UniteWomen.org is circulating a powerful statement made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a 2010 interview. When asked what designers she wears, Secretary Clinton replied with a question: “Would you ever ask a man that question?” The interviewer conceded, “Probably not.” By forcing the interviewer to acknowledge the sexist nature of the question, Secretary Clinton turned sexism on itself, rather than allowing it to turn on her. This skill is an essential one for all women to learn, but it is very difficult to master.
That’s because we’ve internalized the idea that appearance is just as important—if not more so—than brainpower or accomplishment for women, though not for men. And when we believe something about ourselves, we don’t protest when someone else believes it too: instead, we give fuel to the fire of our own destruction. And we never even realize we’re doing it—it happens faster than you can say Armani.
To change this dynamic, to change ourselves, we have to work from the inside out. We have to be stronger than the sexist messages we are bombarded with every day; we have to be so strong, in fact, that we act like a boomerang, just as Secretary Clinton did. But we don’t all have to do it so dramatically. For most women, disowning sexism simply means owning ourselves.
In a May, 2012 article for the New York Times entitled “Black Women’s Transition to Natural Hair,” Zina Saro-Wiwa discusses a beautiful example of women owning their bodies despite external pressure to change themselves. Ms. Saro-Wiwa set out to explore why so many black women are allowing their hair to grow naturally, rather than treating it with harmful chemicals (which our culture, via the media, encourages them to do). As Ms. Saro-Wiwa put it, “Demonstrating this level of self-acceptance represents a powerful evolution in black political expression. If racial politics has led to an internalization of self-loathing, then true transformation will come internally, too.”
In other words, black women are working from the inside out to embrace their natural, beautiful selves, rather than allowing sexist, racist messages to form their self-perceptions from the outside in.
If this journey were an easy one, we’d all have made it by now. So how do we do it—how do we refuse to internalize negative messages about ourselves? In her discussion of black women’s hair, Ms. Saro-Wiwa used the words “journey” and “transition.” Those are powerful words, and they hold the truth of this experience, which is a deeply personal one. We must each identify the wrong messages we’ve come to believe about ourselves: first, as external messages, second, as wrong messages. Then we must heal.
Healing takes time, work, patience, faith, and forgiveness. And it’s worth every difficult minute. It’s worth holding every slight you’ve received from the bully pulpit of culture up to the light of truth and saying, “No, I don’t believe you. That’s not true about me. You don’t even know me. Who are you to tell me I’m not smart enough, or pretty enough, or that something is wrong with the form that God gave me? Who are you to tell me that I must be relegated to the silly, the superficial, even when I have power and influence?”
If every woman interrogated her internal messages the way that Secretary Clinton interrogated that interviewer, we’d own ourselves in unprecedented ways. We’d be free. And we’d know that no one—not even a person with a camera, a microphone, and a thousand unforgiving lights—can treat us with less respect than we deserve.