How Internalized Misogyny Is Holding You Back

By Leigh Peele

Note: Before digging in, I want you to know that though it isn’t my intention, it's likely that some things I say in this article might make you angry—and that’s totally normal. Know that my intent is to free you from judgment, not impose more judgment upon you. I encourage you to question your feelings and examine where they’re coming from.

Misogyny. This word has been coming up a lot, particularly over the past year.

What Is Misogyny?

Oxford lists misogyny as “Dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.” Merriam keeps it simple and too-the-point with an abrasive, “A hatred of women.”

There are many levels of misogyny and specifically internalized misogyny. In its most simplistic of explanations, internalized misogyny is when that contempt, prejudice, and hatred is turned inward, toward oneself. It can also extend toward other women who surround us in our daily lives—a mother, daughter, friend, or lover.

The complexities of internalized misogyny are astounding, and when being examined for the first time, can feel overwhelming. Men and women are affected by it very differently on subconscious levels, and an article like this merely scratches the surface. My hope is that it will serve as an awakening (or reminder) that will help set the course for further conversation and self-examination.

What Does Misogyny Look Like?

Misogyny is tricky; it isn’t always a clear action. In fact, self-proclaimed feminists themselves can sometimes be the worst offenders. When we think of judgment or hatred toward women, it’s not hard to see the extreme outcomes playing out before our eyes. In barbaric and aggressive senses, we’ve been taught that lust's blame rests in a woman's hands. There are many religious and ancient texts one can pick from to learn more about the overt and extreme history of misogyny. By default in our society, the blame for anything involving temptation or a loss of control is more often than not placed on a woman and her devious ways or irresponsible choices. It isn’t the overt, but rather the more subtle and subconscious undertones that I want to bring out into the light.

It’s the overall belittling and judgment in which we often may not even realize we ourselves take part. It’s no secret that the current social climate has had its fill of political correctness. Perhaps it's because "we" think it's enough to say, "Women can do whatever they want, ok? Get over it. Let's move on." It's not enough.

I imagine that right now, some of you may be thinking, “That’s not me. I definitely don’t have any misogynistic beliefs.” But that’s the thing.

Sometimes these beliefs are so deeply ingrained that we don’t see them for what they are. I encourage you to take a closer look.

How can you know if you are engaging in misogynistic thinking? Here are some questions you can ask yourself that will help you see things from a different perspective:

  • Do you tend to value, trust, and respect male teachers more than female teachers?
  • Do you catch yourself saying, “I need a man’s opinion” on various subjects?
  • Do you not exercise or train the way you want to because you’ve been told that women shouldn’t do certain types of exercise (like lifting weights), or that muscles aren’t feminine or “look ugly” on women?
  • Do you use phrases like “Real men...” or “Real women...”
  • Do you compete only against other women for men or women’s attention?
  • Do you judge women as better or worse based solely on their appearance?
  • Do you think women are catty or full of drama?
  • Do you say things like, “I’m only friends with guys because women are/aren’t...”
  • Do you say phrases like “Men are just like that,” or “That’s just how women are.”
  • Do you “slut shame” women for the same behaviors you find completely acceptable from men?
  • Do you feel you aren’t worthy of loyalty in friendships and romantic relationships?
  • Do you feel unsafe or uncertain when a woman is in charge of tasks?
  • Do you feel that being on time or being prepared matters less when dealing with women?
  • Do you think women are physically weak and need to be taken care of by men?
  • Do you think men should be “Alphas” and women should be submissive?
  • Do you think there are jobs that aren’t suitable for women or that women shouldn’t be allowed to have?
  • Do you underplay women’s talents and overinflate men’s?
  • Do you think all women should strive to achieve one specific body type?

The way in which we view ourselves and our gender can affect how we eat, date, train, prepare for education, and dream. If there was ever a topic in need of deeper examination to truly understand what is going on behind the curtain in our own minds, it’s this one.

My Own Misogyny

Growing up, I rarely identified with women. When I was a kid, society thrust upon me the idea that I had to like pink things, fluffy things, sparkly things, and fragile things. In fact, I hated it all. I was your typical tomboy. While I hate that term now, back then it was the only identifier I knew.

From a young age, I was taught certain ideas about gender traits:

“Female” traits: emotional, overly sensitive, physically weak, less intelligent, followers, easy to manipulate, nurturing, frilly clothing, needy behavior, scared, clumsy, and kind.

