high leadership position in a male-dominated profession, having overcome an internalized sense of her limitations, yet still compare her body with media images of women every time she looks in the mirror due to self-objectification. Even “liberated” women, who have had enough resource to step out of some, or even most, of the gender role conditioning, may benefit from an inventory of how internalized sexism still operates within them. For them, the ongoing effects of internalized sexism may be harder to identify and feel more shameful to acknowledge. The effects could be experienced as a discomfort in the roles she occupies, an internal sense of emptiness or aloneness, restlessness, or a persistent anxiety or tension. She might harbor silent resentment at doing housework, while convincing herself that she is choosing to do it because she wants to. She might find herself justifying the nontraditional role she is assuming, celebrating her victory in the struggle for gender equality by occupying a leadership position formerly occupied by only men, but then perpetuating the subtly sexist ways men have acted in that role. As universal as these practices tend to be, they vary across cultural communities and between individual women.

The Practices of Internalized Sexism (And Some Alternatives)

Internalized Powerlessness

What do you believe you can’t do? What do you consider to be your limitations? What would you like to see change about the world, but assume there’s nothing you can do about it? These questions about your limitations are also questions about how powerful you consider yourself to be. We define power as the ability to influence yourself, others, and the world around you, to make the world more how you wish it to be. Internalized sexism can lead women to believe that they are less powerful, and more limited, than they actually are. While it is true that everyone has their limits, it is also true that oppression robs groups of people of some of their power. Can you tell the difference between your actual limits, and the limits you have come to believe are yours due to the effects of sexism?

Sexism disproportionately distributes power between women and men. Women lose access to resources, status, economic advantage, self-determination, and safety, while men benefit from the gain of resources that women have lost. Internalized sexism helps keep the unequal balance of power in place by insuring that girls and women feel relatively powerless and therefore act relatively powerlessly [21] [22].

A learned sense of powerlessness [23] may be the most damaging aspect of internalized sexism, leading girls and women to limit themselves and one another, to believe themselves confined to behaviors that fit within the female role, to act passively in some contexts, and to believe that these limitations are natural or permanent.

Back when I was a nurse, I was telling a friend that I was always taught I could do anything I wanted to, that women could do the same things as men. She immediately said to me, “Oh yeah? Then how come you’re a nurse instead of a doctor?” I was shocked. I realized at that moment that it had never occurred to me, not for a single moment in all my preparations for a career in medicine, and then in all my years in the field, that I could be a doctor. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a nurse. I had simply never perceived that I had the choice.

Because of the history of sexism, girls are provided with few female role models in some fields. For instance, if girls don’t see women in the sciences serving as models of what is possible for them when they grow up, the lack may seem natural, leading them to imagine that men must just be better scientists than women [24]. As a result, they may expect themselves to have low mathematical and scientific abilities, may even question the overall intelligence of girls. As they grow up, they may then discourage the girls in their lives from developing these capacities [25] [26]. When a girl has internalized these kinds of low expectations, or received outright discouragement, she may come to declare that she is “just no good at math and science.” The belief that girls will not make good scientists leads to a lack of support for girls to pursue science, which leads to fewer female scientists, which leads back to the belief that girls will not make good scientists. Internalized sexism helps to perpetuate the cycle, to pass limiting beliefs from one generation to the next.

Socially established gender roles limit women’s options in two ways: by discouraging women from participating in careers and activities prescribed for men (like in the science example); and by encouraging them to fill their lives with activities prescribed for women. At the same time as women’s options are constrained, their resources are commandeered by the demands of the female role: the need to look, speak, and act “like a woman.” There is only so much a person can do within any given time frame. If you have been trained to occupy yourself fulfilling all the expectations of femalehood such as managing your appearance, attending to other people’s needs, fixating on dating, maintaining certain kinds of social bonds, consuming media designed for women, and so on, there is only so much time and energy left. Internalizing the expectation that your time should be taken up with female-specific activities means less time available for the vast range of other options we humans have available to us.

Internalized powerlessness can also take the form of learned passivity, helplessness, and submission. We all begin life with less power than we have now. Young people, due to their limited size and strength, inexperience, lack of information, and dependence upon adults for survival, have limited power to determine their own fates, and are inherently vulnerable to victimization. Sexism compounds this risk for girls. Fighting back against someone who is hurting you or trying to control you is not always an option; in many circumstances, resisting can lead to being hurt even worse. If fighting back or speaking out makes things worse, remaining passive, silent, paralyzed, or submissive can be a helpful self-preservation strategy. Later on, despite having grown up (having more information, experience, and resource to draw on), women may continue to occupy the victim role, feeling as powerless as they did earlier in life, and acting relatively powerlessly as a result: silenced and immobilized by their own internalized oppressors. In a situation where a woman could otherwise use her voice to stop something from happening, say no, get herself out of undesirable circumstances, or recruit help, she may instead default to passivity. Passivity can feel less risky and more congruent with the learned female role. Acting on one’s own behalf, or on behalf of other women, may actually be the safer option, but this requires overcoming the internalized powerlessness that can develop over time due to sexism. Learned helplessness can far outlast circumstances of actual victimization [23].

Internalized powerlessness, whether in the form of learned helplessness or perceived limitations, may seem to be natural, as if it is an essential part of being female. Internalized sexism, after all, is not just happening to one woman at a time. If we look at the women in our communities, we are likely to encounter role models that have also come to believe themselves to be more limited than they actually are. Each new generation is able to improve the overall landscape of sexism, but because previous generations grew up in a more sexist world, older generations will tend to model internalized sexism for younger ones. Furthermore, because other forms of oppression besides sexism lead people in target groups to feel powerless, it may not be possible to sort out the sense of powerlessness that comes from internalized sexism from that which comes from internalized racism, internalized young people’s oppression, or other forms of internalized oppression. When these oppressions intersect in women who also belong to other oppressed groups, the work of reclaiming power becomes even more essential.

