Style and Feminism

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Most days, this blog addresses one of two major topics: Style or body image. I might even say fashion or feminism. And although many posts attempt to meld the two, sometimes I wonder if readers who are primarily interested in one topic get frustrated when focus shifts to the other.

But I see these two ideas as inextricably linked. Style feeds off body image, body image fuels style. Fashion can illuminate feminism, feminism can influence fashion. At least on a personal level. And here’s how:

As you are no doubt aware, feminism encompasses a HUGE number of ideals, movements, and activities. Although many focus specifically on equality of the sexes (1), feminist causes range from desires to rectify political inequalities and secure prenatal care, to fights for equal pay and equal rights for women worldwide. (2) Under the umbrella of feminism, you’ll also find the struggle for “women’s right to bodily integrity and autonomy.”(3) Much of which relates to reproductive issues, sexuality, and protection from domestic violence (4), but some of which is linked to the simple need for personal, physical respect. All feminist movements are rooted in a desire to feel respected, empowered, and self-reliant. And this is where bodily knowledge, self-image, and personal style come into play.

RESPECT

Appearance is a fundamental component of identity. Every day as we prepare to engage with others, we make decisions about physical appearance that will influence how we are perceived.* And, like it or not, how we present ourselves can affect how centered we feel and how much respect we are given by superiors, peers, strangers, friends, everyone. Dressing well – in clean, properly fitting, situationally appropriate clothing – shows that we understand and respect ourselves. And self-respect is essential in garnering the respect of others.

EMPOWERMENT

Bodily knowledge – exploring your figure and understanding what is best for it in terms of activity, grooming, and clothing – can boost self-image. A strong self-image often leads to interest in cultivating personal style. But that system also works in reverse: Taking an interest in personal style can lead to accumulating bodily knowledge, which then boosts self-image. Regardless of the order of acquisition, all three elements contribute to holistic empowerment. Understanding your body, loving your body, and tending your body all build a strong sense of self, foster a defined identity, and encourage positive self-image. Courage, exploration, action, and decisiveness flow naturally from those who have learned to love and believe in themselves, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Know your body, know yourself. (5)

SELF-RELIANCE

Modern life is full of pre-made decisions. We are born into certain geographic regions under certain political and financial circumstances. We are given certain genes, and ingest certain chemicals, and encounter certain diseases. We meet people based on chance and get jobs based on the global economic climate. But many modern women have the luxury of near-total control over appearance. We may be influenced by peer pressure, societal norms, outside opinions, availability, and even climate … but in the end, we decide. Personal style is an arena in which we rely solely on ourselves, in which we exert real control.

This is not to say that style IS feminism, that all fashion-conscious women are feminists, or that runway shows are acts of female empowerment. I mean, OBVIOUSLY. This is just to say that those who perceive interest in personal style as frivolous, shallow, or wasteful are failing to make some important connections between style and feminism: Respecting our bodies enough to treat and dress them well demonstrates that we respect ourselves. Nothing is more empowering than a strong self-image, which is directly linked to bodily knowledge and love. And many women rely solely on themselves for all decisions relating to personal image, making style a realm of self-reliance.

And so in the battle to secure “women’s right to bodily integrity and autonomy,” I believe that personal style should be counted as a part of our arsenal.

(1) Webster’s, among others
(2) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Topics in Feminism
(3) Wikipedia, Feminism
(4) Feminist.com
(5) Empowerment and Powerlessness: A Closer Look at the Relationship Between Feminism, Body Image and Eating Disturbance (Summary)

And for a fascinating read on the interplay between feminism and fashion, see “Feminist Theory of the Dressed Female Body: A Comparative Analysis and Applications for Textiles and Clothing Scholarship

*Every adult human is responsible for his or her own grooming, clothing selection, health, and fitness. No matter what we wear or don’t wear, we are all still making choices.

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  • Meli22

    100% agree with that last sentance: 'If a person neglects or ignores those things, that person is still making choices.'

  • Kaija

    Nice post…you are spot on in describing feminism as a wide collection of beliefs and varying principles all centered on improving the lives of women and girls. I like to tell people that feminism is like Protestantism–there are 64,000 varieties and no one of them can be used as a stand-in for the rest.

    My version of feminism rests on the ideal that women are full human beings who should have unlimited access all the freedoms and opportunities open to any person. There should be no limitations on what a woman *should* do, *should* look like, *should* act, *should* study, *should* work, etc. Some women like fashion and dressing up, some don't. Some women like sports, some don't. Some women like porn, some don't. Some women want a family, some don't. We are all different and that is OK! But we are all worthy of respect and undeserving of criticism or patronization simply because of our gender.

    The attempts to divide and conquer don't serve women; this tactic is a classic strategy used to keep a group of people from banding together and becoming a force to be reckoned with. Keep the career women fighting with the stay-at-home moms, the fashionistas fighting with the hippies, the minorities against other minorities instead of working together for change…and who benefits?

