Radical Red: Get Me Some Self-Esteem
I've been hearing a lot of people lately talking about the problems they're having in providing care and services for HIV-positive women, or women at risk for infection. Women, it seems, don't take care of themselves very well. They don't show up for appointments. They aren't very compliant with medications. They run themselves ragged taking care of the family and the house . . .they never take time off for rest and relaxation . . . and they still aren't very good at that "consistent condom use" thing, even after all these years! These "challenges," we're told, have a lot to do with women's low sense of self-worth and assertiveness in taking control of their lives. Over and over again, we hear clinicians, social workers, and prevention people declaring, "Someone has got to get women some self-esteem! Women have got to start taking better care of themselves!"
And you know what? This is absolutely true -- women do need greater self-esteem, and we do need to start taking better care of ourselves. Unfortunately, we still have a shitload of work to do while we're developing this self-esteem, and we still have a lot of institutionalized sexist tree stumps blocking our path to improved self-care. So before we get that self-esteem, can we try a little anger?
As for the many people who are actively concerned about our low self-esteem, I'm sure folks won't mind rising to the occasion in order to help us out. So while all the world's HIV-positive and at-risk women go on a big Paths-To-Wellness Retreat for a few days, we'd like everyone else to address some of our more noticeable "challenges." We limited it to a random five (didn't want to overwhelm anyone), so here you go:
If you abuse women or girls, knock it off and get some help. If you see girls or women being abused in any of the above-mentioned ways (and if you don't see it at least once an hour, you're not looking very hard), do something! If you are a man, examine both your own actions toward women and your interactions with other men when talking about and interacting with women. Refuse to support "male-bonding" activities that involve disrespect and/or violence toward women and girls. If you are a woman, examine the image of womanhood you reflect to other women, especially girls. Refuse to support aspects of "femininity" that bring down our self-esteem, including acrimony among women. We need to help each other be strong, not tear each other down. And anything we can get for ourselves here needs to be expanded to include women everywhere, or we won't have the right to feel very good about our "progress." We all deserve safety and good health, no matter where we live or what we look like.
Women's self-esteem will grow when the people with the greatest power to affect change start acting like women matter -- like women are human beings whose life realities are to be taken seriously and addressed. Telling women to "get some self-esteem" and "take better care of themselves" without acknowledging our reality is like telling closeted gay men to come out in a roomful of God Hates Fags disciples, or suggesting that people starving in a famine-stricken area really just need to plant more crops.
But anyway . . . when we come back from our retreat, bursting with self-esteem and all the tools we need for proper self-care, we expect to see at least these five realities addressed and corrected (you'll notice that we left off the really complicated ones like access to health care, clinical trials, economic self-sufficiency, and complete overthrow of patriarchy). And who knows? If y'all can fix these five for us, maybe we can harness enough collective self-esteem to take care of everything else.
Laura Jones is the Hotline Coordinator for the Illinois AIDS/HIV & STD Hotline.
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