Reclaiming Power

(An Alternative to Internalized Powerlessness)

It is possible to reclaim both a sense of power to act on one’s own behalf, and power to act on behalf of the changes you see the world needs. Power imbalance between genders, and feelings of powerlessness in women, is recognized worldwide as an issue demanding attention socially, economically, politically, and legally. One of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is to “promote gender equality and empower women” [27], a goal indicated as necessary for the health of our world. As a result, there are many organizations worldwide that address this goal through programs for “girl’s leadership,” “empowering women,” and “gender equality.” One of the authors, Marielle, has worked with a number of these organizations in many parts of the world. She has found that successful programs generally follow a model with three main components:

  1. Girls and women are at the center of participation, and of efforts to take action, creating a platform for women’s voices to be heard.
  2. The focus is not just on outer change, but on self-reflection and personal growth, guiding women to understand their inner worlds, their beliefs, and their emotions.
  3. Programs that explicitly follow a liberation framework include explicit consciousness-raising about systems of oppression, specifically sexism and internalized sexism.

Involvement in these kinds of programs helps women and girls develop a sense of self, develop confidence, think for themselves, and make contributions to their community. The result is that women reclaim their own power. With an internalized sense of power, women are able make choices about what they want for themselves, including the pursuit of highly challenging goals.

One reason that women coming together, not only to learn about oppression, but to understand their inner emotional landscapes, is necessary to reclaim power, has to do with the relationship between anger and power. Identifying and expressing anger is often a key to reclaiming power. An internalized sense of powerlessness silences and paralyzes women. Anger begins the process of mobilizing power by getting energy moving and transmuting silence into sound. This is only the first stage, however, as raw, righteous indignation can sometimes manifest as noise and fury without any real impact. A second stage in the process of reclaiming power involves learning to direct anger toward the source of injustice, to use anger in a goal-directed way to raise consciousness, speak truth to power, and interrupt sexism. Goal-directed anger is far more likely to affect change than raw, undirected anger, but anger in any form can only take us so far. A third stage is necessary in order for women to become creative leaders, one that transcends anger in favor of the many other tools and resources also needed to take on the complex and entrenched forces of oppression. Anger may still be used skillfully as one strategy to organize people and foster change. In the beginning, anger helps mobilize the power that has been suppressed by internalized oppression. In the end, remaining stuck at the anger stage of the reclaiming process hinders the development of women’s creative power. Women can help other women both to access their anger, and then eventually to surpass it, rather that remain limited by it.

Internalized Objectification

What does it mean for a woman to become an object? It begins when people believe her physical appearance to be a true representation of who she is. Confusing a person with her looks requires a blindness to that which cannot be so easily seen, a failure to imagine what her inner world might be like: her rich, moment-to-moment lived experience of being a person. To the objectifier, she stops being a person, experiencing the world and making choices based on complex motivations, and instead becomes an object, to be evaluated and enjoyed, disparaged, or ignored according to the viewer.

Being objectified by others is only part of the process of objectification. After a long enough immersion in social environments where they and other women are objectified, women start to internalize the objectifier, to adopt the stance of an outside observer in understanding their own bodies. They begin to self-objectify [28] [29] [30]. The social importance of physical appearance begins to outweigh the personal importance of inner felt-sense experience, and a kind of disembodiment results. Instead of feeling their bodies from the inside, and inhabiting them from within, women imagine how their bodies are seen from the outside, and evaluate them from without [31] [32]. One result of this change in viewpoint is that women can conflate their self-image with their body-image [20]. Even if a woman has come to hold very negative beliefs about her own body, in the absence of self-objectification, she might still be able to have a very high sense of self-worth, because self-image and body-image would not seem to be one and the same. Research on self-objectification in women has demonstrated that self-objectification can reduce overall well-being, and that it contributes to depression, eating disorders, and cosmetic surgery [33] [29] [34] [35]. Self-objectification, though it allows women to play the social game of managing their appearances to meet the demands of a sexist society, does so at great cost.

As previously introduced, there are three social consequences of objectification: validating objectification (affirms women for their appearances); derogating objectification (criticizes women based on appearance); and social invisibility (women being overlooked if they do not match social appearance standards). Of the three, validating objectification seems to provide the most social benefit, but it comes with its own costs. Even when women put considerable effort into making themselves appealing to observers, they still may not enjoy being looked at. This is the “validation as violation” phenomenon. Attracting attention may mean attracting unwanted attention, but even when the attention is wanted, it still may not produce the positive feelings that are expected. Being reduced to one’s appearance can feel like a violation of one’s basic nature. It can lead to simultaneous desires to be looked at and not to be looked at, such that nothing feels quite right. Both that sense of something feeling wrong, and the disembodiment that comes along with self-objectification, both reinforcing a woman’s sense that perhaps does not exist to be experienced from within, but to be observed from without.

A specific danger of self-objectification is self-sexualization, when self-worth is conflated with sexual desirability, even in contexts when sexuality is irrelevant. If a woman comes to see herself as a sex object in contexts that have nothing to do with sex, she is self-sexualizing. Even for someone who enjoys being sexual in sexual contexts, the sense of oneself as existing simply as an object of sexual desire can start to pervade everything. For instance, a woman may be monogamous, in a satisfying relationship, and not interested in bringing her sexuality into any other arena in her life besides her partnership. Nonetheless, she may feel the need to think of herself in terms of sexual attractiveness and desirability across social contexts. If self-worth has become tied up in self-objectification, and if the kind of object that is being objectified is a sexual one, then self-worth gets tied into sexualization [36] [37]. This is a precursor to many women losing a sense of their own sexual interests and desires, a topic we expand upon in the section about loss of self below.

