Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How I Express Feminism in the Way I Dress (or Not)

 It looks like Santa's sleigh!

It's Fashionable Feminist Day in this lil corner of the blogsophere. And I don't consider myself a fashion blogger (I still can't say "I write a beauty blog" with a straight face), but there's certainly overlap. I've always enjoyed playing with makeup more than I have shopping for clothes, and in fact the latter usually feels like going to the dentist. As great as it feels to occasionally put together a bang-up outfit, the fact is most of the time my mind just doesn't work that way. I try to wear what looks good on me and what I can put on without thinking about it too much, and leave it at that.

But the minds behind Fashionable Feminist Day asked this question: How do you express your feminism in the way you dress? And my answer surprised me.

Fact is, I don't. In fact, sometimes I dress in ways that go against my feminism. I think we're all past the point where we can say that the answer to "Can feminists wear high heels?" is a loud, heel-stomping "Yes." Because, duh, it's fine for feminists to want to look hot, because we're embracing our sexuality, and if that means wearing stilettos that means wearing stilettos and YOU GO GIRL, you ROCK ON WITH YOUR BAD SELF.

And, okay, I'm fine with that--but if we end the conversation there, we're robbing ourselves. Of course there's nothing wrong with feminists wanting to look pretty! Most feminists I know are! But I can't escape the fact that when I don a pair of high heels, I am prioritizing the line of my leg over comfort, mobility, and health. (I have lower-back issues, so this is a health issue for me.) Still, I wear them, and like them, and like the way I look in them, and indeed like the way I feel in them—more put-together, more sophisticated, more polished. Just like the makeover that won't die, wearing heels expresses a part of me that often goes silent. I like hearing the click of my heels on the pavement; it makes me feel like I'm a part of what makes this city so special--more so than when I'm, say, sitting at home in my yoga pants despite having done no actual yoga today (does doing the neti pot count?). But that professional feeling--that slick, city-girl feeling--is about my abilities and work history, not my shoes, right? Or at least it should be, because isn't that the entire goddamn point of this feminist thing?

I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel conflicted about the way I sometimes present myself. The minute I prioritize my looks over my own personal comfort, I am doing something that goes to the core of what I believe--about myself, about gender roles and expectations. It's not enough for me to say that it's fine to be "feminine AND a feminist" as if that's a surprise to anyone. Sure, some still equate feminism with hairy-legged man-haters, but the company I keep has progressed beyond that point. It's not enough to just say "Oh, it's my choice so it's fine": It is my choice, yes, but wearing shoes that can't carry me comfortably for eight hours isn't a choice I'd make if wearing high heels didn't connote something about myself as a woman that I wish to project. I don't damn any woman for how she presents herself--I don't think--but I do know that as full of bravado I might feel leaving the house in a cute pair of heels, by day's end I'm wondering if it's worth it.

So, what can I do as a feminist to reconcile my self-presentation with my politics? I can ask questions. I can explore the reasons why we wear what we wear; why we present ourselves the way we do. I can listen to the smart, sharp feminists who don't feel this conflict, either because they've fully embraced the contradictions or because they've made choices that are more aligned with their politics. I can listen to non-feminists too, and learn from them: Not every woman who shuns makeup and dresses solely to please herself identifies as a feminist, and they have lessons to teach me. And every woman I know, feminist or not, has given thought to the face she presents to the world. Whether she critiques it, engages with it, challenges it, or jumps in wholesale, it's not a blind choice, and there's an intention behind it. Looking at those intentions is at the heart of what I'm trying to do here at The Beheld.

I don't expect to come to any grand conclusions or even to change my actions--I like wearing high heels, I like having that extra little oomph. But without examining it, or by blithely stating that it's my choice and I'm a feminist and so therefore it's a feminist choice, I stop short of the place I'd like to wind up.


