Updated: Oct 24
CW: Body image, trauma, depression
Guilt as an emotional motivator has been prevalent in activist spheres for as long as activism itself. Of course, by nature, this has extended to influence feminism. In 2015, Deborah Frances-White coined the concept of 'The Guilty Feminist' through her popular comedy podcast of the same name. Her podcast is notoriously popular for a reason... the experiences expressed within are sentiments that are felt by many.
So, what actually is guilty feminism?
Rayne Fisher-Quann in her 'internet princess' blog mentions the idea of a feminist panopticon. What is that, the audience asks? The concept of a panopticon involves the visualisation of a circular prison with cells arranged around a central well from which prisoners can be observed. Every prisoner is aware that they are visible at all times if the watcher decided so; however, they can never see when they were being observed. This created self-monitoring prisoners. Theorised by Jeremy Bentham, this was an authoritarian dream come true.
How is this relevant to feminism? Take modern social media as a relevant example.
We can't physically view most of the people we interact with on different platforms. However, there is an incredibly pervasive sense that we are always visible and being observed by the unseen eye. This seemingly omnipresent gaze impacts the behaviour of those whose identities are invested in social media in multiple ways. Whether it's a fixation on 'likes' and 'interactions' or aestheticising your lifestyle through cottage-core, the panopticon operates through many aspects of interaction on social media. Despite the fact that this presents many issues for activism on social media, this also relates to feminism in a concerning way.
This artwork is part of the project 'The Digital Panopticon' by artist Jey Alonso. It is intended to be an exploration and critique of social media in today's world.
For feminists, we are both the prisoner and the guard. We feel the scrutiny, both from ourselves and ostensibly others, to perform activism to the highest standard. Many activists feel the need to constantly be perfect advocates in order to be taken seriously. If we unintentionally or purposefully make light of our own suffering, how do we expect others to follow in our footsteps? How can we make people understand?
To gain more insight, I asked those within the STOP Campaign to describe their experiences with guilty feminism and their feelings of shame.
Emily K, a Collective member, highlighted the struggle of educating themselves about feminism:
"When I first started learning and reading about feminism, I felt like I had so much internalised misogyny and so much to catch up on that I read feminist literature after feminist literature to the point that it consumed me and it became all I could talk about. I did this because I felt so much guilt and shame for not knowing what I was learning from this literature in the first place."
Emily K went on to explain how guilt detrimentally impacted their activism:
"I felt like I was letting women around me down by being so ignorant in the past. However, trying to make up for this in the way I did was extremely draining it also made me feel depressed as the contents of the literature were often traumatic and distressing."
Emily is currently studying to become a sex therapist. They noted that there is a huge stigma and trauma involved with sex, which especially impacts women and their self-esteem. Due to this, they said that they felt like they were ignoring their duty by not doing every feminist act they could possibly achieve:
"... starting from educating myself, to volunteer work, activism and protests. However, it’s pretty much impossible to do everything at once. I’m now taking my goals with my feminist activism slowly and at the capacity which I can take. It’s really easy to go down the rabbit-hole of consuming too much feminism where you feel like it is your responsibility to fix everything!
They advise that this type of guilt is very unhealthy; in reality, activism is best done in a team and with support. Emily also wanted to take time to shout out to other culturally diverse feminists and address how culture impacted their internalised misogyny:
"I understand how hard it can be to see sexism and misogyny reflected in your culture and the way your family behaves and the guilt you internalise from that. It’s shitty, there’s no better way to put it."
Zoe, our Secretary, also referred to similar issues around engaging with social issues:
"I feel guilty when I don’t have the energy to keep up with the news and current events as they occur in this space. Part of me feels it’s my responsibility as a feminist, a woman, a policy worker and advocate to constantly read the news, case studies and content as it occurs, but because I also work professionally in a space that deals with difficult content, I often lack the energy to do this in my own time."
