I Choose to be Feminist & Free
By Salomé Gómez-Upegui
I want people to like me. There, I said it. I want people to like me, and it’s a very annoying flaw that involves a lot of shifting. Caring about being liked means I often do things I don’t want to. I let inappropriate comments slide, and make up long-ass stories in my mind regarding what everyone –ranging from my parents to the leaders in my field— must think about my thoughts, choices, and attitudes. I regularly fall into the Instagram vortex, looking for memes and well-designed quotes that say things like “be true to yourself”, “what other people think about you is none of your business” or “do you” –and frankly, I imagine a universe where they’re written with a “Dear Salomé” at the beginning. I do my best to remember these phrases daily.
Of course, as a woman, there is the ever-present belief that to be liked I need to smile more. A far from easy feat since what is socially recognized as a resting bitch face is actually my normal face. It’s my normal face, as it is for many women because I feel safest when I look focused and in control. Unsurprisingly, a focused and in control woman is synonymous to a bitch. Yet, I learned very early on in life that this is the face that would keep away sleazy catcallers, creepy co-workers, and random douchebags at bars. It’s my normal face, my safe-space face, and the face that makes a lot of people think, upon meeting me, that I’m probably not the nicest person in the room.
Towards the end of my undergrad, when I started dipping my toes into feminist waters, I felt right at home in these “strange” social circles where it was O.K. to smile whenever I felt safe to do so. Where I wasn’t judged for my resting bitch face, and it was actually just my resting face. In these spaces, for the first time ever, my rough edges weren’t demonized, they where applauded.
I felt right at home in these circles, so I stayed for good. I felt seen by women who weren’t afraid to speak up. I felt connected to human beings who had many of the same fears and similar dreams as I did. I went from feeling like something was always off in conservative Catholic circles, to being remarkably relaxed in liberal feminist scenarios. I loved that feeling of belonging, so I stayed. I took a plunge into this previously unknown sea of authenticity and knowledge and here I am.
In this world where there’s a never-ending list of reasons to feel angry, feeling safe about letting out the fire within, is absolutely comforting. When and where my anger can be spontaneously expressed, I feel free.
In the United States, one of the countries I call home, initiatives to hold space for women’s rage have skyrocketed since we entered the Donald Trump parallel universe. Multiple books on women’s anger have sprouted simultaneously, as flowers do in spring. Good & Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger by Rebecca Traister, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly, and Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney C. Cooper, all came out around the same time, reflecting that this ever-present feeling has reached a peak and is ready for the spotlight.
These books took center stage last year, right around the time the Kavanaugh hearings were going on, and I applauded their existence because validation for my deep burning rage was precisely what I needed when I saw Christine Blasey Ford heroically endure that shit show. I felt grateful for the feminist circles that allowed me to vent, and feel, and scream, and express all the passion that stemmed from within. I was relieved to see prominent women talk about anger unapologetically.
As I paid more attention to this subject, I began to increasingly catch generalized calls that made me double-take. “Stay mad”; “don’t forget how angry you are right now”; “women’s anger will change the world”; “feminism is as strong as women’s anger”; “embrace the angry feminist stereotype”; the classic “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention”, and I could go on and on. It’s not that I hadn’t heard this line of phrases before, they’ve been around forever, they’re a feminist historical staple. But seeing so many of them at the same time put the whole thing into an entirely new perspective.
These ideas equating the level and perpetuation of my anger to the power of my feminism sounded awfully similar to the phrases I’d heard for years telling me my womanhood was only as powerful as the width of my smile. I was shocked to see how many of the same women who have passionately fought for freedom were awfully quick to create a strict set of rules for those who aspire to be “feminist enough.” I felt confused because I want people to like me. Hell, I want my feminist idols to like me. Yet as much as I don’t want to smile because I have to, I don’t want to “stay mad” because I’m expected to do so.
Reflecting upon this served as a clear reminder of how easy it is, as feminists, to fall into the same patriarchal traps we’re persistently trying to escape. I thought about this universal call for sustained fury as a consequence of seeing feminism as a blob of unidentifiable women, as opposed to a movement composed of individual sentient beings with lives and dreams of their own. Feminism is not an unintelligible angry mob. The movement is made up of people who navigate feelings, contradictions, and yes, frequently anger, in their everyday lives.
I thought about this call for permanent fury as also exposing yet another consequence of the idea of female sacrifice. An expectation we haven’t been able to shed –not even within feminism! In this world, women are still born to give infinitely and selflessly for causes considered greater than ourselves, which are most, if not all. In this brand of “stay mad feminism,” you’re expected to offer time, resources, and anger to the movement. Give yourself entirely. Ideally, become a weapon against the patriarchy, because your anger, no matter the personal cost of it, is the ultimate route to political progress.
The place this reflection has taken me is one of further personal liberation, as contemplations about feminism frequently do. It’s made me realize more deeply something oddly obvious about my humanity, that I’m seriously considering I should tattoo on a visible part of my body: it’s impossible to make everyone happy.
Just recently, since I moved to Seattle, a city that could not be further away from Colombia -the other country I call home- I’ve slowly begun to shed my people-pleasing armor. I’m not sure why now, perhaps distance from my “normal life” is what’s doing the trick. But the fact that I’m the only person who needs to take myself seriously is beginning to sink in -and damn it’s a good feeling.
I’m finally beginning to comprehend that not even in the spaces I’ve felt the most liberated, like feminism, will I find the coveted how-to guide on living life. Stringent rules that do exist and leave no room for nuance are unrealistic dead ends, even when leaving the mouths of idols. I don’t want to “stay mad,” so I won't. I don’t want to “smile more,” so I won't. I want people to like me, the actual me. I choose to be feminist and free.