All I wanted was a red bikini.
I had just finished 8th grade, and as a reward for surviving middle school, the PTO planned a private pool party for my graduating class. It seemed that the only thing standing between me and my ultimate happiness was my mother’s strict “no bikinis before 16” rule.
But I was determined. So, I scraped together my allowance and abandoned my dad in Target to go “buy a friend a birthday present.” In the end, despite my hard-fought victory, I was too self-conscious to wear the bikini to the pool party.
At 13, I desperately wanted to be looked at, but I was also terrified of it. I already internalized what author bell hooks calls the “female’s first lesson in the school of patriarchal thinking and values,” which is that we, as girls, must earn love. We are not entitled to love and need to be good to be loved. I was (and still am) working on my own definition of good because, as hooks wrote, “good is always defined by someone on the outside.”
Women in the United States are socialized to desire patriarchal validation, which often comes in the form of male attention. For those of us who grow up with fathers, we are taught to be, as hooks put it, “the perfect Daddy’s girl who fears losing his approval.” As girls, we are encouraged to cling to youth as society delights in our infantilization. But hooks concludes that “as we develop willpower and independent thought that the world stops affirming us.”
The tragedy is that most young girls show the same levels of social confidence as their male peers until they reach puberty. Between the ages of 8 and 14, young women experience a 30 percent drop in self-confidence while boys’ self-confidence grows (unfortunately, there has yet to be any research conducted on how non-binary children experience the confidence gap).
American culture and media both tell women, directly and subliminally, that our power comes from how we perform sexuality and femininity. Although I was raised by a fierce feminist, the world around me taught me that if I adhered to beauty standards and received male attention, I would be successful. That validation would renew the confidence that puberty robbed me of.
Despite this constant messaging telling us that attention is power, women who are seen as attention-seeking are constantly degraded, reduced to words like “slut” and diagnosed with “daddy issues.” Society ridicules women for desiring the very thing we are taught to want.
On the other hand, the advent of feminism introduced a new standard for women. She’s the effortless, latex-clad badass who is impossibly good at everything. She’s “not like other girls," a compliment that implies that a whole gender is inferior. We see this woman come to life in characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Catwoman, and Catherine Tramell. These women defy expectations and are incredibly sexualized. Though they reject traditional femininity, they are still performing gender for the male gaze.
This also extends to how we think about love and validation. Feminism liberated women in so many ways, but it also perpetuated the idea that women who want love or a heterosexual marriage are weak. “The feminist movement did not change female obsession with love, nor did it offer new ways to think about love. It told us we were better off if we stopped thinking about love,” hooks wrote.
Some women sought refuge in queerness, bringing popularity to “political lesbianism,” or the idea that women could reject heterosexuality voluntarily as an act of political defiance. Today, the idea is more controversial because the American Psychological Association has put forth research stating that “psychologists do not consider sexual orientation to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed.” However, during the Second Wave of feminism, lesbianism provided an escape outside of the male-dominated household.
Though these women were able to find some reprieve from patriarchal household structures, they continued to struggle with internalized misogyny, a term we didn’t have until the nineties. Progress in social psychology and feminist thought has helped us to understand the ways women have been psychologically impacted by sexism, but we still experience its effects in our day-to-day lives.
Modern lesbians, queer women, and non-binary individuals continually question why they feel the need for male validation. Often, these conversations take place online. On TikTok alone, there are hundreds of videos about male validation with comments like, “Does anyone constantly crave male validation even though you feel no attraction to them and feel disgusting after getting it” and “I’ve come to terms with my identity as a lesbian but I always wish a guy would fall in love with me so I can feel pretty enough.” This isn’t an isolated experience. These videos have hundreds of thousands of likes and comments.
For many women and non-binary individuals, it can be confusing to understand our desires and whether they’re truly ours. Do I want sex because I genuinely like someone or because I’ve been taught to please? Do I want to wear that dress because I feel good in it or because I want to be looked at? Is it wrong to want to be looked at?
When we start pulling at the threads of gender socialization and performance, the patriarchal tapestry of ideals begins to unravel. And it’s a headache. Our emotional landscapes have been shaped by external forces. How can we claim our identities when we are so overshadowed by the image of who we are supposed to be? hooks wrote, “As females in a patriarchal culture, we were not slaves of love; most of us were and are slaves of longing--yearning for a master who will claim us and set us free because we cannot claim ourselves.”
So, how do we begin to claim ourselves?
We have to stop shaming ourselves and other women for seeking male validation. We have to let go of the guilt we feel for desiring attention. This isn’t to say that we should accept patriarchal ideals. We have to give ourselves grace and allow ourselves space to claim our own identities.
We have to embrace the 13-year-old who desperately wants a red bikini and gently help her see that she always has been, and always will be, worthy of love.
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