When you live in a small town, you have to be careful with labels. You have to work them over in your mouth, allowing them to hit each and every taste bud, before you give them a chance to be vocalized.
Working these labels over takes time. There’s an art to it.
You must have an out-of-body experience, in which you allow yourself to see what you will look like with such labels attached. You must pretend that you are an outsider looking in. You must ask: How will people see me with this newfound synonym for who I am as a human being? Will I be punished or accepted as is?
Feminist: a label that I worked over for quite some time. My tongue still remembers how this word tastes; it has memorized each and every letter’s contour.
Just in case you’re wondering, the word feminist tastes both sweet and sour. Not sweet, then sour, or vice versa. Both sweet and sour at the exact same time. Almost like a hard candy that is known for melting in your mouth and coating your tongue with its essence.
I hadn’t heard the word feminist until I entered high school. It first came up in Advanced Placement United States History, when we were learning about the Women’s Rights Movement. Even then, “feminist” was simply a word, a word that had no weight to it. I hadn’t even considered it as a label. It was merely a word, like “good,” “bad,” or “running.”
“Just in case you’re wondering, the word feminist tastes both sweet and sour. Not sweet, then sour, or vice versa. Both sweet and sour at the exact same time.”
Up until that point, I’d rejected many labels and accepted very few. Two years prior, I rejected any and all labels having to do with religion. This occurred after one of my friends said that I was going to Hell because I did not go to church. I became “spiritual, but not religious” after that episode.
Working hard in school meant that I was “smart.” This label meant that I was seen as an alternative to the school’s library. I was pestered with questions, requests for tutoring, and asked to edit papers during my free periods. I quite liked this label because it made me feel special, despite all of the extra work that it involved.
“Quiet” was a label that I accepted, begrudgingly. Because I was not loud and did not speak up in class, I was ceremoniously handed “quiet” and “shy.” These labels made me mysterious, but they also made me weak. My peers thought of me as innocent and naive, easily manipulated.
Sometimes, with small town labels, you don’t have the opportunity to work them over with your tongue and teeth. Sometimes, these labels become who you are without even a courtesy question or answer. You have no choice but to act accordingly, to become who everyone else thinks you are.
Not one person in my community called themselves a feminist, so I took this as a welcome time to figure out who a feminist is. Is she someone that talks in class? If so, I’m not sure I can be a feminist. Is she someone that always speaks her mind? That doesn’t sound like me either.
Normally, with matters such as these, I would have delved into weeks of research: books, websites, articles, and the like. But, it seems that the Universe had other plans for me. Without so much as a warning, I was being introduced to Feminism 101.
Prior to this time in my life, I’d always known about the Women’s Suffrage Movement. I’d known about burning bras and housewives and the glass ceiling. But, all of those concepts had seemed like… well, just concepts. They never appeared concrete or tangible. They were words in a textbook, letters on a whiteboard.
“I wanted my feminism to come from within. I wanted to discover it on my own, to understand what it meant for each and every organ within my body. I wanted to see if ‘feminist’ was another way of saying ‘Anna.’”
I wanted my feminism to come from within. I wanted to discover it on my own, to understand what it meant for each and every organ within my body. I wanted to see if “feminist” was another way of saying “Anna.”
“She’s the British version of Tina Fey” was the headline that marked the beginning of my feminist awakening. These seven words caught my attention, making me venture into the library and request the book/woman that they were describing. A book called How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran.
I requested this book with the intention to learn more about the British Tina Fey. I had an inkling that this book would turn out to be much more, but I pushed that aside. I was still storing the word “feminist” in my mouth, so I had no time for inklings.
“So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.
a) Do you have a vagina? and
b) Do you want to be in charge of it?
If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”
I know it’s cliché to say this, but these words truly “hit me like a ton of bricks.” Ms. Moran’s words, before my very eyes, came up out of the page and rested themselves in my mouth. These words joined hands with the word “feminist” and started urging me to speak. These words whispered, “It’s time, Anna. The taste test is over.”
“I am a feminist,” I stated, out loud, for the world to hear. Okay, it was only my cat, but you get the picture.
