Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Some thoughts about feminism and beauty

Ever since the Dove Wars broke out I've been thinking about what it means to be a feminist in terms of my approach to the beauty industry, and also what many other people seem to think it means. There's a pretty significant gap between the two, so I thought I'd try to thrash out my own views. If anyone else wants to chime in please feel free to do so.
I've been hearing a lot of the old "feminists don't shave their legs, wear comfortable shoes, or wear makeup" stereotypes trotted out. I've also been hearing some very apologetic "I think that maybe it's OK to be a feminist and still want to be pretty" comments from younger feminists. Every time I read one of those comments I want to smack the stereotype-wielder in the head with one of my Manolos, and the apologetic tone of the younger feminists makes me want to wail in despair (and to do a little head-smacking too, if I'm perfectly honest).
By the standards being invoked here I'm a very bad feminist. I own 5 pairs of Manolo Blahnik heels, including one pair of sandals that Manolo reps call the "Dominatrix" heels. I also own 3 pairs of equally spiky and sexy Prada shoes and have committed countless other shoe-related indulgences. Quite frankly my shoe collection is beginning to reach Imelda Marcos-like proportions, and if I don't do some pruning soon I'm going to need a bigger apartment. I also have a penchant for sartorial indulgence that once led an acquaintance to refer to me as "Little Miss Prada" (a sarcastic reference to Rush Limbaugh's habit of referring to Naomi Wolff as Little Miss Pravda). I frequently traipse around in the summer in flouncy little tulip skirts and sexy sandals. I am often seen at the office in pencil skirts and foxy little jackets. I own 2 pairs of Dolce and Gabanna jeans. I own precisely 3 pairs of comfortable shoes, 2 pairs of sandals and a pair of sneakers, none of which I would be seen dead in unless there is a serious amount of walking to be done. I've been shaving my legs since I was 12, I wear (very expensive) makeup, and I get my hair cut at a fancy salon. By the supposed standards of feminist deportment I should be excommunicated from the movement immediately.
The thing is, I'm not convinced that there are very many actual feminists who fit the stereotype at all. There are some, certainly, and I fully support their choice to look any way they please. I can see why the stereotype persists and is constantly invoked by anti-feminists, since nothing silences and marginalizes a woman in our looks-obsessed culture faster than telling her she's ugly (or fat), but I am at a loss as to why young feminists keep invoking the stereotype too. Do we honestly believe that we have some kind of moral obligation not to attempt to look good? I encountered this attitude in college, and am rather surprised that it still persists. But why does it persist? Or, to put it bluntly, why do we keep doing this to ourselves?
The weird thing about the prevalence of the hairy-legged feminist stereotype from my perspective is the way in which it often leads people to be very surprised when they discover my actual political orientation. There's a type of very shallow and often not very bright anti-feminist woman who my buddy Ginmar often refers to as "PrincessSparklePony". What she means is the kind of idiot who wears "Princess" t-shirts, has a license plate that spells out "spoiled rotten" in some grammatically tortured manner, and constantly polices other women's adherence to gender norms. The funny thing for me is that these women often mistake me for one of their own. They are invariably horrified to discover that they were wrong. This is the kind of woman who says idiotic things like "but you're too pretty to be a feminist". They always seem to be genuinely puzzled by my reluctance to join them in their pursuit of personal fulfillment through complete removal of one's spine and and opinion-bypass surgery. Frankly I'd have to be lobotomized to join them, but what does it mean that they think that I would?
The other odd thing is the way in which men react to women like myself who are feminists but don't fit the stereotype. There are of course the fervently leftist guys who insist that I'm betraying the cause by not owning a pair of Birks. A couple of years ago I volunteered for the electoral campaign of local Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez. There was one guy in the campaign office who was absolutely convinced for the first few days I was there that I was a spy sent from the Newsom campaign to undermine their efforts. It's not just wingnuts who suffer from the tendency to stereotype. More conservative men are always convinced that they can win me over to their cause, and tend to assume that my feminism is a phase I'm going to grow out of. I first identified as a feminist as a tweener and I'm 31 now, so frankly the odds are not in their favour, but still they persist.
I often wonder if my publicly identifying as a feminist is helping or hurting the cause. Does the existence of overtly girly feminists in some way undermine the movement? That implication certainly seems to be there in the guilty way in which some young feminists admit to using makeup in a tone which suggests that they feel they're committing some sort of cardinal sin. But are they right? I think it's bullshit personally, and that every woman should be free to choose for herself to what extent she's willing to toe the gender line. Basically I think that a woman’s sartorial style sits right alongside abortion, choice of romantic partner, weight and every other personal issue in the “none of your goddamn business” file, and that questioning other women’s choices in any of these areas is intrinsically un-feminist, but it may be that others disagree. I'd love to hear some other people's take on the subject. It seems like this is one of those issues we often assume that there's some kind of consensus on, where in fact that may not be the case. And how does all this relate to the (to my mind very dumb) idea of the need for a "do-me feminist" to sell the movement to the media, a sort of feminist Laura Ingraham ?

