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Blackburn 101: Internalized Misogyny

As our recent post about the leaked audio of Donald Trump advocating sexual assault highlighted, internalized misogyny is a very real phenomenon. It is an insidious issue in our culture, fueled by the sexism and misogyny that every girl and woman experiences throughout their lives. Today, we’re taking a look at what exactly internalized misogyny is — and how we can fight back against it.

In the United States, there are pervasive stereotypes and myths about women and girls that we find in almost all aspects of our culture. From the lie that girls don’t like (or aren’t good at) science and math to the myth that women are emotionally unstable and manipulative, our society is steeped in misogyny. It isn’t surprising that girls who grow up in this toxic stew start to believe these negative things about women and girls — because they have heard these sexist messages repeated throughout their lifetimes, often from trusted adults like parents, teachers and other authority figures.

As a consequence of hearing these lies, stereotypes and myths, girls and women often internalize these messages. They believe that all women are catty, that women are (or should be) passive, that rape victims must have “asked for it,” or that women just are not as smart and capable as men. These beliefs are reinforced by the men in their lives, who also grew up hearing the same messages about women and girls and who act accordingly. This isn’t a voluntary assumption of a worldview, but an involuntary process because we are socialized to believe these things to be true. Nobody is born sexist; we pick up these attitudes as we grow, observe, learn and understand the society that we live in — which happens to be a misogynistic one.

The upshot of this absorption of sexist messages is that many women have negative ideas about women and girls — despite being women. That is internalized misogyny.

Internalized misogyny presents in different ways. It can be a female politician who dismisses horribly sexist remarks advocating sexual assault as “bad boy talk.” It can be a woman who says that a rape victim was “asking for it” by dressing a certain way, or calling someone who accuses a man of sexual assault a tramp. It can be saying “I’m not like other girls,” as a way to show that you’re different and better than the negative stereotypes. It can be saying that you don’t get along with other women or girls because they’re “too much drama.” It can be blaming a victim of domestic violence for being or staying with her abusive partner.

It can also result in a negative self-image, as women internalize messages about how they should look or act. Many women or girls find themselves unacceptable, with body image issues and eaten disorders often driven by these primarily male cultural expectations. It can cause women to question or doubt themselves, saying things like, “I may be wrong, but….” or “It was nothing” to downplay accomplishments.

Internalized misogyny prevents girls and women from forming healthy relationships with each other. It contributes to isolation, which can then be exploited by abusers. And it can lead women and girls to define themselves in very negative terms.

So what can we do to combat internalized misogyny? The first step is to acknowledge that it exists. Never assume that just because a woman said something that it cannot possibly be sexist or misogynistic; because of internalized misogyny, women are just as capable of making negative, untrue remarks about other women. Next, challenge your own beliefs. When you find yourself saying something negative about another woman, whether it is about the way she is dressed, her body or her morals, stop and think. Why are you saying this? Is it because you have been conditioned by society to think that women should look, act or be a certain way? Finally, call out sexism and misogyny in all of its forms — from both women and men, girls and boys. Be an example, and change the pattern of socialization that leads our girls and boys to internalize these harmful myths about women. Challenging an engrained thought process like internalized misogyny is difficult, but we can make a difference through our own actions.

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