Both objectification and self-objectification for women intersect with other forms of oppression. Agism, the social invalidation and dehumanization of people above a certain age, intersects with sexism to lower women’s sense of self-worth as their appearances drift ever further from the social ideal of youthfulness. The “beauty” industry instructs women to maintain a youthful appearance as they age, a goal that becomes increasingly impossible to attain. For women who manage to resist the imperative to look younger than they are, a great freedom sometimes becomes available. For the first time in many women’s lives, they may find themselves free of the internalized expectation that they need to try to match any standard at all. Giving up on playing the impossible game can mean finding other ways to sense one’s self-worth and other foundations for being a woman in the world.

Racism is another form of oppression that intersects with sexism to create external standards for women to compare themselves against. The concept of objectification has classically been associated with body size and shape, and with standards of sexual attractiveness. For women of color, however, self-objectification may have as much to do with ethnic characteristics, such as skin color and hair type, as it has to do with body size or general looks. Consider, as an example, the international phenomenon of skin lightening creams. In parts of the world where racism leads people to value lighter shades of skin over darker ones, especially in countries with a history of colonization by European empires, skin lightening creams and pills (which are often toxic [38]) may feature centrally in the appearance modification industry. Advertising for these products plays on people who self-objectify with an eye for ethnicity and an internalized preference for Whiteness. Another example of internalized racism coloring self-objectification is in the internalized preference for straight hair among communities such as African Americans, where most people’s hair is naturally kinky. A tremendous amount of time, energy, and money goes into hair relaxing, straightening, and extending products and procedures for African American women. In addition to being a significant resource drain, this particular focus on appearance modification also contributes directly to the disembodying effects of self-objectification, as many African American women cite, as a reason for not exercising, the concerns that sweating and vigorous activity will ruin their hair [39].

Unconditional Beauty

(An Alternative to Internalized Objectification)

What is everything you think should be different about your body and your appearance? Participants at Steve’s workshops on Healing Body Shame start out by exchanging their answers to that question with several strangers. Self-objectification, it turns out, is reinforced by a near-universal sense of shame we learn to hold about our bodies. Before women are ready to pour resources into modifying their appearance, they first have to be made to feel bad about their unmodified appearance. The purpose of this initial exercise is to normalize the shame and self-judgment that so many of us have come to carry, to expose it so we can all start where we are. The journey workshop participants take is toward the goal of fully loving and accepting their bodies exactly as they already are. First, however, it helps to see the ways we have learned to divide our bodies and faces into a collection of parts, compare those parts against other people’s parts, or against external standards imposed on us, and then allowed our internalized critics to tell us what is wrong with us every time we look in the mirror.

How do we get from derogating self-objectification to unconditional self-acceptance? A first step that is key involves women reclaiming power in the face of the sexist lies they have internalized about their bodies. The internalized critic needs to be interrupted each time it tries to repeat the lies it has received from the outside. One way to do this is to face the inner critic directly, mustering one’s full force of will and fiercely declaring, “I refuse to believe the lies anymore!” Using her full strength of will to talk back to the inner critic can allow a woman to simultaneously resist self-objectification while at the same time reclaiming her power to determine her own destiny. As an alternative, the interruption can be gentle and compassionate, “Hey now, critic. We don’t talk to people like that around here. Thank you for trying, once again, to protect me from sexism by criticizing my appearance, but I’m afraid your efforts are misguided and I need to remind you that my body is already just right.” The full force of will, often accompanied by anger, can be a first step toward reclaiming power. Finding compassion and care, while firmly interrupting internalized sexism, may be the next.

Coming to understand the concept of unconditional beauty continues the journey toward deep self-acceptance. Once the self-objectifying internalized critic has been effectively interrupted, something outside of the conditioning needs to take its place. A classic feminist approach to the problem of objectification, much propagated through women’s studies classes at universities, is to take the focus off appearance entirely, instead training people to appreciate girls and women for anything and everything about them besides their looks: their intelligence, personalities, accomplishments and contributions, and relationships. While this approach compensates for objectification’s incredible over-emphasis on appearance, it may fail to compensate for the history of shaming and self-shaming that accompanies self-objectification. That is where unconditional beauty comes in.

Learning to see unconditional beauty means learning to appreciate the unique physical beauty of each person, not simply their “inner beauty,” but their bodies and faces as well. What is the difference between validating objectification and unconditional appreciation? The first is evaluative (“You have such pretty eyes,” “Wow – you’ve really lost some weight – you look great!”), offering conditional, positive reinforcement about appearance while leaving the recipient of the validation wondering what will happen when they no longer meet the conditions (“So my eyes are pretty, but what about the rest of me?”, “I look great to you now, but what did you think about me before, and what will you think if I gain weight?”). In contrast, appreciation of unconditional beauty is non-evaluative (“I really enjoy looking into your eyes,” “Your body is just right—nothing needs to change.”). This concept is subtle, as the intention is to really see someone and acknowledge her genuine beauty, without making any comparisons between her and anyone else, between her present self with her past or future selves, or between parts of her body, instead seeing her body as a unified whole. Appreciating beauty in a way that does not require someone to meet any conditions is a missing link in anti-objectification efforts. It replaces sexism with a kind of much-needed acknowledgement of how beautiful human beings are before any standards of conditional beauty have ever been imposed upon them.