Ps For anyone who’s interested Ginmar’s LJ is at http://www.livejournal.com/users/ginmar/ and is definitely worth a look. Also please note that the guys are also welcome to chime in on all this.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

There's a lot to chew on here.

1) while feminism has an image problem, that problem is in large part due to the persistent smearing of feminism and not because of anything feminists do.

I do worry when progressives won't identify with feminism, but SparklePrincessPony never will, because she's sucking up to patriarchal men and she thinks this is to her advantage.

To the extent feminists can do anything about the problem, feminist sex symbols are not the solution. There have been plenty -- the stereotypes persist despite the counterexamples because they are a social narrative that comfortably reassures people that their worldview is correct.

But feminist sex symbols and feminists wearing fashionable clothes are not the same thing, and how different they are is a thorny issue.

2) Beauty standards include grooming and clothing, and they are patriarchal. So I don't think that women who opt out of them are engaged in pointless rebellion. I think they're engaged in a perfectly useful challenge to those norms. But there are lots of ways to skin the patriarchal cat, and I am not at all on board with anyone who thinks that "giving in" to society's ideas about grooming are disserving the cause.

(Full disclosure I'm a famously formal dresser, invariably found in a suit and necktie even on casual friday.)

So, Cassandra, I'm basically on board with you that there's plenty of work to be done, much of which can be very effectively (often more effectively) done by women who look the way society says responsible professional women ought to look.

That said, you said one thing that I think goes too far:

"Basically I think that a woman’s sartorial style sits right alongside abortion, choice of romantic partner, weight and every other personal issue in the “none of your goddamn business” file, and that questioning other women’s choices in any of these areas is intrinsically un-feminist, but it may be that others disagree."

First, beyond the warmth and protection function all of our clothing choices are based on appearance and, therefore, social significance. Saying that clothing choices are "private" is, in my view, irreconsilable with the nature of clothes as a social phenomenon. Generally, women don't make their choices in romantic or sex partners, or in reproduction, based primarily on the impression it will create on others, but that is how people choose clothes.

Saying that one ought not to criticize another feminist's clothing choices strikes me as good practice- we ought to avoid circular firing squads. But in my view it goes too far to say we ought not to examine clothing choices.

3) About how young feminists feel about feminism -- I am really concerned that there is a perception _even_among_feminists_ that one is a "better feminist" if one is no fun. I think that sense lead in part to the powerful swing to sex-positiveness in the younger generation of feminists (a view I am _not_ criticizing. Young, sex-positive feminists want my help as a sadomasochist and a straight man, and "get" why I'm a feminist, while some women from a different generation do not.) That's a step in the right direction. But as you said, the attitude persists that a "good" feminist is one that chooses particular ways to fight the battle, and that includes opting out of rules about clothing. Feminism cannot survive by narrowing itself in a search for intellectual purity -- it has to remain a broad movement where feminists can disagree with each other and still get along, and can make common cause where we do agree. That includes making young feminists feel like they have a place and can make a difference, without conveying the impression that they have a membership card that might get torn up. (My view on this is informed by Beevor & Cooper's excellent "Paris After the Liberation," which I just finished, and which returns to Beevor's theme from Spanish Civil War: that Stalinist orthodoxy ruined the left.)

There's probably much more to say, but work beckons.

Thomas

FoolishOwl said...

Thomas, I'll have to find those books you mentioned. I recently read A People's History of Iraq: The Iraqi Communist Party, Workers’ Movements, and the Left 1924–2004, by Ilario Salucci, which is a rather painful account of the long history of the Iraqi Communist Party driving mass workers' movements into the ground, over and over again.

I partly agree with Thomas about the social function of clothing. I know that people will react to me very differently depending upon how I'm dressed. A few times, I've been on the sidewalk with my socialist newspapers out, and people have asked me if I was some sort of "Republican socialist," apparently since I was wearing a button-down shirt at the time. Growing my hair long has cut down on that problem, but I'm given to dressing like a techie most of the time anyway.

I also notice (when I'm not depressed and disgusted with myself) that women will look at me now and then, and making small changes in how I present myself makes a tremendous difference in which women look at me. (In fact, it's the very fact that different women will look at me if I dress differently that leads me to realize that they're reacting to my appearance at all.)

