What kind of feminism looks good on you?

Posted at 2:45 PM May 04, 2010

By Andrea Grimes


A couple weeks ago, I asserted that feminists can still shave their legs. As a feminist leg-shaver, and generally as a lady who hates it when women are told what to do and not do with their bodies, I'm dismayed by hyper-policing of any aspect of female appearance, whether we're talking burqa or bikini wax.

Even if it's done with the best and most thoughtful of intentions--and many times, it is--I just can't get behind shaming and blaming women for their beauty practices, or lack thereof. Whether women are being told not to shave their legs, or not to wear a burqa, they're still being told how to be. How to be "right." Or "proper." Or "feminist." Who has a right to tell women what they should be doing with any aspect of their bodies?

Which is why I am totally digging this Prospect essay from Courtney Martin, author of Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists who says that a very femme pair of fishnets turned her feminist.

She was an undergrad at Barnard, and reluctant to call herself a feminist. She had trouble identifying with the movement. She wasn't sure it spoke to her. She writes:

That changed for me the day that Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner showed up on the third floor of Barnard Hall to give a talk on their new book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Amy was plucky and compact, smart without an ounce of pretension, a no-nonsense beauty. Jennifer was her opposite -- long and sinewy, bright blond, and yes, wearing fishnet stockings. They were besties, taking over the world with totally fresh feminist analysis. This wasn't the swishy-skirt feminism that my mom had manifested at her once-a-month women's groups. This was contemporary, witty, brash, even a little sexy. This was who I wanted to be.

It's certainly a celebration of a particular kind of third-wave, pro-sex (and pro-sexy) feminism. My feminist awakening moment is similar to Martin's--after I got over my hyper-religious teenage streak, I definitely became a liberal, pro-lady kind of person in college. But was I feminist? It wasn't until I read Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy, on a plane flight to New York City one summer, that feminism finally spoke to me.

FCP is more or less about the ways in which the porn-ification of pop culture, and the internalization thereof by young women, has created a kind of faux empowerment wherein women believe they're strong because they're a certain kind of sexy. I was that kind of girl. I went to strip clubs with male friends. I listened to rap music. I thought it made me cool, easy-going, empowered. But I didn't realize that I had come to believe in one, very restricted, kind of sexy. FCP taught me to think critically about what I'd been told was sexy. It changed the way I looked at the world. I started to think about what I got turned on by, not what some idea of Real Men got turned on by. Certainly part of the "raunch culture" version of sexy is hairlessness.

And yet, I continue to shave my legs. I wear makeup. I get my hair did. I have sex with muchas dudes, I hope to the enjoyment of all participants. But I do it with a critical eye, and I'm confident that my non-beauty activities, which include writing this feminist blog and being a mouthy lady generally who will shut a bitch down if someone says something sexist, can complement my decision to present as a fairly girly girl, rather than contradict it. Writes Martin:

It's understandable that appearance is a sticking point for feminists. So much of our work is about challenging traditionally defined notions or racist ideals of beauty that the last thing we want to do is privilege appearance over substance. But we also have to be real about the ways in which people get brought into political movements. It's rarely because we read up on legislation or resolve to be more active citizens. It's more often because we find a person or group of people who we really like and identify with their politics, too.

Of course, I know that my desire to wear makeup and have smooth legs is culturally constructed, even to some degree foisted upon me. I know that I have the choice not to engage in these things. I know that many women feel that they have to do these things, lest they feel less female, lest they feel inadequate. But part of my decision (indeed, my desire) to be a girly girl is steeped in this thing that Martin is talking about, about being an approachable, accessible woman whom other women can talk to--and hopefully, from me and women like me, they'll hear about how beauty standards and ideals can be oppressive, but they can also be empowering, so long as you have the critical distance to think about what you're doing and why.


Leah said:

Thanks for this post! I too value approachability--if I look for the most part like other women, maybe when they talk to me they'll think, "She's a feminist? Maybe I am, too." I love being able to casually chat with men and women at parties about basketball, Lady Gaga, and, yes, feminism.

Not Guilty said:

I've engaged in a similar debate on some forums with respect to the niqab. I basically concluded that telling a woman what she can't wear (eg. the niqab), no matter what the reason, is just as misogynistic as telling her what she must wear. The same thing applies in feminism. Telling a woman she can't shave her legs is the same as telling her she must shave her legs. So how's about we stop telling women anything (aside from the laws that apply equally to men).

Snidely Whiplash said:

Feminism has evolved, from "we have to rebel against fashion to be taken seriously" which was legitimate in it's time to "regardless of how I dress I expect respect". The day is near when a feminist can wear a frilly apron that say's "John Doe's
Babe" and everybody knows it's a joke.

"First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."
-- Mahatma Gandhi

Nicki E. said:

Great post, Andrea! I admire you so much, and thanks for turning me on to that book...I read it last summer and really enjoyed it. I still need to get my boyfriend to read it, too.

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