Part of the rationale for the Healing Body Shame workshop is to help individuals to heal, to free themselves from conditioning, and to discover for themselves the truth. Part of the rationale is to teach participants, women in particular, to do this for one another. If self-objectification can be transmitted from one woman to another, the de-shaming, deconditioning alternatives of interrupting self-derogation, and replacing it with unconditional appreciation can also be passed on. Preferred practices can also circulate through communities, displacing the old practices of internalized sexism.

A second outcome of anti-objectification efforts is re-embodiment. Many organizations provide opportunities for girls to have a more varied experience of their bodies, so that they relate to it from the inside out, as a source of power, strength, health, and as the vehicle that carries them through life. Through wilderness trips, sports, construction, or dance, girls can push the limits of what their bodies are capable of doing, challenging their conditioning and fueling self-confidence. Some organizations emphasize somatic and emotional awareness education, helping girls better know themselves by developing inner awareness of how their life experiences are sensed in their bodies. Others focus on healthy eating as a pretext for teaching a nuanced understanding of physiology and wellness. Girls and women who participate in these programs experience their physical power and deepen their bodily inner awareness. The result is an experience of embodiment that does not depend at all on visual appearance, allowing participants to delight in their bodies for what they are, not how they look.

Loss of Self

Sexism teaches girls to be subservient to men in relationships, families, and other social groups. As sexism is internalized, girls learn to relinquish their own needs and desires in favor of men’s needs, and the needs of others that women are expected to serve and take care of. Marielle interviewed women and girls in communities of South Delhi as part of a leadership development and education program. Here is an excerpt from an interview between a 17-year-old girl, Meena, and her mother, Asha.

Meena: I want to keep going to school to be a doctor.
Asha: You can’t do that. We won’t find a husband for you if you do that.
Meena: Well then, I’ll be a beautician.
Asha: If you do that, how will you cook?
Meena: I’m not going to obey you, mom. I’ll wait until I’m married, and do what my husband wants then.

Asha matter-of-factly directs Meena to sacrifice her dreams, even much-diminished ones, for the needs of a hypothetical husband. It is unfathomable that Meena could live without a husband and equally as unrealistic that she could have a husband and still pursue her desires. Men come first, and a woman’s value and place in the world is determined by her marriageability. Asha, having internalized this message, is passing it on to her daughter as a way to protect her in a society where a woman’s status is largely determined by marriage and by how well she takes care of her husband. Meena quickly takes on the expectation, downgrades her aspirations in service to her husband, and then reminds Asha that her future husband, a man, will have higher status than her mother, a woman.

Some level of prioritizing others’ needs is of real value in families and communities, but sexism demands that women go further, denying their dreams, desires, and aspirations in order to fully occupy the self-sacrificing role of caretaker. Meena and Asha, like women around the world, have internalized the belief that cooking, cleaning, and raising children is central to the female role they have been cast to play. No matter how great the personal cost, Meena is expected by her mother to reduce herself from a teenager with personal aspirations, into a woman who will do whatever her husband wants her to.

How do we know whether our desires are truly our own? When women put their needs and desires aside for long enough, their ability to sense what they want and need may atrophy, if it even had a chance to develop in the first place. What begins as compliance with the demand to prioritize men and others over themselves becomes a gradual loss of self, an inability to identify their desires, or to tell the difference between what they want for themselves and what others want for them. For those of us who have kept our internal sense of desire intact, it is easy to take for granted how much our day-to-day motivations are determined by what we want. When the internal sense of wanting is weak or lacking, motivation has to come from some other source. That source is likely to be the desires of others, including men who were conditioned to prioritize their needs and desires over those of women.

Sexuality is a particular area in which women are expected to meet the needs of men. When asked her motivations for choosing a sexual partner or engaging in a sexual activity, a woman in touch with her own desires might simply say that she was pursuing what she wanted. If a woman or a girl has never discovered her own desires, however, and instead learned that the purpose of her sexuality is to please men, secure male partnership, gain status, or avoid conflict, her desire may be left out entirely [40]. The empty space may be filled in by the training she’s received to fulfill others’ desires [41]. This training may encourage her to have sex when she doesn’t want to, before she is ready to, with someone who is not her choice, or to please men without expecting to be pleased herself. She may also learn not to ask for what she wants (particularly if she doesn’t even know what she would want to ask for), to dress in sexually revealing ways because she thinks she has to, sexually engage with other women solely for the benefit of men [42], maintain modesty or composure during sex, or fake enjoyment or orgasm. The culture of sexual violence and sexual abuse that accompanies sexism reinforces this training.

Prioritizing Self

(An Alternative to Loss of Self)

To counteract the conditioning to self-sacrifice, women can prioritize their needs and desires. First, it can be helpful to question what the right balance is, between fulfilling one’s own desires and those of others. Second, in service of the personal fulfillment side of that balance, some women may need to learn, or re-learn, how to sense what their own needs and desires are. Third, when women disrupt or resist the social order by putting themselves first, they need allies to help them withstand the repercussions.

How do we find the right balance between fulfilling our desires and taking care of others? Consider these questions. First, ask what you want most in life, what brings you enjoyment, makes your life meaningful, nourishes, and fulfills you. Next, ask what your responsibilities are, what your social roles require of you, who needs you, and what you have chosen or agreed to give to them. Both questions are important, but which seems to be more important? How much more important? Are both questions equally easy for you to answer, or is one set of answers fuzzy while the other is clear? How much do the answers to the two questions overlap? Is there a difference between what you want for yourself and what is expected of you? The goal is not to suggest what the right balance is between self-care and caretaking for others. Rather, it is to help determine whether our thinking, and our lives, are organized strongly around one of these objectives and not the other [43]. Both are always needed. Even if we choose to make caretaking our primary objective, some amount of self-care is required in order to do so. There is a good reason airlines tell us to put on our own oxygen mask first.