“Male” traits: strong, stoic, violent, leaders, manipulative, loners, smart, capable, mean, practical clothing, trustworthy, athletic and dominating.

These are obviously not traits I agree with today. Again, this was how my young mind worked. My life was far from typical or normal. I was a hard-living kid from the streets who learned early on that a good punch and smooth talk saved me a lot more than thigh-highs and platform shoes ever could. Nonetheless, it seemed like being a guy offered way more perks than being a girl. Looking at the list subconsciously presented to us on the day we’re born, it was an easy call. How would I not either, want to be a guy or, at the very least, look to them as leaders and saviors over women?

I was wrong.

In my life — a sociological study in its own right — I have learned that men can gossip, women can save the day, either can manipulate, and both can be kind or cruel.

My theories were gradually ripped apart in the face of my own experiences. Then I studied.

I explored history, gender studies, psychology, and philosophy. I studied my own sexuality, why I like the things I do and why I don’t. I started seeing misogyny (cautious about not confirming my own biases) in everything around me. The stories we tell, the way we say things, and to whom we say them. I learned to think critically, and above all, I learned to acknowledge the sex (not gender) of an individual.

It's crucial to acknowledge that along with society's prescribed gender roles comes a certain set of privileges (or lack thereof) that can't be ignored.

The Importance of Understanding Privilege

A common misunderstanding about privilege is that it can be neatly categorized, like “white men at the top, and women of color at the bottom.” The truth is that privilege exists in varying degrees as it bends and weaves across intersections of society. It is also true that men, especially white men, are still privileged.

Bear with me...

It’s hard to deny that money, location, education, and other factors influence our life experiences and circumstances. Not acknowledging these interwoven factors often leads people to say, “Well, that isn’t fair! How can you say I’ve got it better when they are _____ and have it better than me! I work hard, and I’m not getting anywhere just because I'm _____.”

Privilege isn’t a right, it’s a privilege.

All it means is that, subconsciously throughout our lives and in all forms of media culture, some of us more than others have been psychologically pumped up, groomed, and cheered on in ways we’ve likely never noticed—and we reaped the benefits. Given the opportunity, you could lead due to having an advantage that you may not even be aware of having.

In simplistic examples, people are often quick to say, “Well, obviously that’s not fair, and X individual has an advantage.” Disagreements arise when the topics get more subtle and sociologically nuanced, and people quibble over whether a disadvantage is merely a confidence issue or one having to do with gender. Make no mistake about it, in our society there is an advantage to being a man.

Even at the gym, this subconscious privilege is present. When a man steps up to a heavy weighted bar, before he ever picks it up he already has a remarkable amount of men “with” him. He has superheroes, average Joes, Rocky, villains, athletes, saviors, his brothers, fathers, friends, gods, warriors by the billions—not thousands, not millions, but billions—standing behind him. Thousands of years of history, wars fought over land and sea, victories and stories of champions galore. David, Goliath, Jesus, and God himself. They’re all right there behind him when he steps up to that bar.

Women? Let me make it clear. We have Rosa Parks. Susan B. Anthony. Corazon Aquino. Malala Yousafzai. I could go on but it wouldn’t take you long to see that a common theme of their rise to legendary status was oppression. What do they get for that? More often than not, they get told growing up “You throw like a girl.” “Not bad, for a girl.” "But you're just a girl."

Even one of our most popular sports culture movies’ famous phrase is, “There’s no crying in baseball.”

Do you get it? Do you see it? That's subconscious privilege.

So many movies we watch and books we read subtly suggest that women are less. In these stories, women will appeal to the power and submissiveness of a male dominated society. Women will believe that they are catty, competing, or left wanting. Stories in which women are strong, are an anomaly. It’s so unusual for women to be the strong hero, that when a string of just a few movies with a strong female lead are released, the response from both men and many women often sounds like this: “C’mon. Stop trying to please the liberal agenda. This role would be better with a guy in the lead, and you know it.” (That is an actual comment with 3,203 likes on Facebook about the new Rogue One movie.)

This isn’t about being more masculine or rejecting gender roles. There is nothing wrong with your gender identity relating to something to you. However you are more than your sex or literal genitalia. This is about undoing centuries of oppressive dialogue. It isn’t about ignoring the facts, but instead facing them. This also isn’t about taking anything away from anyone. What this is about is learning to give to yourself. And it needs to start with the way we treat women (including ourselves).