I'll disagree with something that seemed implicit in both the OP and Thomas's response: there's nothing anti-sex or anti-beauty about women who forego shaving their legs or wearing makeup. That's a different look, but I've never gotten the feeling that the women I've known who have hair on their legs were overserious or antisexual. If anything, they were some of the most overtly sexual people I've met.

Anonymous said...

Brian, I agree that hairy legs are not anti-beauty, just anti-"beauty." Beauty is a personal aesthetic judgment, but beauty standards are social constructs. What I find physically appealing in sex partners includes much that flies in the face of beauty standards. I also agree that my experience has taught me that hairy-legged women who reject societal beauty standards are not particularly anti-sex and may be bigger horndogs than the average. I didn't think I implied otherwise -- but I think there is a false perception that being a really, really committed feminist is akin to going into a convent.

(As an aside, Brian, if you like the history of how Stalinism crushed authentic working people's movements, read Spanish Civil War. That's three quarters of what he's on about. The guy's name is Anthony Beevor, best known for Stalingrad and for the follow-up Fall of Berlin, both of which I can recommend. Artemis Cooper, his co-author on Paris and his wife, is the daughter of British Ambassador Duff Cooper, a major figure in the Paris events.)

Thomas

Cassandra Says said...

Thomas,I agree that feminist sex symbols are not the answer. Do you remember Limbaugh describing Wolff as "ugly"? That was a moment of classic irony if I've ever seen one. What puzzles me is the guilt that some young feminists seem to feel over not fitting the stereotype. It's particularly puzzling since the stereotype was created to hurt and marginalise us. Why would anyone buy into that?
I actually know a couple of PSPs and agree that they will never accept the label "feminist", but it is possible to get them to incorporate a few of the basic ideas. One of the reasons I don't feel bad about my Manolo-wearing self is that I'm very aware that these women listen more closely to what I have to say precisely because I don't fit the negative stereotype of feminism.
On point number 2, I'm coming from a rather wierd perspective. I basically tend to see all clothing as a form of costume that we put on and take off in order to send whatever message we wish to send. Anyone who has ever turned up for a job interview in a really good suit knows what I'm talking about. I absolutely choose clothing to send a message. My point is that we're all going to be judged on our costume anyway so I see some value in being able to choose the costume that fits the occasion. Not that it should be required, I'm jst not seeing why it needs to be a source of guilt.
Your point 3 gets to the heart of what troubles me about this whole issue. There is this public perception of feminists as dour and humourless which may be even more damaging than the "ugly" stereotype. This is one of the reasons why I always slip my hockey obsession into conversations - I'm doing it to upset people's preconceptions about feminists. I'm agnostic on the sex-positive thing - on one level my reaction to the "feminists like sex too!" crowd is "well, duh". On the other hand the people who identify that way can do an awful lot of shaming and attempted silencing of women who don't agree with them, and they often do it be invoking the nastiest of anti-feminist stereotypes. It's the circular firing squad thing again. I also think that they often ignore the class issues involved in porn, sex work etc. When it comes to the anti-porn and sex-positive arms of the movement I tend to end up in "a pox on both your houses" mode. I am aware of the history of feminist ideas about "correct" sexual practises that the sex-positive people are responding too, however. I was on the recieving end of enough "you're sleeping with the enemy" crap in college to understand why they're so annoyed.

Cassandra Says said...

"I'll disagree with something that seemed implicit in both the OP and Thomas's response: there's nothing anti-sex or anti-beauty about women who forego shaving their legs or wearing makeup. "
Agreed. What it is about is an active decision to defy the pressure to conform to beauty myth standards. I absolutely get why some people feel so strongly about it, it's just not for me, for what are to be honest completely selfish reasons ie I like the feel of being shaved better. I don't much care what anyone else thinks about it unless I'm sleeping with them.
"I think there is a false perception that being a really, really committed feminist is akin to going into a convent." Bingo. That's the idea that I personally want to chip away at, because I think it puts off a lot of women who are otherwise sympathetic to the movement.

Anonymous said...

"I basically tend to see all clothing as a form of costume that we put on and take off in order to send whatever message we wish to send. "

I often refer to my professional attire as "uniform." I wear my Brooks Brothers suits and my white or blue shirts because that's never inappropriate for a lawyer. It's the expected level lf formality to meet clients, appear in court or negotiate with the opposition. Even if I'm dealing with folks in casual dress, at most I appear cautious for wearing the uniform.