  1. I don't wear make-up at all, a result of second wave feminism. I found your comments really interesting, especially about the shoes and the sound of them. I like that important, clicking sound they make when you walk. I like feeling taller than many of my male colleagues when I wear them for brief occasions. I won't wear them for an entire day. Yesterday, I did a photo shoot with my two youngest daughters and both of them wore platforms with killer heels and I had to stifle my mother's just let it be, because I see a future of orthopedic problems due to wearing shoes like this. :)

  2. There's something really...the word that comes to mind is "boss"...about hearing that clicking sound. It's undeniably female, but not girlish--it's in-charge, you know?

    Glad to have found your blog! I look forward to reading more.

  3. I appreciate your honesty about feeling conflicted. We can't fit neatly into categories. I've always thought that people are full of contradictions - and that's okay. I'm a feminist and a fashionista too and I can relate! Thanks for writing.

  4. I too like that you are conflicted and accept this. And I really agree with your statements about how troublesome it is to just say that something is your choice, without actually thinking about it or trying to push further.

  5. You're right about the confidence boost from heels, the sound they make, the tallness they provide. You're also entirely right to feel conflicted about this and question it - thanks for sharing your thoughts so honestly! I think what we need to do as a result of our questioning attitude is to try and broaden the concept of beauty / strength / prettiness in society's perception (and the way it affects us in turn): I do like heels, and I do like pretty girly skirts, but I can also feel pretty/attractive/sexy in flats and jeans, or even, occasionally, in yoga pants, and I challenge myself to acknowledge that.

  6. Thanks for this. I've been reading your blog for awhile and appreciate how you reconcile presentation, femininity, style, representation, and all the grey areas in-between with candour and intelligence. This post, in particular, is pretty excellent. I think consumer feminism makes it so simple - "it's all about your choice!" - when your choices reflect so much more. Most of us are stumbling along on a daily basis with the choices that we make but aren't so simple-minded as to assume that our choices are dictated *only* by our individual preference. There's usually so much more going behind what can be a simple sartorial decision, and it's rare to read about it without the attendant moralising. And for that particular reason, this blog is pretty refreshing.

  7. You make an excellent post about 'choice' - it's a loaded word, used to excuse everything from flogging women anti-aging cream to prostitution. I won't go any further down THAT road here (!), but I've enjoyed reading such an honest analysis of the issues we take on when we get dressed.

    And as for heels, someone who walks to work, I relinquished heels for flats for a while. But when I donned my favourite heeled boots again, I felt like myself, and I can't even attempt to deny what the click of the heel and length of my stride does to my ego. Excellent post.

  8. Jeanofalltrades: Glad to hear that you're on board with exploring contradictions--I think that sometimes in order to be heard, I feel like I need to have a monolithic feminist message. But anyone who is a feminist knows that it's much more complex than "X is a feminist choice, Y isn't."

    Cervixosaurus: Love the name! And yeah--I think of this "Sex and the City" episode where Charlotte winds up yelling "I choose my choice! I choose my choice!" And I think that the "I choose it so it's okay" argument works on a strictly tautological level but it falls short when we're actually trying to, you know, grow as a group...

    Poet: I remember interviewing a fashionista-type for this blog and she said something about how wonderful she felt when she looked "just right" for an occasion. I try to remember that and how truly joyous she seemed when she hit that mark, whether it be a gigantic hat for St. Patrick's on Easter Sunday or, hell, yoga pants for yoga! I think this is where haute couture and feminism go hand-in-hand--broadening concepts of what we've taken for granted.

    Subashini: Wow, thank you so much! I haven't been doing this for long and it means a lot to know that people are reading. And I love the term "consumer feminism"--I still am pro-Bust magazine overall, but stopped subscribing a while ago because it seemed to be all about, like, rilly rilly cute tampon cases. Argh!

    Mrs. Bossa: First off, thanks for organizing Fashionable Feminist Friday! Excellent point about how "choice" gets thrown around and can very easily be turned into something that's anti-woman. (I'm thinking of the "You've come a long way, baby" co-opting of feminist progress by a tobacco company in the '80s.)

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