If we do not have a clear answer to the question of what we want for ourselves, we may need to learn, or re-learn, what our own needs are and how to sense them. Women, of course, have the same full complement of human needs that men do: needs for rest and nourishment and safety, for belonging and connection and understanding, for autonomy, meaning, self-expression, and many others [44]. When learning to prioritize our own needs, we can inventory each need and register which specific needs are being met and which ones are not. In order to tell, we need to be able to sense, even on a somatic level, that a need has not been met. Until we learn to sense the need, learning how to meet the need will be more difficult. Desires are the same way. They are sensed, in part, as impulses in the body. Developing a sense of sexual agency, for instance, the ability to genuinely know one’s own desires in the sexual realm, and to act on them to determine one’s own sexual destiny, requires that desire is sensed from the inside. The sex-positive movement, with women’s sexual empowerment at its center, has offered up numerous approaches over the years for women to cultivate this internal sense [45] [46].

When it comes to sexism, the personal is political [47], so when women prioritize their desires, they may find themselves needing to reorganize a social order that puts them last.

When I moved from America to Yemen to live with my husband’s family, I was invited for a luncheon at my in-law’s house. I was forced to wait in the kitchen with the other women until the men finished eating with their hands from the communal plates on the living room floor. After the men left, the other women and I were indicated to eat from the men’s leftovers which by then had been strewn all over the place. I was mortified and felt so diminished. I wasn’t about to pick at the bits of meat that remained on a chicken leg bone or gather granules of rice that had fallen on the carpet to make a mouthful from. I didn’t eat. My mother-in-law was angry with me and complained that I acted as if I was better than the other women. From then on she always saved a separate plate of food just for me before serving the men. That would have been nice, except every time she served it to me, she also served me a stern, disapproving look.

In this excerpt, a woman traversing cultural communities disrupts the mealtime arrangement of “men first, women second” that the women in her new family help to maintain. When she resists, her mother-in-law uses guilt, a common tool of social conditioning, to try to pressure her into compliance with the existing social order. Rather than get upset that the daughter-in-law wants her status to be equal to that of men, she frames her accusation in terms of competition between women. If the other women are complying and she is not, she must consider herself superior to them. Despite her disapproval, the mother-in-law ultimately supports the daughter-in-law to prioritize herself, and her needs.

There is always a cost to disrupting the social order. In this case, the cost is to the relationship between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law. Imagine, however, if the mother-in-law were to act on her behalf, or on behalf of all the women in the family, to question the entire arrangement of men being served first. The social cost to her would potentially be far greater. Such changes are difficult to make alone, without allies. Women can become allies to one another in this project. Remember that internalized sexism occurs on two levels. It is not just internal to individuals. It is internal to communities of women as well. When women support other women to identify their own needs, and then stand with them as they take on the consequences, internalized sexism is thwarted on both levels.

Internalized Invalidation

Decisions shape our fates, both on a large scale (for example, via governments and institutions) and on a small scale (for example, within families and dyadic relationships). Maintaining oppressive power means holding a disproportionate amount of control over decision-making. In much the same way that sexism conditions women to sacrifice their own needs and desires to fulfill those of men, it also conditions women to give over decision-making power to men. To make this maneuver possible, internalized sexism encourages women to systematically invalidate themselves and other women.

Sexism invalidates women’s thoughts, opinions, beliefs, values, feelings, preferences, and choices in favor of men’s. As women internalize this invalidation of their experiences, they learn to silence their voices, mistrust their own judgments, and yield their thinking to that of men and other women [48] [49] [50]. If a woman does not speak because she believes she has nothing worth saying, or that no one would be interested, or that she doesn’t have the right to take up space in a conversation, or that men and others who speak more confidently must be right, then internalized invalidation has silenced her. If a woman lets someone else make decisions for her, trusts other people’s judgments more than her own, and gives over her authority to men and others who assert superiority, internalized invalidation has caused her to abdicate her self-determination.

Ways of being that are relegated to females by gender role conditioning are devalued by the society. For instance, sexism encourages us to value rationality over feelings, justice over caring, factual knowledge over self-knowledge, independence over relatedness, assertiveness over inclusion, and accomplishment over presence. Men’s oppression plays an important role in disparaging the values and qualities that are considered “feminine.” Because the human qualities that are assigned to women are the same human qualities that are denied men, these disavowed parts of men’s humanity become the invalidated parts of women’s humanity. This is one reason why the entire gender role system has to be dismantled at once. Women and men are dehumanized in complementary ways, and both result in a tendency to invalidate women’s opinions and decisions when they are based on these devalued traits.

Invalidation occurs in a number of forms that are not immediately obvious. Women may minimize their own or each other’s concerns, invalidating them with responses like, “It’s no big deal,” “You’ll get over it,” or “Stop being so sensitive.” Offering reassurance, though often well-intentioned, is a related way to minimize. Consider the difference between a reassuring response like, “You’ll be fine. It’s going to be okay,” to one that directly acknowledges a woman’s feelings or concerns such as, “That really wasn’t okay. I’m sorry it happened. I imagine that must hurt.” The reassurance may be meant to provide comfort or support, but it fails to validate the experience of the woman expressing the concern.

Women who have been working on behalf of their own liberation from internalized sexism may invalidate other women who appear to remain imprisoned by female gender role conditioning. Take the example of the college woman who decides to stop shaving her legs and who then dismisses women who continue to shave as having made a less valid decision. By choosing not to follow a traditional standard of beauty, she is empowering herself and thwarting internalized objectification. However, in the process, she may be perpetuating internalized sexism by invalidating other women’s choices.

