Roxanne Gay has an essay in the Fall issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review about being a bad feminist. Well, aren’t we all?

In the essay, she confesses to loving Vogue, the colour pink, and to shaving her legs. She says she is failing as a feminist and points to what she calls “essential feminism” as a cause for her discomfort and shame:

The most significant problem with essential feminism is how it doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality. There seems to be little room for multiple or discordant points of view. Essential feminism has, for example, led to the rise of the phrase “sex-positive feminism,” which creates a clear distinction between feminists who are positive about sex and feminists who aren’t—and that in turn creates a self-fulfilling essentialist prophecy.

And righty-o to that. If there were such a thing as ‘essential feminism’, I’d say the same thing. Certainly I agree that the term “sex-positive feminism” is useless, divisive, and inaccurate. But I’m unconvinced that such a thing as “essential feminism” exists — and if it does, I doubt it’s something many feminists would identify with.

I have to admit that reading the essay initially made me feel a little bit irritable. Was it feminism’s fault that Gay felt like a failure? Was it feminism’s fault that women shied away from the label, worried about the implications of calling themselves feminist?

It’s true that there are consequences to taking on the label of ‘feminist’ and those consequences are not only that you will potentially be labeled an angry man-hater — your perspectives and arguments brushed off as a result.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as a feminist — I’ve never been the “I’m not a feminist, but…” type. But that isn’t to say I haven’t struggled with figuring out what that means to me. Which is what I think Gay is trying to do in her piece.

As I continued to read the essay, irritability shifted to recognition. I too, have often felt not only like an imperfect feminist, but a terrible one. I feel like I’m never doing enough. I feel like I’ve backtracked on issues and ideas that are important to me when in conversation with a man I’m romantically interested in. Like Gay, I never stopped listening to (and loving) raunchy and sometimes sexist hip hop (though I really hate it when rap music is singled out as being, somehow, the misogynist music genre. That isn’t to say we should give it a pass, either…).  I kind of love makeup and yes, I shave my legs too.

But those things bother me less and less. I don’t feel obligated to confess every imperfection I have or every way in which I’ve failed to look like some feminist caricature. I don’t think my eyeliner is really a very big deal in the grand scheme of things. I don’t think feminism really cares all that much whether or not I shave my legs. I think there are more important issues at hand.

What I struggle with the most isn’t the fact that I love to read tabloids on the plane or watch awful reality tv. It isn’t the soundtrack to my dance parties. It isn’t the fact that sometimes I wear dresses or lipstick. I don’t really care about all of that stuff. I’m over it. I know what it means to me to be a feminist, the trouble is often with what other people think feminism should look like.

What Gay points out, with regard to women, feels equally applicable to what so many people think it means to be a feminist. She writes:

I keep reading these articles and getting angry and tired because these articles tell me that there’s no way for women to ever get it right. These articles make it seem like there is, in fact, a right way to be a woman and a wrong way to be a woman. And the standard appears to be ever changing and unachievable.

It’s true. There is no way for women to ever get it right. We’re supposed to be so many things all at once and it’s too much. It’s the same standard that gets placed on us as feminists and I don’t think we can ever live up to it. I can’t anyway.

I can’t be together all the time. Like many women, I have self-esteem issues. There are days I hate my body. I can be totally superficial and I have a deep fear of wrinkles. I straighten my hair. I’ve made some really bad choices in the man-game and I spend too much time playing that game… I can’t count the number of times I’ve chosen the asshole over the ‘good guy’. I could go on, confessing the many issues and imperfections I have, patriarchy-related or not (though I tend to think it’s all patriarchy-related, in one way or another) but is that really useful?

Gay admits to liking men, babies, and weddings. She admits to faking orgasms and to knowing nothing about cars. So what? These are all stereotypes. Stereotypes that I hear from people who don’t identify as feminists. I don’t care if you like men or not. I don’t care if you shave your legs or not. Knowing things about cars has little to do with women’s oppression. If people think that I’ve failed at feminism because I have body issues or am afraid of aging, then they have failed to understand how a) socialization, advertising, and sexism works and b) are making feminism into a therapy session.

Feminism isn’t going to fix all your problems. It’s not a magical island you move to that enables you to forget all your troubles and insecurities. You can’t switch out your brain for an impeccably feminist one, replacing your love of the colour pink with carpentry skills. Feminists are no less complex than anyone else. We live here too. The point of feminism isn’t to become a perfect human being and if it were then I would have had to forgo the label years ago.

What does it mean to be a ‘good feminist’? And does it have anything at all to do with liking babies and the colour pink?

I’ve never once felt like I had to stop liking individual men or that I had to learn about the inner workings of cars in order to be legit. The point of feminism is to first recognize that a system called patriarchy exists, that it impacts the lives of women in a particular way, then to challenge and work towards an end to that system. Of course this can mean different things to different people, but the fact that, as individual feminists, we may or may not like dresses and makeup is not reason to beat ourselves up or feel ashamed. It certainly doesn’t mean we are ‘bad feminists’.

That said, I can relate to the pressure Gay puts on herself:

Because I have so many deeply held opinions about gender equality, I feel a lot of pressure to live up to certain ideals. I am supposed to be a good feminist who is having it all, doing it all. Really, though, I’m a woman in her thirties, struggling to accept herself. For so long I told myself I was not this woman—utterly human and flawed. I worked overtime to be anything but this woman, and it was exhausting and unsustainable, and even harder than simply embracing who I am.

I think this experience is universal. Struggling to accept ourselves and maybe failing doesn’t make us ‘bad feminists’. It makes us human.

There’s no such thing as ‘essential feminism’. There are people who may well expect certain things of you because you identify as a feminist, but those expectations are, more often than not, stereotypes and myths.

Gay seems to get this:

At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths anymore. I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done.

But she then goes on to say she is a ‘bad feminist’. Well, ok. Then we’re all ‘bad feminists’. Because I doubt there is a woman out there who has managed to eschew every aspect of patriarchal conditioning. Don’t we have enough trouble learning to not hate ourselves as women in a misogynist world without beating ourselves up for being imperfect feminists too?

I don’t think Roxanne Gay is a ‘bad feminist’ and I don’t think I am either. I think I’m just trying to function in this world as best I can and at least I have feminism to help me sort through the complexities of all that. I think there are extremely important and urgent issues we need to be working on and if, in the meantime, we are doing that work in a pink dress, it’s of little concern.

Every single thing we do in every aspect of our lives isn’t going to be feminist. It just isn’t. This is how we got into this “my stilettos are empowering” crap in the first place. We think that because we are feminists, every move we make must also be feminist. And so we try to invent ways for lingerie and nail polish to be about female empowerment. They aren’t. Get over it. You’re a feminist who also likes mascara. You’re a feminist who gets blow outs. You’re a feminist who’s slept with some sleezebags (Hey, sometimes sleezebags are hot. It’s confusing.). That doesn’t make mascara or blow outs or sleeping with sleezebags feminist. It also doesn’t mean you lose your feminist card.

Just like we can’t “have it all”, we can’t do it all. We can’t be everything. We can’t live up to everyone else’s standards and trying to do that can only result in a constant sense of failure and shame.

I think it’s important to remember that feminism is bigger than ourselves. That doesn’t mean we have to ignore ourselves or that we shouldn’t try to do better or feel better. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t notice and question our behaviour, understanding that it exists within a larger context and that that larger context is extremely hard on women. But spending all of our energy kicking ourselves for flirting with a douchebag or faking an orgasm isn’t going to get us anywhere.