I would love to be able to say I’ve always been a feminist. And, in fact, if you had asked me fifteen or twenty years ago if I was a feminist, I would have said yes. I was never one of those girls or young women who think feminism belongs to some mythical hairy-underarmed, bra-burning, man-hating monsters. But honestly, I didn’t even know what the word meant back then. I would have said yes because I was a Lisa Simpson-esque goody-two-shoes who would identify with, and pledge allegiance to, any social justice-related cause. I wanted to save the world, even though I had no idea what I was saving it from. But if you look at some of the life decisions I made back then (case in point, moving in with an idiot right out of high school because he said all the right adoring words), you’d know I was clueless at best, a hypocrite at worst.

However, it wasn’t until I became a mother that I began to understand—via the obstacles I suddenly saw in my baby daughter’s future—what feminism really is, and what it means to me. My partner remarked one evening when I was making an impassioned speech (aka ranting) about some topic or another, that I had become “quite feministic” since I gave birth. He seemed to think that I had undergone some sort of weird brain-change that came along with pregnancy hormones and the headiness of creating life. But it wasn’t anything as uncontrollable or random or mother-of-the-earth as all that; feminism did not come to me by accident or incident, but because I still want the world to change, but now I want it to change because I will watch my daughter live in it, grow up in it, and become a woman in it. And I wish her to have every opportunity to be happy and successful, without the extra hardships that will come her way just because of her sex.

Nowadays I’m fairly sure my Facebook friends roll their eyes each time I post yet another article, picture, or rant about body/fat-shaming, politicians trying to dictate what women do with their bodies, genderising of toys, etc. But although it’s been five years since I “found feminism”, I’m still not totally confident with my place in it. I still question my decisions, my likes and dislikes, my choice of books and films . . . should I like this [insert entertainment product]? Are those misogynistic undertones I detect? Or have I become too sensitive? There’s a certain amount of acceptance required if you’re going to enjoy just about anything on TV, the internet, music, etc. especially if you’re in any way involved in geek culture. But even with this in mind, so many entertainment media I love walk a very fine line between simply problematic and downright misogynistic. Sometimes I can nod and accept, other times, sorry, click, fail, gone.

I have been troubled by my daughter’s insistence on wearing a skirt at all times, worried that we’ve inadvertently put too much focus on compliments that speak to her looks rather than her other traits and skills. But when I asked her why she needed a skirt over her track pants, she told me she loves them because she loves to “twirl and twirl, and Mummy, twirling isn’t as much fun in pants.” She’s got me there. And phew! But the time will come when our clothing battles will edge into the frightening territory of appealing to boys, keeping up with her friends, and wanting to look like whatever half- (or fully) naked pop star or teen idol is dominating the world by then. There will come a time when, despite all I do to convince her that her mind, heart, and will are more important than her looks, she will groan, and roll her eyes, because she just wants to be pretty. Or sexy. Even whistled at. Adored (see above). And I’ll know exactly how that feels, because I was a too short, too skinny, weird-looking, awkward late-bloomer who suddenly got a curvy figure at age sixteen, and didn’t know what the hell to do with it. Didn’t know that wearing a skirt that was roughly the size of a napkin was giving the wrong signal—i.e. that I was ready for attention I hadn’t the slightest idea how to handle. She’ll have to face all of this, because the world hasn’t changed as much as it should have, and in many ways has slipped further backwards.

It’s disappointing to me that so many young women shun feminism, but at the same time I understand it. To a young woman just growing into her body and herself, feminism can seem like health food: you know it’s “good for you”, but it’s boring and it makes you miss out on all the fun stuff. As a mother, I now see that feminism—like healthy food—has a lot to do with exposure and emphasis: if you’re never exposed to crap, or taught to revere it, you’ll never see its appeal. But it’s virtually impossible to keep our daughters away from the junk food equivalent of self-esteem. It’s everywhere, from the cinched-in waists of the characters on Disney Junior’s Sofia the First (as well as the other Disney princesses, but Sofia is particularly frustrating give that it’s aimed at pre-schoolers) to Barbie and Bratz dolls, to every toy store with a “pink isle,” to every person who greets our girls with “Oh, aren’t you pretty!” I want my daughter to know who she is, and love her true self, not whatever she thinks she sees in the mirror. I don’t want her, when she’s my age, to pinch at her belly fat and feel worthless, or to feel like her life is over because her eyelids are heavier, her butt isn’t as perky anymore, or because she can no longer stop traffic by walking down the street in yoga pants and a crop top (all things I’m guilty of and wish I weren’t).

These stupid, fruitless, unnecessary self-criticisms are why I found feminism in motherhood. We should be aiming for a world where our daughters grow up free from (or at least able to see with healthy perspective) the cultural junk food that devalues everything they have to offer that falls outside of a predesignated—and usually heinously unrealistic—physical form.

That Lisa Simpson-esque girl is still inside me, but now she has applied knowledge, and wants the world to change for someone else. As a mother—and perhaps that very fact is due to cultural expectation of my role—I will always put my child’s welfare and happiness ahead of my own, whether or not there is still time for my own world to change. Is it too late for my generation? Gen-Y? Millennials? Not as long as they can learn what I have learned: I may not be able to completely reverse the damage cultural junk food has done to the way I think about myself, but as long as I remain conscious of it, and am willing to stand up and speak out about what’s wrong with it, there is hope for all of us.

photo credit: Women’s Show DAAC 3-4-05 101_0340 via photopin (license)