Validating Women’s Ways

(An Alternative to Internalized Invalidation)

There are multiple valid ways of navigating the world. Differences between cultural communities, for instance, produce many different ways to make sense of the world and operate within it. When human experience is divided by gender role conditioning into two different sets of permissible ways of being, we end up with men’s ways and women’s ways as well. Both are variations on the human imperative to find our way in a complex world, but because women’s ways have been invalidated by sexism, women may need to put special effort into reclaiming women’s ways in order to overcome internalized invalidation. Two examinations of socialized gender differences highlight the importance of valuing women’s ways: one about women’s conversational styles, the other about women’s moral development.

First, women and men learn to use conversation for different social purposes [51]. We always interpret what people say through our understanding of why we think they’re saying it. A woman may make a suggestion or share a complaint to create rapport, seek empathy, or open a negotiation, whereas a man making a similar suggestion or sharing a similar complaint may be doing it to establish status, solicit advice, or assert independence. If women and men can learn to understand these differences, we can be more attuned listeners, no longer assuming people of the other gender mean what we would mean if we said the same thing. More importantly, however, for thwarting internalized sexism, women can learn to validate the social motivations behind their conversational styles. Rather than believe, as sexism might wish them to, that they don’t make any sense, should be more rational, or direct, or assertive, women can speak to the importance of making a different kind of sense, one that values emotions, interdependence, or social harmony.

Another example of validating women’s ways comes from understanding how we develop a sense of morality. The predominant theory of how we become ethical [52] assumes that our relationship to justice determines how we learn to make ethical decisions. We begin by wishing to avoid getting in trouble, come to respect the importance of rules and laws, and eventually come to recognize that more universal ethical principles should guide us, whether or not they are reflected in a given rule system. This justice-based story of human development, however, may be male-centric, and an alternative story can be told by studying the moral development of women [53]. This alternative narrative suggests that our relationship to care and caring determines how we come to make ethical decisions. We begin oriented toward self-interest, learn that care for others requires self-sacrifice, eventually temper that self-sacrifice by including ourselves in who we care for, and eventually extend our concept of caring beyond those who are personally meaningful to us, comprehending our universal interconnectedness. If we believe acting ethically requires an orientation to justice, then women who make moral decisions based on caring will believe their motivations to be inferior or less developed. If, instead, women’s and men’s ways are understood to form a more complete whole, then caring becomes an indispensable component of true ethical behavior.

Valuing women’s ways on a cultural level is key to validating women, but there remains the question of how to validate women’s experiences on a more personal level. Is it possible to validate a woman’s thoughts, beliefs, opinions, feelings, and choices, without assuming she is always right, or always acting in optimal ways? Fortunately, validation does not require that we agree with anyone, or share anyone’s preferences and opinions. Instead, we need to recognize their importance and meaning to the woman who holds them, which is the source of real empathy. If we fully understood why a woman felt and acted as she does, we could respect her intelligence and validate her desires even if we engaged in a conversation about how our perspective differs dramatically from hers.

Encouraging women to trust their own thinking is integral to overcoming internalized sexism. Even if your thinking is flawed or undeveloped, it is still ultimately all you have. If you choose to trust someone else’s thinking, it is you making that choice based on your best thinking about theirs. Either you give over your authority to someone else, letting them do your thinking and make your decisions for you, as sexism might steer you to do, or you trust your own thinking.

Internalized Derogation

Overt forms of sexism often include insults and put-downs, derogatory terms that refer specifically to women. Some of these criticisms are designed to make women feel “less than,” as when the phrase “like a girl” means “not as good,” when “woman” is used as a demeaning title in place of someone’s name, or when terms like “bimbo” suggest that women are unintelligent. Many derogatory terms, however, target women who behave outside the bounds of the female role. If a woman acts in ways that are not in accordance with gender role conditioning, a carefully aimed insult can be the form of punishment needed to adequately discourage the behavior. Like other aspects of sexism, derogation can be internalized, used by women to criticize themselves and one another in the ongoing process of gender role conditioning [54] [55].

There are two categories of derogatory terms that function as gender role policing — pushing women back behind the borders, should they wander into territory outside the female role. The first category is gender-specific insults such as “bitch,” a term used to refer to women who are vocal or outspoken, assertive or unyielding, directive, or self-prioritizing. These characteristics defy a gender role that requires women to be quiet or silent, passive or submissive, compliant, and self-sacrificing. Several slurs punish women for being embodied, sensual, sexually self-expressed, or pursuing what brings them physical pleasure on their own terms: words like “slut,” “whore,” “hussy,” “harlot,” “skank,” “easy,” and “promiscuous.” On the other side of the spectrum, terms like “frigid,” “prude,” and “tease” coerce women to be more sexual than they wish to be. The range of insults on both ends of the spectrum serves to regulate women’s sexual expression, to encourage submission to the needs and desires of men who claim dominion over a woman’s sexuality.

Another category of derogatory terms used to condition women are mental health-related insults. Consider this exchange between two college friends from a study done by Steve and colleagues [56]:

Angie: Do you know what happened? Okay listen to this. My mom sent me a card today in the mail. . . no, this actually happened, and it has like a little Chinese proverb on it, saying like, you know, like birds sometimes they can’t fly, and they don’t let things get them down, but if they make a nest, you know, out of those problems: it was something like that. And then, so she writes in the card, she’s like, “Dearest Angie, I know that you’ve been having problems, blah blah blah, and you sent me this card, and nah nah nah,” and then she signs it with my name, saying “Love, Angie,” and I was like, are you on crack, mom? I’m like, thanks for the, the card, but it was like, okay.
Beth: Your mom’s funny.
Angie: My mom’s a little whack.