“I have a vagina. And yes, I want to be in charge of it. I am a feminist.”
Within seconds, it felt as if I was holding the world in my soft, yet bony palm. I was looking backward and forward, examining my life from a feminist perspective.
“I am in school because of feminism. I am wearing what I am wearing right now because of feminism. People think I’m smart because of feminism. I can have dreams because of feminism,” were a few of the thoughts floating around in my mind.
I might as well have gotten out a label maker, printed out “FEMINIST,” and pasted it across my forehead for all to see.
But, instead, I told no one. I said nothing. I wrapped the word feminist within my coat, keeping in nice and warm for another day.
Once again, the all-powerful Universe had other plans.
A month later, I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. A few months later, I went to college. Many months later, I started writing about my experience with mental illness for class. Then, these words poured out into online articles. About a year later, I started writing about feminism, too. My life became a game of dominoes.
“When I wrote about mental illness, I was, essentially, writing about feminism. I was telling my story, I was speaking my mind, and, yes, I was letting the world know that I – a young woman – had something to say. In other words, feminism!”
When I wrote about mental illness, I was, essentially, writing about feminism. At the time, I didn’t realize it. But, now, all of the jigsaw puzzle pieces have fallen into place. I was telling my story, I was speaking my mind, and, yes, I was letting the world know that I – a young woman – had something to say. In other words, feminism!
You probably know this already, but one of two things will happen when you announce to someone that you are a feminist: (1) they will expect you to rant about the injustices of the world, right then and there, or (2) they will not care and will act as if you just told them the weather report.
In my experience, I’ve gotten myself into a lot of (1) scenarios. Here is my personal favorite:
I was talking to a young woman that is several years younger than me. We were discussing what she was learning in class. Yup (you guessed it), she was learning about feminism.
“You know, I’m a feminist,” I stated, smiling to let her know that she had nothing to fear.
“Oh. Really?” she asked, pausing for an explanation.
“Yes. Feminism means that you believe in equality. It’s that simple.”
“Okay. Cool,” was her only response.
She didn’t get it.
A week later, Beyoncé performed at the VMAs before a backdrop of the word “FEMINIST.”
Two days later, I saw the young, feminist-questioning girl again. We discussed her school life and came upon the ever-present feminist discussion. It was almost as if feminism was a boomerang that had been set off the last time we met and was coming back around again.
“…which is what us feminists believe,” was how she chose to end whatever statement she’d been speaking in the midst of our conversation.
“Hmmm?” I asked, wondering about this sudden change in understanding.
“You know, us feminists,” she stated, looking at me like I just didn’t get it.
Then, I remembered that, a minute ago, we had been discussing the VMAs. She had seen Beyoncé’s performance.
Now that Beyoncé labeled herself as a feminist, it was okay for this young girl to do so as well.
“Yes, us feminists sure do believe that,” I retorted.
In that moment, I could see that she was still tasting the word “feminist” over in her mouth, but she jumped the gun. She was using this word before she was ready, before her time. I could see that there were several other words being stored in her chipmunk-like cheeks, waiting for their final judgment day.
“Feminist” was waiting in the back of the line, right next to “political standpoint?”
I wanted to write down the name of Caitlin Moran’s book for my companion. I wanted to guide her, show her that this word had weight. I wanted to scream, “You still don’t get it! Give yourself a chance to understand!”
But, I didn’t. It wasn’t my place.
Feminism is not a definition that can be perused in the dictionary. It is a word that must be discovered, a word that must have a flashlight shown upon it in the darkness of our minds’ depths.
With any label, we can swish it around in a pool of saliva for as long as we want, but, sooner or later, this label is going to walk up to you, when you least expect it, in a burst of color and light, and say, “I’m here! Now, what’s it gonna be?”
Anna Catarina Gragert is an eclectic writer, photographer, blogger, and Audrey Hepburn enthusiast. Some of her many writings and/or photographs have been published with The Horror Writers Association, RiverLit, Pea River Journal,You & Me Medical Magazine, White Ash Literary Magazine, Thought Catalog, and HelloGiggles.