I am sometimes reluctant to tell clients about my background because when any of us compare our experiences, we jump right into saying, “I’m not experiencing real sexism.” No matter who had the more extreme experience, we either feel like the bigger victim or the bigger whiner. So, I share this because I have had the great privilege of seeing life through the lens of straightforward, honest sexism, but not to compare any of our experiences.
When you grow up with the lessons I learned as a kid, you can see the outgrowths of sexism clearly, without the shame people have if they were raised to believe “sexism is evil.” I’ve noticed that when people believe that sexism is evil, it contributes to their need to ignore and avoid it, which does not help end it. I would not have identified it as “sexism” when I was young because I was raised to understand it was “the truth.”
I have one of those backgrounds that seems normal to me, but that I know has some shock value when I announce it in public. “I was raised in a cult.” My brother likes to test out different ways to tell people to create the best shock value, but I’m so demure that I would never. Other than writing it in a book.
I was raised in a religious cult, and its core message was that women are evil. I went through a phase in my life where I thought that maybe I was exaggerating when I said that, but my brother, who is an investigative journalist, revisited the cult as an adult and assures me that I am not exaggerating.
I remember, as a 7-year-old, reading one of the magazines that the cult published and seeing a cartoon. The cartoon showed a young heterosexual couple, with a barrel chested, huge man, and a tiny child-like woman. I believe they were in wedding clothes. It had six frames, and in each frame, the woman got bigger as the man got smaller, until the woman was obese, and the man was in a casket. The cartoon and the message of the cult had a big impact on me as a little girl. I knew there was something wrong with my mom (a message that she whole-heartedly believed), and that my dad was the head of the household. I knew that if I got bigger, it would hurt men.
(I have never been able to find this cartoon again, so if you find it, please send to me at Meredith@ErisResolution.com. Important note: I do not, however, recommend googling “cartoon woman gets bigger man gets smaller.” Awkward results. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
Our family did not stay in the religious cult, and although my parents loudly proclaimed the evils of hypnotism and indoctrination, their core values did not change – women were still evil. They shifted to attending mainstream mega churches, but it was not very different to hear about why women should remain silent in church and can’t become pastors than to openly hear explanations about why women are evil. At that point, I believed that message, and so the contemporary Christian dressing up of “women are evil” didn’t even seem like lipstick on a pig. It was like lipstick on your friend who your parents bring to Thanksgiving every year. In my understanding, it was just the truth.
I became a feminist in college, which was the first time I read that feminism was not about destroying men, but about helping women. I was shocked. I went home and showed what I had read to my roommate. She, having grown up in the same small town as I, was also shocked. We had long conversations, even losing sleep, about the possibility that feminism was about helping women, not destroying men. (I’m not going to lie, I think that within the past six months we have had a conversation, losing sleep, about how feminism is not about men. Some conversations are just worth having over and over.) We imagined what that could look like for us. We wanted to help women, but we had never wanted to be shrill.
Don’t worry, we eventually became the shrill feminists we were always meant to be. 😉
What are some messages you’ve believed that have skewed your perception of yourself or others? How do you think that has impacted you? And, what have you learned as a result? Would love to hear! Simply email me at email@example.com to share.