Angie’s mother is making an attempt at offering support, but apparently not in a way that her daughter prefers. The result: her mental state is criticized, first by the question, “I was like, are you on crack, mom?” and then by the declaration, “My mom’s a little whack.” The frequent depiction of women as crazy and irrational occurs because men’s ways are considered “normal” in a sexist society, making women’s ways “abnormal” in comparison, invalidating emotional expression in particular.

Sexism would have us believe that women are crazy. In the study that the example above comes from, one out of every four instances of internalized derogation consisted of critiques of a woman’s mental health. Women were labeled as “weird,” “strange,” “abnormal,” “crazy,” “insane,” “psycho,” “obsessed,” “OCD,” “anal,” and “paranoid.” Other terms such as “hysterical” were not used by the group of women in the study, but have long histories in the pathologizing of women’s experiences, including the disproportionate incarceration of women in asylums and mental hospitals. Mental health slurs such as these carry along with them a real threat. If women deviate from a standard of normality determined by sexism, they risk exposing themselves to the stigma associated with mental illness.

Interrupting Derogation

(An Alternative to Internalized Derogation)

Because we have all been conditioned to be agents of oppression, we have all learned to use insults and put-downs to make others feel bad. Though this is a habit, it is not a necessary feature of life. To be an ally to women, we can make the decision never again to malign other women. This may not be an easy decision to stick by. Choosing to interrupt our inner critics is a helpful first step. Once we have that down, we can learn to respond effectively to other people’s not-so-inner critics.

Start by recognizing any ways we have internalized sexist criticisms. We all have inner critics. We need them to help us evaluate whether or not we are matching up to the images of ourselves we wish to live up to. Unfortunately, this natural evaluative process gets co-opted by internalized sexism in a couple ways that need correcting. First, if the image we wish to match is an image fed to us by gender role conditioning, it needs to be questioned, deconstructed, and replaced with a better image of our choosing. Second, if our inner critic has gone beyond simple self-evaluation (to help us achieve desirable objectives), and instead it keeps us down and makes us feel terrible about ourselves, it needs to be schooled. If our inner critic is acting as an agent of internalized sexism, we can interrupt it the same way we would interrupt someone else saying sexist things to someone we care about. Being an ally to ourselves by refusing to perpetuate sexism in our own minds is the place to begin. This is challenging and easy to forget to do, but replacing oppressive habits with conscious practices is well worth putting the work in for.

To be an ally to other women, we can interrupt derogation whenever we come across it. The key to interrupting oppression is to say something, anything. If we are not practiced at interrupting oppression, we will probably do it clumsily. We may not be very effective, and we may wind up with the insults directed at us instead. This is okay. Consider simple interventions like, “Hey. That thing you just said. Not cool,” or “Ouch. It hurts to hear you talk about another woman that way.” One strategy is to avoid low-status forms of intervention such as moralizing, in favor of high-status forms like jokes or storytelling [57]. Imagine, for instance, interrupting a sexist joke by saying, “This woman walks into a bar and tells a sexist joke – no one laughs!” Another strategy is to aim for compassion. If certain men or women are passing on sexism through language, quite possibly in unaware ways, we can assume they are doing so because of some unhealed hurt they are trying to work out, or an unmet need they do not know how to meet. Imagine a response like, “It sounds like you’re really angry about that, like there’s something you really need that you’re not getting.” We can offer that kind of compassion when we remember that we are all in this together. Treat everyone as if, given the chance, they would prefer to be an ally to women in overcoming sexism, and we can always find a way to appeal to the person’s humanity beneath the sexist language, to recruit them as an ally by finding a way to be theirs.

Competition Between Women

Like all forms of oppression, sexism inequitably divides up resources. Men benefit, leaving women with less money, fewer high-status positions, less decision-making power, less ability to leverage historical advantage, less social assumption of competence, and so on. The lack of resources available to women means that women may need to work harder to achieve the same objectives as men. It means that additional stresses occur in the daily lives of women. Women lacking needed resources and incurring daily stresses as a result do not necessarily blame the problem on sexism. Instead, they may end up blaming other women who are competing with them in order to meet their needs [58] [59]. Competition within an oppressed group is one of the fundamental manifestations of internalized oppression. How does this within-group competition occur, and how can we correct it?

Internalized sexism divides women, a division that keeps sexism in place by preventing women from acting in a unified way to dismantle sexism in all its forms. When things are hard for us, or when we do not have enough, we tend to look around us to see how much other people have, and whether they have it harder or easier than us. This social comparison helps us know what we should expect, what we should accept, and what we should strive for. When we cast our gaze to make these comparisons, however, it is easiest to compare ourselves to people who are similar to us, rather than people who have considerable privilege relative to us [60] [61]. Women are more likely to compare themselves to other women than to men. As a result, when women are dissatisfied with their lot, they are most likely to resent and compete with other women.

Competition between women is often for ostensibly limited social resources, such as favored social positions, desired partners, respect, support, and valuable social ties [62] [63]. In communities of girls and women, such competition may take the forms of social aggression: malicious gossip, social exclusion, zero-sum comparisons (for someone to win someone has to lose), and women putting one another down or maneuvering each other into lower-status positions to make themselves look or feel better [64] [65] [66].

I had been best of friends with Ellen since eighth grade. She was my confidant and closer to me than anyone else. My junior year, I started dating this boy who I really liked. I knew she thought he was cute, but I didn’t know that she had a crush on him. Within weeks, Ellen started being mean to me. She started making up stories about me, calling me a slut, telling people intimate details of my sex life that I had shared only with her. She got all our friends on her side and they would shun me when I walked by. She even told a fake story to our teacher about me and I got kicked out of a project I was a leader for. I was so confused and hurt. I felt she was trying to ruin my life, and I didn’t understand why. I thought she should be happy that I was in love.

