During my first year of university, I studied a different -ism every week. I looked at socialism and conservatism, wrote essays on environmentalism and Thatcherism, read pages on feminism and liberalism. I found the dedication of individuals to their chosen ideology varyingly confusing, admirable, daft and logical. But most of all, I found their certainty enviable.
For as long as I can remember, I have called myself a feminist. I have tried to check my privilege, tried to be an ally for the LGBTQ+ and BAME communities. I spend most waking hours listening to podcasts, trying to understand events in Russia, the minutia of Brexit, what language might cause offence and what the hot takes on Love Island are. I have been on anti-Brexit marches and attended climate crisis lobbies, signed petitions and written to MPs, empathised and criticised figures from Margaret Thatcher to Jeremy Corbyn. I have voted for three different parties, learnt about the difference between body positivity and body confidence, staged mini plastic protests in Waitrose and agonised over the environmental impact of an avocado.
If I sound confused, conflicted, eager to please but unclear on how to do so, it’s because I am. I can’t work out which political and social issue I should be prioritising. For years, feminism has been my priority, my specialist topic on Mastermind (or my 2am drunken lecture for whichever poor sod I’ve cornered in the stairwell). My feminism has matured with me, becoming more intersectional and complex, but it has always been something of a calling card.
Three years ago, however two new topics began vying for top spot on the hallowed list of Lauren’s Political Priorities. Xenophobia and division in Britain – for which Brexit was both a catalyst and a cause – dominated the news and my conversations. I have obsessively followed the unfolding drama, listening to Brexitcast with a level of devotion that my therapist might deem unhealthy. In the same year, I was diagnosed with anorexia and depression. Mental health became a passion project – I embarked on recovery, ran a marathon and raised money for Mind, wanged on about mental health to anyone who would listen. Feminism and overthrowing the patriarchy remained my main concern, but my energy and attention were increasingly divided.
But then all of these concerns – from the existential to the everyday – were enveloped by a climate crisis. I began to have anxiety dreams where I was the polar bear on the shrinking ice cap. I was paralysed in supermarkets trying to work out if loose tomatoes from Spain had a smaller environmental impact than packaged tomatoes from Kent. Did Brexit matter if we were heading for environmental oblivion? Could I balance my need to lessen my rigid diet with my desire to eat less meat? Did the equal distribution of unpaid housework and emotional labour matter if the planet was about to go up in flames?
I feel guilty for attending an anti-Brexit march because it involves a two hour train journey. I am conflicted when I spend time assessing the carbon footprint of tofu because obsessing over food is something I am gently trying to move myself and others away from. I worry that I am ignoring issues such as female genital mutilation when I write essays on the importance of feminism within liberalism, because the former is of vital importance while the latter is an academic indulgence. In my fear that I am not doing the right things for the right causes, I end up doing nothing for anything.
In a world of cancel culture and social media, when every political position you have held and supported is recorded, lauded and crucified, it is easy to assume a position of concerned ambivalence on the major issues. Virtue signalling is rife, as is the green-washing of fast fashion and the commercialisation of feminism. But if you want to do more than vaguely support a cause, it is difficult to work out where to channel your finite energy, time and resources.
I wrote this piece, in part, to help myself out of this conundrum. If anything, I have only succeeded in confusing myself more. But perhaps in a time of political, social and climate chaos, the only option is to be confused but do your best. I can be a feminist and not always get things right. I can be active in the fight against the climate crisis and sometimes eat my grandma’s roast chicken. If we are afraid of backlash, of missing the ‘woke’ boat, then we will never make a difference. But multiple imperfect steps, by multiple imperfect people is how progress is made. If I can’t commit to a preexisting -ism, perhaps I can create my own patchwork quilt of intentions, beliefs and actions that will help make the world a better place.