SophiaLorenJayneMansfield

We all saw her at the same time.  Or, more accurately, we saw her outfit: a barely-there skirt and a bustier with cutouts that exposed the entire circumference of her breasts: two little straps that barely covered her nipples.

“That’s where she keeps her tips,” my friend tittered.  “Girl’s gotta work.”

We were at brunch — I with my gaggle of girlfriends, and this stranger, The Outfit, with hers.  Maybe it was the mimosas or societal conditioning, but for whatever reason, every person at my table felt compelled to comment on The Outfit, and each comment was funnier, and meaner, than the last.

“Maybe she’s breast-feeding.”

“— A baby, or the rest of her table?”

“She might as well carry around her Pap smear, ’cause her cervix is the only thing we can’t see.”

I couldn’t take it anymore.  “Stop choice-shaming,” I growled.  “Why do you get to judge her?  Who cares what she’s wearing?”

There was sudden, uncomfortable silence.  “You’re right,” one of my friends agreed.  “Moving on.”  She started discussing the merits of Tinder versus Hinge, and The Outfit was promptly forgotten.

Except by me.

I remained deeply pissed about it for days afterwards, and I didn’t quite know why.  Sure, I’d been disappointed in my friends.  All of us identify as feminists, but I’ve noticed a tendency among otherwise smart, open-minded women to be disdainful of others we deem conventionally hotter than we are.  (The Outfit itself may have been a disaster, but the woman wearing it looked like a model.)

But that was only half the equation.  What bothered me just as much as my friends’ behavior, I realized, was my response.  Not what I’d said, but how I’d said it.

Choice-shaming.  Slut-shamingInternalizing the male gaze.  The idea behind these terms is a good one: to identify thought patterns that perpetuate inequality between the sexes.  In their practical usage, however, such words have become little more than an insult — a weapon to be used against every person, man or woman, who dares to disagree with the speaker.

You’re choice-shaming, I’d scoffed at my friends, as if I’d never done the same.  Rather than asking these women to reflect on their behavior, I shamed them into silence.  I created an adversarial situation instead of a conversational one.  Yes, I’d corrected their behavior, but as if they were schoolchildren misbehaving in class. I had squandered the opportunity to make them conscientious advocates.

There is a lot for feminists to be rightfully angry about, both locally and worldwide: thigh gaps, opportunity gaps, sexual violence.  I’m not trying to minimize that.  But I do believe that, at least in America, we need to stop naming-calling and start having real discussions.  It’s all too easy to mock projects like the Tumblr “Women Against Feminism,” wherein women take pictures of themselves holding signs like, “I don’t need feminism because I like getting flowers from my husband.”  These ignorant fools, we jeer (or at least I do).  They don’t even know what feminism is.  But is it possible that we feminists are doing a shitty job of representing our cause?

How we as feminists advocate for social, political and economic equality is just as important as what we are fighting for.  If we alienate so many people out of hand – especially other women – how can we possibly expect to make a difference in their lives, or our own?

Of course, The Outfit is a pretty low-stakes example of this.  Consider, instead, some of the issues currently central to the struggling idea of feminism in America.  I am ardently pro-choice.  Does that mean I have to support Annegret Raunigk, the German woman with 13 kids who, at the age of 65, chose to use in vitro fertilization to have four more children – quintuplets who were all born extremely premature?

I also believe deeply in supporting survivors of sexual assault.  So, what am I to make of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s now-retracted piece in Rolling Stone about a young woman’s entirely fictitious rape at UVA — which deeply harmed the falsely accused — and how do I factor that into my activism moving forward?

These are difficult questions, and many feminist blogs I read take the attitude that shouting them down will make them go away, or that acknowledging these complexities means compromising our beliefs.  It doesn’t.  On the contrary, it gives us the power to make ourselves truly heard.

Anyone can sling insults in the name of their cause.  (Have you ever actually read the comments section of any online article about feminist issues?  I’m hard-pressed to think of a progressive group of people who are crueler to one another.)  Being a feminist in the world, a feminist who truly wants to improve the lives of others, means being willing to both empathize and educate.  It means realizing that no one individual or group has all the answers.  Our diversity — of race, religion, sexual orientation, experience and opinion — is our greatest asset.  We’re all going to have singular limitations and unique insights.  To share the best of ourselves, we need to articulate what we really mean instead of hiding behind righteous indignation.  And, most importantly, we need to be willing to be wrong.

A few days after that brunch, I had dinner with some of the friends I’d lashed out at.  I apologized for being so abrasive, and explained why seeing a group of women gang up against an individual was painful for me.  My goal, I added, wasn’t to antagonize but rather to encourage conscientiousness.  The ensuing conversation about body image and groupthink was among the most productive I’ve had.

That said, I will continue periodically to fail at what I am suggesting we all do.  That’s because I’m only human.  You’ll fail too, on occasion.  And then we’ll all get up and try again.

Talking with someone is infinitely harder than talking at her.  It requires speaking from a vulnerable place and then respectfully listening to someone else do the same.  But no one becomes a feminist because it’s easy.

You do, however, get to wear whatever you want to brunch.