What Brian said about the attention clothing draws is interesting; I have also noticed that I get looks from different women when I'm in professional drag than when I'm not, and the attention it draws is from (1) PSP; and (2) ambitious professional women. The first annoys me, because they just don't understand the message. They think the suit says, "I make a lot of money." What I'm actually saying is, "I'm stuffy and rigidly professional about the practice of law." When the attention comes from support staff, that's a huge distinction, because it is absolutely outcome-determinative of whether I will respond to any advances.

The second kind of attention I admit I like. They're reading it right, and sometimes junior lawyers in my practice read into my attire a set of assumptions about how I approach this practice and how I'm thought of in my firm -- and those assumptions are correct -- and look to me as somthing of a mentor. I'm an evangelist for the practice I'm in, so I'm glad to pass on my enthusiasm to the next generation, and especially to women, who are really just now making their mark in my bar.

But all that is an aside. We agree that clothes are essentially a set of symbols we present to others. I agree with you that presenting as professional and conventionally attractive gets you listened to by women who would otherwise tune you out.

"I'm agnostic on the sex-positive thing - on one level my reaction to the "feminists like sex too!" crowd is "well, duh". On the other hand the people who identify that way can do an awful lot of shaming and attempted silencing of women who don't agree with them, and they often do it be invoking the nastiest of anti-feminist stereotypes. It's the circular firing squad thing again. "

On this I really hear you. The thing that depresses me most in intra-feminist dialogue is the acrimony over porn and sex work (and in the past over BDSM, though my side seems to have won that one).

I'm somewhere in between -- on Feministing a long time ago, I laid out my position at some length; that much sex work is coerced by even fairly narrow definitions, and talking about this as a "choice" is non-sensical; and that much sex work, while consensual my many definitions, is a spectrum that includes a whole lot of unacceptable "no better option" situations caused by class and sex dynamics. I will concede that, at the top end of the spectum of consensual sex work, there are some women who do sex work as a "hobby job," that have the privilege to do so in a relatively safe context and to establish boundaries like any other service professional ought to, and that for those women alone, it may be personally empowering; but while I don't laugh at their agency or piss on their choices, public policy must be made with the realization that theirs is the highly atypical case.

But what my position is is really a tangent. I've really tried of late not to be accusatory to the women who feel very strongly against all sex work and all porn, even if they define it very broadly. We're just going to continue to have a broad difference of opinion on these topics for some time, and we're just going to have to be able to dialogue without alienating each other.

From the anti-sex-work side, there's often real anger, and I think it's tough to reign that in and not flame other feminists. Especially as a man, I really feel that I have to acknowledge that and give those women space to express it, and I try to make it clear that I respect and value those women's contribution even when I don't agree with them. All I can do there is try to be an example.

(I admit I can't be so emotionally distant from discussions of BDSM. I will not dispassionately debate the propriety of my own existence.)

The sex-positive thing really only runs into intra-feminist problems around porn and sex work, though. I don't think any feminists really have a problem with discussions of sexuality, opposing sodomy and anti-dildo laws, etc. There's plenty of common ground in favor of better sex ed, more and better sex, etc.

Actually, I think our current corner of the blogosphere is the best thing going for dispelling the notion that feminists are modern nuns. Amanda has carved out a position as almost as much a music critic as a feminist cultural and political commentator, and Lauren's blog is full of hobbies, jokes, memes and photos that certainly don't leave the impression that she's a sourpuss.

Thomas

Anonymous said...

To anonymous-
you said,
"First, beyond the warmth and protection function all of our clothing choices are based on appearance and, therefore, social significance. Saying that clothing choices are "private" is, in my view, irreconsilable with the nature of clothes as a social phenomenon. Generally, women don't make their choices in romantic or sex partners, or in reproduction, based primarily on the impression it will create on others, but that is how people choose clothes."
I have to disagree there. Because, and I think I speak for a wide variety of people when I say this,I think that most people choose thier clothing based on their personal prefferences not based on how others will percieve them. If you are choosing to wear a suit and necktie on casual friday 'based primarily on the impression it will create on others' than I have to say I feel sorry for you.

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Anonymous said...

The ugly feminist is a myth that has been used against women since suffrage to give the impression that wanting to be recognized as human makes them sexually abnormal. If young women of my generation were empowered by the knowledge of what a cheap ploy it is against feminism, they wouldn't recoil from it. They would be angry, because how dare they try to undermine our rights by telling us an inflated ghost story about the feminist woman who looked like a man. A young woman around my age asked me 'Do I have to call myself a feminist if I believe in those things?' (the right to vote, equal pay for equal work, etc.). That shows the epidemic of fear of the word, fear of the myth, not a fear of the basic premise of feminism.

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