Internalized Oppression: why we aren't who we think we are (halleluja!)
I've been thinking about internalized oppression quite a bit. When I examine the contents of my everyday thoughts I often notice a few things:
- Good lord are they ever repetitive.
- I have no idea where some of them come from, but they don't come from me.
We come into this world neutral and unformed. Our very survival depends on quickly absorbing any and all information so that we can navigate the context of our environment and gain independence. Learning how to describe or explain ourselves in the context of our history, upbringing, and surroundings doesn't change who we really have been since the beginning. In other words the description we give something doesn't change the actual nature of the thing.
As an example: I recently watched an excellent TED talk by Caroline Heldman on the topic of sexual objectification.
Here, for your viewing pleasure, is my graphic recording summary and the video:
Fist let me say that I believe sexual objectification extends to more than just women and girls, and that I don't believe men really benefit from this system either. It limits all of us to narrow roles, and that's not good for anybody.
What I love about this talk, is that I was immediately able to see how internalizing the sexual objectification of women in the media had affected not only how I saw myself, but almost every aspect of my interactions with others. The insecurity, the constant need to prove something, the need to compete, were suddenly and obviously not inherent characteristics of mine but a simple misunderstanding of my own nature. Subjects act, objects are acted on. As a human person, I am a subject.
Growing up in a culture that largely objectifies women couldn't actually turn me into an object. Even seeing myself as an object couldn't actually turn me into an object. All it could do is inform the way that I interact in the world.
I don't mean to imply that this isn't a big deal. On the contrary, internalizing objectification had a devastating effect on my confidence, creativity, independence and relationships. Helplessness, hopelessness, anger, manipulation, eating disorders, depression, overly identifying with Jane Austen novels... I've been there, like so many other girls.
The thing is: I control how I interact with the world. If I'm not really an object, then its as simple as correcting a bad habit. (Note: I said simple, not easy). I actually laugh when I think about some of the ways I used to act because it's like watching myself walk around all hunched over as if to avoid a low ceiling that isn't even there. Its awkward and completely unnecessary. I can completely understand why I thought it was necessary given the context, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stay hunched over when I could stand up tall.
I've talked about sexual objectification because it is foremost in my mind at the moment, but internalized oppression is vast and varied. Our oppression lenses are forged from a million different sources: school is a big one for many (myself included). Friends, family, media, that thing your cousin said that one time... all of these things can become part of our self-concept. We are so highly evolved to absorb all information possible in order to navigate our complex social structures in which connection means survival.
It can be hard to tell that we are intact under the weight of our judgements and beliefs about ourselves (and consequently, everyone else). But judgements and beliefs can't change your very nature (or anyone else's). It takes courage and compassion to begin basing our self concepts off who we really are rather than all the things we know about ourselves and the world. But, it's probably worth it.
PS: I still enjoy Jane Austen novels, but more for the character development than the fantasy that a Mr. Darcy-esque character will come take me away from "all this". I quite like "all this" now.
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