You’re probably like “whaaaaat?!” Internalized sexism is so not affecting my dating life. My spirit is half Beyoncé, half Tavi Gevinson, and I only date feminists or else. Well, even the best woman warriors find it hard to get through the day when your Netflix shows, classmates, guys at the gym and even parents are unknowingly reinforcing sexist ideals all around you.
Internalized sexism is involuntary and occurs on an individual level. It means you’ve been exposed to messages that tell you women are inferior, and you’re now a byproduct of a society that shames and devalues you and others who share your gender. It’s infectious, invisible as air and lets you reinforce oppression without even choosing to.
Maybe you’ve developed body image issues because you don’t look like a Victoria’s Secret Angel. Maybe you’ve spent too long trying to be the “cool girl” who fits in with men. Internalized sexism manifests in various ways for different people. From something as subtle as believing women are fussy and emotional, to outright thinking of yourself as nothing more than a sexual object, it happens. Internalized sexism can arise from multiple influences (ie. the mother f**king patriarchy andprivilege). You could have picked it up from watching your mom stay at home and be the primary caregiver, or just not seeing enough women as actresses and news anchors on TV. The commercial side of America is terrible for reinforcing gender stereotypes, and when we’re exposed to it every day, it can be hard to get back in to a Betty Friedman mindset and slay the patriarchy.
Obviously internalized sexism is dangerous for yourself, other women and society as whole, but you may not have considered how significantly sexist oppression plays a role in your dating life. The basis of our male/female relationships is backed by sexist, heteronormative gender roles, and because of that, misogyny manifests in these three sneaky ways.
1. You’re hyper focused on your femininity
Raise your hand if you loathe shaving your pubes but do it anyway because you think it makes you more beautiful. SAME. That’s internalized sexism for you! We aren’t born with the instinct to shave our body hair, but body policing make us fear that our man will mouth-vomit and call us nasty if he sees some hair down there. If you’re hyper-focused on fitting the mold of an ideal feminine woman, and feel like nobody will be sexually attracted to you if you aren’t physically perfect, then a problem is happening.
We’re talking dieting, going to the gym in full makeup and thinking of all the ways to be bae’s perfect arm candy instead of focusing on the fact that you’re smart enough to work at NASA. There is no shame in valuing the sexy, feminine parts of yourself. But if you and your partner place no value on your intellect, personality or skills, then you’re perpetuating sexism. Sexism says that a woman must be pretty, quiet and nothing else. Operating outside of sexism means you see value in yourself beyond your looks, and want your partner to see that too.
Brown University alumna, Suzannah Weiss, is a well-known writer that covers relationships and gender issues, and holds a degree in cognitive neuroscience and gender and sexuality studies. When it comes to internalized sexism and femininity, she has a lot to say. “Women strive toward feminine qualities at the expense of their wellbeing,” she says. “For example, being small is considered feminine. When we take pride in ourselves for being thin, we're conforming to the ideal of women as unimposing and ascetic and conventionally beautiful, not because that's how our body just is. We are perpetuating a standard of beauty that harms us.”
Fun fact: You don’t have to fit a societal ideal to be desirable. That’s a toxic message which will inevitably lead to low self-esteem because beauty standards are not attainable or realistic. Primping isn’t in itself internalized misogyny, but if you feel anxious not doing it then it’s problematic. If your face and body are the basis of your romantic relationships, you should do some revaluating. Love yourself more than that, and find a partner who does too.
2. You always feel guilty
Do you find yourself apologizing often for the way you are? AKA feeling embarrassed when you share a controversial opinion, interrupt someone or, god forbid, eat a large meal. Shaming yourself and feeling guilty for totally reasonable behavior shows that you’ve definitely internalized sexism, and you’re not being fully authentic or free in your relationship.
Carly, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, shares her own struggle and realization at the way sexism has made her feel guilty in her relationship. “I’ve had countless men and women tell me not to speak up,” she says. “From being little in class and raising my hand, to being in college and trying to share thoughts I think are valuable, I live in a society that wants me to be quiet. For years, I internalized this and didn’t realize it. In my first serious relationship, I found I had trouble speaking up in bed or talking to my boyfriend if he did something that hurt me.”
Carly continues, “Eventually I had a breakdown and spilled the beans that I felt being honest about my feelings and speaking openly would make him mad at me. He was really sweet about it, and basically told me that being a good girlfriend doesn’t mean being a quiet girlfriend. I only realized that a lot of times female guilt is internalized sexism last semester when it was directly addressed in my gender studies class, so now it’s something I’m actively thinking about and trying to reshape.”
You should never exert pressure on yourself to act a certain way while dating, because that is the world telling you your natural self isn’t good enough. You are not inadequate because you are a real live woman with feelings and needs. Doesn’t the “sorry, not sorry” mantra of your sisters mean anything to you?
3. You unreasonably elevate your partner above yourself
When you’re battered with sexism on the daily, it’s hard not to see your male partner as supreme. This could come out as sacrificing your plans for his, being submissive to his wants, letting him win the fights and generally seeing your opinions as less valuable than his. If you're graduating soon and planning to move to be with him instead of the other way around, something is wrong sister. Relationships built on inequality can leave lasting emotional damage. We’re here to tell you that you should never minimize your own value or let a gender bias convince you that you’re worth less than someone with a penis.
Whether you’re in love or just really vibing your bae, it’s difficult to notice when sexism is creeping into your interactions, and it likely falls under your radar. It takes perception to notice when you let your partner be in control of you.
Weiss, our gender and relationships guru, has more to share. “The balance of power in your relationship becomes sexist if what you want is constantly pushed on the back burner,” she says. “If it’s subtle then it’s usually him not being invested in you and you’re making more sacrifices than he is. But if it’s harsh then it could be as severe as him not asking for your consent and belittling aspects of your gender. If the sexism in your relationship isn’t ever addressed, his power grows and yours diminishes. That’s really dehumanizing for women.”
Freeing yourself from internalized sexism takes a lot of personal strength. Not medication, a detoxifying juice cleanse or mass amounts of chocolate can cure it. What you can do is recognize cultural practices that lead to internalized sexism, and re-channel thoughts that harm or set limits on yourself. You can engage in dialogue with your partner about your suffering, hold them accountable to treating you as an equal and in turn, have them hold you accountable to empowering yourself. Addressing sexism in your relationship is a cause very worth your time, and it can only lead to your value, happiness and being surrounded by better people. You should also absolutely collaborate with and support other women. They’ll be the readiest to talk about male privilege and fight dominance with you. Good women sharpen each other, and we believe you can have a romantic life where you are in control of your choices and feel how truly worthwhile you are.