Sunday Spotlight is a series where we profile individuals in the Young Mormon Feminists community to hear their story and get to know them a little better through Q&A or their personal narrative. This week we talked with Monika Ottehenning.
My name is Monika Ottehenning and I’m a Mormon Feminist! I’m currently in my third year at BYU and obtaining a BFA in Photography, though I constantly struggle with how I truly want to contribute to society, and have a difficult time balancing all my interests. For the moment, I am continuing to try and understand everything that is happening around me to the best of my abilities.
My Feminist Awakening:
An acquaintance of mine added me to the YMF page back in April 2013 and was initially really surprised. I didn’t think I had been coming off as feminist, and actually carried the mindset that calling ones self a feminist was really quite unnecessary. 8 months later I sit here feeling overwhelmed and enlightened by all the information I have been exposed to through YMF.
It all developed so slowly, but pretty soon I found myself falling headfirst into a world that has helped me find the way to be the best woman I can be, above anything else. Since I can remember, I was never proud to be a girl. I followed nearly every interest of my brother until he was in high school, and by that time I felt a huge disconnect between what I wanted to be and the expectations everyone had for me as a female. I was conflicted by my seemingly opposing interests, and was embarrassed for being interested in many of the things I liked. I saw the benefits of maintaining femininity and spent much of my time after elementary school battling these two ideas.
I look back at all the times I have felt uncomfortable, belittled, disrespected, and manipulated and it is feminism that has been the true catalyst in understanding the things that have happened to me, and the people around me. Many people I have encountered think that these dialogues do nothing, but they have done something powerful for me. It’s as if I suddenly understand WHY. I no longer feel as afraid, I no longer feel that I have to be quiet, I no longer feel that there are real expectations for me as a woman, I no longer feel small, I no longer feel that my body is not my own, I no longer feel as though my worth stems from my virtue, I no longer feel that I am limited to a set of traits, I no longer feel that I have no control. I feel equipped with something beyond words, and it excites me to go forward, spreading the empowerment that has so made me proud to be a woman, instead of ashamed to be one. My journey is far from over, but feminism has helped me feel that the shame of being a woman is something I did not create on my own, and that so many things are not my fault. It’s not that my insecurities have gone away, but I know that it is much more possible to do what I want.
Life seems to be more frustrating since learning about these topics, but I am so much more aware of the world around me. I feel more capable of taking the bad things that happen to me as something that empowers me. I look back at my experiences with men I love and men I do not know and have the tools to deconstruct the instances that have made me uncomfortable, afraid, shamed, or in danger – as well as safe, equal, and respected. I think about my future daughters and sons and hope that I can raise them to be truly equipped to actively work against sexism and every other –ism, as well as realize they are not bound by what society expects from them. Before YMF I had a lot of internalized sexism and I am embarrassed about how careless I used to be with even with my words. I know now that I can be the woman I want to be, and the process of being all-inclusive to every person – no matter what backstory, sexuality, race, age, religion, gender- is never ending.
Growing up in the Church:
My mother is a native Honduran, my father is a native German, and I have an older brother and sister, as well as a younger Filipino half sister. A year after my twin and I were born in the Philippines, we emigrated to the United States and the sister missionaries found my parents. For me, church has been a true source of my happiness. My parents raised me in a way that seems very different from most Mormon families with a real trust and openness to any topic. I remember when I was about 11 asking my mother hypothetically what she would do if I were lesbian – though I was not, and she said she wouldn’t do anything but love me the same. And when I asked what she would do if I refused to go to church – though I wasn’t planning on it, she told me she just wanted me to do what made me happy. It was that moment that I knew I could trust her, and I realize that her support is something I should never take for granted.
By the time I gained my testimony at 12 years old, I didn’t have any friends at church. I believe it did me a lot of good, and it still surprises me that I maintained my faith considering my lack of social life in the ward. I then applied to BYU, though never intended to attend and was not enthusiastic about it when it became my only option (and didn’t think I’d major in Photography either) but have found a life surrounded by all sorts of Mormons both refreshing and enlightening, and many things in between, to say the least.
At this point, YMF has helped me realize the awful experiences people have had in a place I always, naively, saw as perfect. BYU made me more open-minded than I ever expected, special thanks to the abundance of really amazing people I have met at this University. I continue to view myself as a Mormon and see that being the case for the rest of my life, but as a result of YMF, I have come to realize and advocate for the many cultural and perhaps even structural changes I’d like to see happen in the church. I’ve become more okay with questioning and expressing that there could very well be a better way to teach what the church teaches. I believe in a God who sees men and women as equal. Realizing that I have had such a lack of women to look up to in the church has been painful, but I’m so glad it has been called to my attention. It makes things a little easier to think that God himself is of no gender.
My real biggest qualm with the Church is its approach to sexuality (and gender roles of course, but that’s for a different day). My father admitted to me that growing up not being allowed to masturbate would have been HELL, and that has caused me to further question how we teach these topics. Sex was not a taboo topic in my home, and my mother made sure that I understood everything, and on top of my insatiable curiosity, I also wanted to know everything. Her honesty, openness, frankness, and attitude towards sex helped me view bodies and their functions as natural and beautiful. She also helped me feel capable of protecting myself because I was knowledgeable about the topic. Sex is too demonized and I hope that the culture surrounding sex in the church can move to create a more valuable, healthy approach to it, instead of the use of abstract, indirect terms and theories thrown around every which way, and that parents can develop a healthier way to teach children in the church about sex.
I have not solidified my opinions on every topic in YMF, but have benefited greatly from the dialogues happening within this community I knew nothing about just 8 months ago. The church has a lot of room to grow and become better, as do I. My relationship with God trumps every critique with the church and the people in it, and it is the most important relationship to me. That is what keeps me Mormon.