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Opinion | ‘Feminine Weakness’ Is a Scam

I wrote my first novel at a time when I felt powerless. I was 27 in 2016, and there was a public reckoning happening with women’s bodies, but also a reckoning I was grappling with personally. I had felt so powerless in my body for such a long time that by then there was a comfort to be found in passivity, in going through the motions. I was dimly aware that there was another, stronger me somewhere, but I could barely see or remember her. I felt skinless, afraid.

Writing a book laid bare my own reckoning, made me feel worse for a time. But it also opened me to the experience of bridging the gap between powerlessness and power. I wrote, and people read — my words carried weight. Similarly, to have a body, especially as a woman, means to experience that space between power and powerlessness, as determined by the template on which the world has been built: a cisgender white man’s body.

Consider how much strength is needed to deal with the onslaught of living in a world rife with misogyny, the mental load of constant damage assessments. In that light, the idea of feminine weakness comes across as no more than a scam, a purposeful downplaying of the power embedded within the historic (and current) concept of the hysterical woman, the terrifying woman, righteously angry.

We cannot escape the fact that non-male pain is consistently underestimated. This is well documented, even in a world where measuring pain is nebulous, necessarily contingent on personal levels of what is bearable. I have seen my own friends disregarded by doctors again and again. One, for example, was told by a male doctor that she was overreacting to the pain of a ruptured cyst the size of an orange. Men present with heart attacks differently from women, and so their cardiac events are often missed. This is power. I hear and read stories of miscarriage, of labor injuries that caused broken pelvises, PTSD, incontinence, but I have to search them out, I am told them in whispers, as if there is a conspiracy about talking about these things. This is power, too.

And then there are the workplaces that don’t allow for difference, that still base everything on the default male, reward based on the default male, even down to health and safety measures. Just recently, NASA’s plans for its first all-female spacewalk fell through because of a lack of suits in the right size. Elsewhere, we see women’s anger demonized and men’s placated. We have to prove ourselves calm, over and over and over, if we want to be taken seriously.

I think about the background noise of our collective consciousness under patriarchy: assessing for violence, checking in with others, taking precautions. It can be hard to hear over — sometimes it is a hum, other times it is an alarm. Violence under patriarchy is not theoretical. The memory of it lives in my body, like it lives in countless other bodies. It forms its own tissue and knots.

It’s important to remember that women, too, can contribute to our powerlessness. Britain has seen a worrying increase of prominent and mainstream feminists reducing everything to biology as a way to dismiss the experiences of trans people. When women align themselves with right-wing, patriarchal ideologies about the right to exist within one’s own body, it is a key example of privilege and power working in tandem with other privileges and powers. Women collude. Women diminish. Women can still wield power destructively, and recognizing this — our capacity to do harm — is necessary if we are to own our power.

Moving away from the default of the cisgender white man requires opening up, not closing ranks. It requires accepting and respecting bodies, finding new ways for bodies to feel safe.

I think of the things I have done to make my body feel more safe to me. My weight-lifting period, my starvation period, my deeply reckless period. Even doing terrible things to my body has been a kind of privilege. Not everybody gets to self-destruct and come back. All for what? Experiments in power, in testing limits? To know that whatever happens externally, I can exert my own power on something, anything?

I do have power, of course. I always did. I can’t do anything immediate about the background noise; I can’t pretend to ignore the danger of walking through a dark place alone. But neither can I be passive anymore. I have the strength to fight through pain. I have a body that lets me experience power in all its forms. I understand my own power, and I can do my best to use it for good, however that means — to support others to the best of my ability, to try to encourage new writers, to give of my money and time. To work toward a world where righteous anger cannot be disregarded.

The Big Ideas is a special section of The Times’s philosophy series, The Stone, in which more than a dozen notable thinkers and writers answer the question, “What is power?” The entire series can be read here.

Sophie Mackintosh is the author of the novels, “The Water Cure,” and the forthcoming “Blue Ticket.”

Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

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