“Feminist” all too often conjures up images of “ugly”, hairy legged, makeup hating, flannel loving, short-haired, boyish women. Namely, women who embody the rejection of the patriarchal beauty standard and all of the trappings that go with it. There are, obviously, feminists who fit into some, or all, of those categories. Of course, there are also conventionally attractive, shaven-legged, makeup wearing, short skirt loving, long-haired, feminine feminists as well (and not all of them are women). The claim that women have to reject shaving, wearing makeup, and other beauty regimens to be a feminist (or a “good” feminist) is a myth that obscures the actual ideological issues that feminists have with beauty standards.
According to feminist thought, a woman shouldn’t be judged by her attractiveness, and this myth of the “ugly, hairy-legged feminist” does just that — both as a cautionary tale to would-be feminists, as well as a strawfeminist argument that many feminists often feel the need to debunk by citing how attractive they are — all of which just proves how pervasive the beauty myth is.
Thinking about it in another way:
Not all feminists reject femininity, but most reject the notion that it should be a prison and many of us have complex and self-reflexive relationships with our own femininity or lack of it.
What it comes down to is this: dismantling the beauty myth and challenging women’s status as the sex class is a rallying issue for many feminists. However, this is an ideological issue that doesn’t preclude an individual’s choice regarding what to do with her body. This is an important distinction because it intersects with the idea of bodily autonomy, which is a cornerstone of feminist thought. Because, really, feminists don’t care if a woman is feminine or not, but they do care when her supposed attractiveness is used to judge her worth.
- A personal anecdote on the question “to shave or not to shave?”:
The hardest thing for me was taking the step from secretly growing my hair to publicly doing so. Like kristy, I was terrified of being seen and called “gross” — after all, hadn’t I heard that same rhetoric from my father? Hadn’t I heard my friends and family say the same things about other women who didn’t conform properly to the beauty standard? Hadn’t I, myself, once both said and believed the same things?
I was terrified. I was defensive about it. But I did it. I made my point. Right there in Miami, one of the most image-conscious cities in the USA, I put on my short skirt — in the full heat of summer, I was not going to stick to jeans, let me tell you! — leaving my legs in all their hairy glory for all to see, and marched right out of my house.
I had to go to the supermarket. I was with my best friend at the time and, believe me, I was paranoid. “Everybody’s staring at me! They’re judging me! I know what they’re saying, ‘Gawd, look at her. Doesn’t she care enough about herself to try and look good?’ I just want to die!”
But, then, because my feminism had given me the vocabulary to deal with and understand my situation, I told that part of me, “Why is it that going out as your natural self makes you want to die of embarrassment? Why is it that being proud of what you look like by nature must mean that you aren’t taking proper care of yourself? Men are allowed to grow any part of their hair that they please without these comments. That’s holding women to an unfair beauty standard. That’s inequality in action, and it’s your duty to fight it. This is why you’re a feminist. Because women aren’t allowed to feel comfortable with ourselves just the way we are.”
And so the next day, without shaving, I put on another short skirt. And the next day. And the next. I had to have it out with my father a couple of times. I was defensive to my friends and family if they asked about it. But I did it. Every day it got a little bit easier, I got a little bit less defensive, and my family started to accept it as just another quirk from the one in the family who has always marched to her own drummer.
Is there any day where I slap on my skirt in my hairy-legged glory that I don’t feel any anxiety, or any shame? No. I will most likely live and die with those feelings, thanks to the way we are socialized from young girls to feel that our natural bodies aren’t good enough. But I can’t let shame or fear run my life. I won’t let it.
- Differentiating personal choice from “empowerment”:
I still shave, and will occasionally wear makeup if I feel the situation warrants it. But there is absolutely no part of me that feels that this is something I do “for me,” because I have seen the other side of things. This is why I don’t give women a hard time for making themselves pretty — because the alternative is a very difficult road to walk. What I do get upset at is that we should as feminists, celebrate women who capitulate and start making themselves appealing to patriarchal beauty standards. We don’t need to celebrate them–the patriarchy celebrates them well enough.[Mighty Ponygirl (Feminist Gamers): Feminism Friday: Don’t you wish you feminists were hot like me.]
- Taking the wind out of the myth’s sails:
The claim not to be a feminist because feminists are physically unattractive and hairy certainly proves rather than denies the need for feminism. Anyone, but especially a young woman, expressing such a disgustingly misogynist view is in serious need of feminist inoculation. Again I wouldn’t bother arguing that not all feminists are unattractive (some are quite pretty), because this would subscribe to the idea that not conforming to the brutal standards of femininity is very bad. In any case, this statement is really about the fear of questioning the beauty myth and of women who refuse to meet the norms of conventional femininity. Ask him or her why they think resistance to this norm is a source of such revulsion? Feminism can’t stop you doing anything to your appearance, but yes it will encourage you to question the socially constructed rules which invade so much of women’s everyday lives. It will make you feel less comfortable. I suspect that many anti-feminist statements are rooted in a fear of questioning the status quo because it’s perfectly true that feminism won’t make your life easier in this respect. We still live in a world in which western women are, as Mary Wollstonecraft put it in the eighteenth-century, “Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” Not all feminists reject femininity, but most reject the notion that it should be a prison and many of us have complex and self-reflexive relationships with our own femininity or lack of it.