A Few Exercises For Improving the Language We Use for Ourselves and Others

Instead of, ”I can do anything a man can do,” try, ”I can do anything I want to do.”

It might seem nitpicky, but eliminating the “them” vs “us” narrative, is crucial in the fight for equal rights and against inequality in gender, sexuality, and race. One gender should not be the metric by which we all measure ourselves and others.

Instead of, "I’m like one of the guys,” try, ”I like what I like.”

If women like something that is stereotypically masculine or “manly” things, they are given extra credit for not being “prissy” or “high-maintenance.” They get rewarded for "manning-up” and being the girl who can simply be “one of the guys.”

There is no such thing, not even for men. The notion that a person is defined by liking any one thing or activity because of their gender should be an eroding concept. Instead of focusing on what you should and should not be or like, embrace what you actually like and what makes you feel most “you.” Do that, and you will notice gender stereotypes fade away.

Instead of, “Lift like a man,’ try, “Lift for what you want.”

There is no male or female way of training. There are ways to train which will improve muscular growth. There are ways to train which will improve cardiovascular health. There are even way to train to support your ability to consume mass quantities of hot dogs in one sitting in under 10 minutes. However, there is no one way to train like a man or a woman. If you want to be strong, get strong. If you want to be curvy, be curvy. If you are a 5’4 guy who wants to have better legs in heels, I love a reverse lunge!

Instead of, ”We are all equal,” try... “We are all equal.”

No change. Because that’s the very meaning.

Too often, I see faux empowerment or “feminism.” I’ve seen women chant the virtues of owning their sex and power, but are doing so because they are mimicking a caricature of what they think a man is. Knocking women who want to wear makeup or who want to embrace traditional gender roles doesn’t make a woman empowered. Enjoying sex and bucking conservative society doesn’t make a woman a feminist. It also doesn’t make a woman a feminist to pick only one body type. Feminists come in all shapes and sizes. Muscular, thin, round, tall, short, medium; It doesn’t matter what shape you want to achieve as long as you’re staying true to your desires, rather than pursuing an ideal you’ve been instructed by someone else to pursue because it’s what you “should” be or what you “should” look like.

Phrases like “strong is the new skinny” or “strong is the new sexy” are as limiting as stating that muscular women look “too manly.” Different people find different aesthetics appealing. Whether you want all the muscles, or you just want to feel strong and take care of your bones but prefer a less muscled physique, what is important is that your training goals reflect and satisfy your preference.

Check in with your desires and motivations and where they are coming from. One choice isn’t better or worse than the other if it’s what appeals to you.

A Homework Assignment: Re-examining Your Goals (A.k.a: What Do You Want?)

If reading this article overwhelms and frustrates you, it’s okay. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this subject makes a lot of women feel overwhelmed or frustrated, or both.

Go with these feelings. I want you to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and think about the questions and thoughts that come up for you. Does any of this make you want to reevaluate your training goals? Have you been living for you, or for someone else? What do you really want and who is it for—and why?

If you read this and think, “Damn, I’ve been more unfair to myself and other women than I realized…” understand you are not alone. I’ve been there. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but it’s safe to say on some level we have all been there. As we start to see things a little more clearly, we can start working toward examining what it is that we really want, who we want to be, and why.

Do you struggle with body image? Have you ever…

  • Felt anxious about clothes shopping or wearing certain clothes?
  • Dreaded going to an event (like a reunion or a wedding) — or even skipped the event altogether — because you felt too self-conscious about how you looked?
  • Found yourself not wanting to be in pictures or videos, or hiding behind other people in the picture to shield your body?
  • Scrolled through social media and felt worse and worse as you went?

If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.

Based on our years of experience working with and talking to women — and going through our own body image struggles — we designed this free course to help you start improving your body image immediately and give you the tools you need to finally feel good in your own skin.

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About the author:  Leigh Peele

Leigh Peele is an internationally published author, has a growing collection of vowel words for crossword puzzles, and currently holds a certification from the National Academy Of Sports Medicine. She specializes in body composition solutions (both mentally and physically) and credits her success in the industry on her ability to keep asking, "Why?" Learn more about Leigh on her Website and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.

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