This example from Jennifer, a student at a New York high school where Marielle ran a girls’ empowerment program, was not an unusual story. One girl “wins” a social resource that another wants. A “friend break-up” results, leading to very real forms of social aggression that fracture a community of friends. Without solidarity, in which women learn to support each other when their needs are not being met, internalized sexism can lead girls and women to take out their anger on one another.

Building Solidarity

(An Alternative to Competition Between Women)

The practice of developing solidarity is the antidote to internalized sexism’s practice of constructing women as competitors. Solidarity implies that sexism affects all women. If women can recognize the ways their sister women have been limited and impacted by sexism, they can come together and develop collective ways to overcome those effects. The practice of competing with other women stems from a model that it is not possible for everyone to get their needs met; solidarity requires a belief that everyone can. We do not have to sacrifice being successful or happy, in order for others to be successful or happy. Developing solidarity requires an acknowledgement of the damage caused by practices of internalized sexism, followed by a commitment to mutual understanding and collaboration among women, to ultimately serve the larger project of women’s liberation and empowerment.

Let’s look at the example of Ellen and Jennifer above through the lens of solidarity. What if they knew in advance how destructive and painful their competition and “friend break-up” was going to be? What if Ellen refused to insult or slander Jennifer and instead was able to express her hurt so they could listen to each other and find a mutually supportive solution? Chances are, this would have brought them closer as friends, circumvented the competition, and led to growth for them as individuals. For any of this to be possible, however, they would have to have learned these alternative practices.

Women’s groups can help women build solidarity with one another. Through sharing personal narratives, women can come to more deeply understand how they have been hurt by sexism, and how they have come to internalize it and act it out on one another. Women’s groups are often venues for learning, healing, support, empowerment, and collaboration. They help women to learn about being allies for other women to identify places where they tend to criticize, undermine, or insult other women, to examine their unaware uses of power in the form of social aggression, and to learn about what kinds of support other women need to overcome internalized sexism. As a truly democratic structure, they can be formed by any group of women anywhere.

Summary and Conclusion:

How to Be an Ally to Girls and Women

Internalized sexism is composed of diverse practices. Bringing together these many different practices under the banner of internalized sexism helps girls and women to identify the varying ways that sexism gets in. Internalized sexism leads women to believe themselves and other women to be more limited than they are, to feel powerless and act powerlessly, to conflate self-worth and body-image, to become disembodied, to encourage other women to be preoccupied with their looks, to sacrifice their own needs and desires while teaching other women to do the same, to invalidate their own and other women’s thoughts, values, and choices, to insult and criticize themselves and other women as a way of policing the gender role, and to compete with other women, often through the use of social aggression.

All of these practices perpetuate sexism, and they do so even when no men are present. The purpose of identifying the practices of internalized sexism is not to blame women for sexism. Rather, it is to recognize how women unwittingly play an active role in keeping sexism alive, a role that can change once it has been exposed. Like sexism, internalized sexism is an ongoing relational process, produced and reproduced within the networks of social interactions that make up our day-to-day existence. Understanding how internalized sexism makes the rounds makes it possible to replace all of these conditioned ways of behaving with deliberate, conscious practices that work to counteract internalized sexism. Understanding is the beginning of becoming an ally to girls and women.

Oppression excludes no one. Learning to be an ally against oppression is a task for all people everywhere to take on [67]. When it comes to sexism, it is important to remember that gender role conditioning, sexism, internalized sexism, and men’s oppression all form an integrated system [68] [69], a system in which we are all caught. Luckily, we can all become one another’s allies in dismantling it.

Once we have come to understand some of the practices of internalized sexism, we might consider replacing them with some of these ways to be an ally:

  • Hold high standards for women. Hold out that there are no limits to what women are capable of, no limits to their intelligence, no limits to how powerful they can become.
  • Support women to find and express their anger about sexism, but don’t let them get stuck in anger.
  • Encourage women to become leaders. Sometimes this will mean yielding leadership to them or mentoring them in leadership.
  • Help women inhabit, rather than objectify, their own bodies. Support them in learning to cultivate their felt sense experience, use their physical power, and develop physical abilities.
  • Be wary of objectifying evaluations of women. Instead learn to appreciate unconditional beauty.
  • Help women identify their needs and desires, which means learning to sense what they want from the inside. Support them to discover who they want to be as sexual beings on their own terms.
  • Don’t stand for women settling, especially for the sake of men. Expect them to prioritize themselves, which will sometimes mean putting themselves first, other women second, and men third. Even if the eventual goal is to find the right balance between self-care and care for others, sometimes tipping the scale the other way first helps to create balance.
  • Validate women’s ways, watching out for male-centric values and preferences, and encourage women to do the same for themselves.
  • Take women’s feelings and concerns seriously. Even if you disagree with them, find a way to validate their experiences by offering empathy.
  • Encourage women to trust their own thinking, and to find and share their voices.
  • Model not criticizing, disparaging, or invalidating women.
  • Interrupt the derogation of women when you see it, even if it is women derogating one another.
  • Don’t stand for women competing with each other. Help redirect the impulse toward the real problem: sexism. Support women to collaborate with one another instead.
  • Model how to be an ally to women. Remind others, and yourself, that we’re all in this together.

Helping girls and women get free from the effects of internalized sexism is key to creating a world without sexism. Whether you are female, male, or any other gendered or genderless flavor of human being, you can learn to become an excellent ally to women and girls. Every time any one of us chooses to be an ally, all of us benefit.

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