Zoe elaborated on why she experiences guilt, regardless of how much effort she has already put in:
"I think because I am a feminist, I feel an extra obligation to be socially and politically aware. This feeling has increased since becoming involved with STOP as I have become more publicly vocal as an advocate and ally, so that I now feel a responsibility to be able to respond to any questions asked in relation to feminist issues."
She also spoke about shame and self-care:
"I also feel like there is an entrenched shame that stems from the stigmatisation of mental health and a guilt associated with taking time and space to look after myself, mainly because I irrationally fear I will be perceived as weak or dramatic."
Issie, our Communications Officer, talked about her personal experiences with 'guilty' feminism:
"I find that my most guilty feminist moment is my love of celebrity culture and gossip. I love watching the Kardashians, I love knowing who is dating and who has broken up, I find it so interesting!"
She explains why she feels guilt:
"I know how problematic celebrities can be, yet I still enjoy the content they produce."
Olivia, our Social Media Coordinator, also spoke about reality entertainment and culture:
"I LOVE watching 'Too Hot to Handle'! I feel guilty about this though, because I fundamentally oppose making entertainment out of placing a woman’s value solely on the way she looks."
An anonymous individual opened up about their experiences with body image:
"Not being able to overcome my low self esteem and comparing myself to other women in terms of body image and confidence. I feel I don’t walk the talk when it comes to promoting body positivity and sex positivity."
They explained how beauty standards have influenced their choices:
"Since being told growing up my vulva was ugly and not like how it should be because my lips stick out, I always thought I needed surgery to fix it. I know this is the harmful patriarchy but it’s hard not to criticise myself. I’ve also had a nose job because I felt I wasn’t pretty enough. And it infuriates me that I felt I had to do that and I still have self-image issues."
They went on to express frustration about feeling shame:
"I should be comfortable in myself and my body and be a good role model but it’s so hard!!! Beauty standards are so unrealistic… and yet I give in!"
Emily B, our Engagement Coordinator, spoke about stigmatisation of feminism and activism itself:
"I feel like I was late to the feminist game. It wasn't cool to be a feminist at school, so I didn't try to engage in feminist issues which meant I didn't acknowledge the privilege I grew up in. Being a feminist is a very important to my identity now, so I do hold quite a bit of shame that I didn't explore this side of me sooner. I feel guilty that I wasted so many years blinded by trying to be cool and avoid feminism."
Another anonymous individual from the STOP Campaign spoke about healthcare and feminism:
"I have found that I have only engaged with/gone and seen MALE gynaecologists during my life. I think it's because I have been so ashamed and scared of my anatomy and feeling different to other women, that I would be judged by female gynaecologists."
Bianca, our Treasurer, spoke about performing gender roles:
"I have never mown the lawn at my rental home. Every time it needs to be mown, I ask my boyfriend to do it."
She goes on to explain her motivation:
"It seems like I won't/can't do it because it's a "man's" job. I feel guilty because I definitely know it's NOT just a man's job and there is no such thing as just a "man's" job. But for some reason, I will just never mow the lawn (and never will, oops)."
How can we all be better feminists despite our guilt?
I'm not claiming to have the right answer here. However, I believe that guilt is a very human emotion. It is very natural, especially in activism and often for women, to feel as though they cannot put a foot out of place -- whether it's because we want to achieve as much for the movement as possible, to not fail our own morals and beliefs, or to not be criticised by the panopticon. Being an active feminist requires a lot of effort and self-reflection and for the people that have contributed to this piece, the STOP Campaign thanks you for your honesty.
I believe that with the amount of effort that goes into showing up for the feminist movement, a little forgiveness is allowed. For so long, particularly for women, we are expected to constantly endure for those around us. However, as Emily K wisely said above, it is impossible to do everything at once! Please take care of yourselves and seek support when needed.
I'll leave you with a Deborah Frances-White quote: “We don’t have to be perfect to dare ourselves to be better.”
Myka Davis and The STOP Campaign Team.