The Flip Side of Feminism

I have dedicated my professional life to empowering women and girls through creativity. It’s something I am deeply passionate about. But there is another side of this issue that, based on a few recent conversations with friends, I feel compelled to acknowledge. The issue: women competing with or tearing other women down. It is possibly the most damaging form of misogyny because it occurs within spaces where we are meant to feel safe.

Growing up, from four years old on, soccer was my life. The summer after 8th grade a bunch of my friends and I signed up for a soccer camp put on by the high school soccer coaches. It was a great way to get to know them before tryouts. And we had so much fun. My friend and I got co-MVP of camp and, after years of playing together we couldn’t wait to start playing on the high school team.

Eleven of us freshman made the varsity soccer team. Everything was lining up perfectly. Our new coach had played college soccer at Berkeley and was the first real-life feminist I’d ever known. Everyone loved and looked up to her. I couldn’t wait to learn, be inspired and most of all, become a better player.

In my conservative upbringing “feminist” was a word spoken in disdainful tones and everything “girly” was valued as lesser. If my brothers or I were told we punched, hit or threw “like a girl” it was the ultimate insult. I didn’t want to be one. I wasn’t confused about my gender identity, I just didn’t want to be lesser. So I didn’t cry in front of people. I was tough. I didn’t mind getting dirty. I didn’t care about things like clothes, hair and makeup. I happily identified as a tomboy.

That season started with my new coach changing my position. I went from defense to midfield and, while I’ve always hated distance running, I was good at dribbling so it seemed like maybe it would be a good fit. But no matter how well I played in practice, my coach wouldn’t play me in games. I was almost never on the field. By my sophomore year I was less excited but still ready to play. And again, same thing.

This made me feel a little crazy. Had I not deserved the co-MVP award in the first place? Why wasn’t there a place for me? My teammates seemed to be having the exact opposite experience. They openly adored and looked up to our coach. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. By the end of that second season I couldn’t take it anymore. I was beginning to hate soccer.

I told my coach that I had decided not to play my junior year. She seemed offended by my choice and made a comment about me needing to be careful not to get fat because I wasn’t playing anymore. Yes, my feminist coach told me, a teenage girl, to watch my weight. 

For so many of us, finding an empowered woman to learn from and look up to is intoxicating. But, when she seems to dislike you for no apparent reason and has zero interest in encouraging you, it’s devastating. It’s devastating in a deeper way than overt criticism. Criticism gives a path for action. This felt personal. Like I wasn’t even worth the critique. This was a woman who was entrusted to mold and teach girls how to become young women. Instead, I felt crushed and dismissed.

With my teammates and friends having the exact opposite experience, I felt alone and ashamed. Apart from my best friend, I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone else about it. Years past high school, when this coach was praised, I would smile and pretend to go along with it. But every time I did it eroded my connections to my team, my friends and to a larger extent, all women. I couldn’t trust them with my truth.

I ended up playing club soccer in the spring of my junior year. It was a traveling team with some girls from my high school team and from two nearby schools. I had the best season of my life. It reignited my love for the sport and reminded me how good it felt being part of a team. My high school coach came to one of our games and seemed completely shocked at how well I played. 

So my senior year I decided to play varsity soccer again. I wanted to finish high school having played my final year with the friends I’d played with since childhood. I knew I needed to make it up to my coach so I ran extra laps after practice every day. I practiced penalty kicks and juggling all the time. At some point during that season I had won so many PK shootouts at practice that I was no longer allowed to collect the prizes.

Fast forward to the final game of my senior year. We were going into overtime and penalty kicks. I had yet to step on the field. I felt certain that my PK record alone, not to mention this being the final game of my senior year would force her to put me in. But she didn’t. In the final game of my final year of high school, I didn’t even get to step on the field. And when we lost, everyone else cried. They were devastated. But I felt nothing. And worse than the nothing was the rage that began to simmer in the weeks and months that followed. 

What did this coach have against me? How could she be this inspiration to everyone else and be so cruel to me? What did I do to deserve it? To this day I have no idea what she had against me. What I do know is that experience destroyed my trust in feminism. It has taken decades for me to repair the damage, to let women in. To engage fully. And yet I still find myself regularly surprised at how incredible and supportive my community of women is. Some part of me is still waiting for the betrayal. 

I think, as women, far too many of us have had at least one of these experiences. And to anyone who is feeling isolated and alone, I want you to know that there are so many women out there who can’t wait to lift you up. To see and honor you for all that you are. We are all around you.

To any women who recognize themselves on the other side, I want you to know that I understand. For far too long women have been competing over the one chair reserved for women at the table. You needed to pull yourself up even if it meant pushing another woman down. But I want you to know that there is a better way. Whether there is enough room at the old table is irrelevant. We are building a new, inclusive table, where all are welcome and encouraged to support one another.

No one wins when we keep each other down. It is only by lifting one another up that we all rise, together.

A SuperShero composite showcasing the superpower: empowering others. Sharisse Coulter Photography 2021

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