    Love the blog, the pragmatic fashion and beauty, and the cool community. 🙂

  • K.Line

    Oooh, Sal, when you get a reading list together you are hardcore 🙂 I love your consideration of feminism as it meets style.

  • Sal

    Kaija: For sure. The reasons you cite are the very reasons why the whole "real women have curves" movement drives me batso. ALL women are real. Don't divide us up into buckets so that we see each other as competitors, or even worse, enemies!

  • Amy

    Excellent post! What a great way to apply feminist ideas to fashion. I'm a feminist and a Women's Studies major in university and I am always trying to convince people that feminism is not about hating men. I truly believe that anyone (especially any woman) who says they are NOT a feminist is not fully aware of the "definition" of feminism in it's entirety (which is obviously huge, and encompasses countless issues).

  • fröken lila

    until i went to sweden i never considered myself a feminist. or at least, i didn't think feminism anything fun, there was too much hate towards men and too much all-or-nothing in the business. in sweden i met a bunch of guys who called themselves feminists, which i thought was utterly provoking, considering that to my knowledge that would mean they had to hate themselves for being men, which i thought really stupid. the thing with feminism in sweden is, that it is a whole lot more about equality in all directions than feminism in germany. this would include guys (like my boyfriend) who want, for example, the right to stay at home with their newborn baby for half a year or even a year without being called a loser by their boss. it also means guys fighting for their girlfriend's right to equal pay for the same work. it also means my father complaining about his female boss because she got the job ONLY because she was a woman and there was no better woman to fill the quota, even though she is not competent. and ever since i really liked the idea of feminismi like the idea of feminism not only being a thing for women, and i think it's important to include guys and stop all the hatred which is still around..

  • Erin

    Your posts are always inspiring, thanks again for saying exactly what I was thinking, yet can't put the words together (as nicely as you do) to say 🙂

  • Erin

    Oh, and also thanks for not supporting the phrase "real woman have curves" but taking a much more all-accepting stance.
    I am a woman, and I don't have curves, and hear me roar! GRRRRR 🙂

  • Marley

    One more reason why I love your blog so much. Thank you for promoting love and acceptance of all body types, on all women.

    I wish for the day when any woman can put whatever she wants on her body (whether that's a burqua or assless chaps with pasties) and feel secure and happy with her choice.

  • Gypsy Alex

    this was such a fantastic post! after embarking on my fashion photography journey, i have asked myself many times, if I am indulging some kind of frivolous superficial act. thanks for such a thought provoking and reassuring point of view. xo

  • TheSundayBest

    Here here – even the decision not to care is a decision. I love it when people try and give me a hard time about my clothing choices, and all I have to say is – so, did your mom pick your clothes then?

  • futurelint

    Very informative and interesting! I am generally intimidated by the term "feminism" because well, I grew up a tomboy and now just love wearing skirts and baking and sewing and taking care of kids… I feel like I accidentally slipped back a generation or two, but I realize that is not true. I choose to care about my appearance, I chose to go to school for a degree working with children… and I absolutely think I should be allowed to choose those things for myself and get fair and equal treatment for them. Besides, I will always play baseball, hang out with mostly guys, and burp louder than anyone I know.

  • Kaija

    futurelint, you sound a lot like me (except that I don't sew or have kids). I'm a tomboy through and through, but I also love my stiletto heels, cooking/baking, and hen nights with my girls as well as watching/playing sports, burping, and penis humor. There are as many ways of being a woman as there are women! 🙂

  • Sadie

    Sal, this is a brilliant post, and I agree 100% with everything you say here. The personal is (still) political, and as long as we're judged on how we look style will be a feminist issue.

  • Hanako66

    I have a feeling that this view could be quite controversial, though I agree with you wholeheartedly. You knocked it out of the park again Sal:)

  • Luinae

    My version of feminism is that women should be valued as equal members of society. Some of us want families, some of us are single, some like sports, some like music, some wear makeup, some like fashion, etc.

    Do not let anyone define us ladies! We define OURSELVES.

  • Audi

    Yes! That last point reminded me of an old Rush lyric I always liked: "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." Yeah, I was a teenager in the 80's…

  • Rosie Unknown

    Great post! I try to explain this to people all the time, but from now on I am just going to send them here!

  • Jen

    I love that you meld the two.

    I argue that feminism isn't just about militant man-hating lesbians' rights. It isn't even just about rights. Ultimately, it's about human rights.

  • kristophine

    I consider myself a fairly radical feminist–I won't take a man's last name, for example, nor will I wear an engagement ring with a rock on it, as that smacks too much of the old bride-price to me–and, from time to time, I get crap about my stylistic decisions. I present as fairly feminine, and there have been people, especially in the queer community, who've complained that I was "giving in" or "too straight-acting." The idea that I might enjoy looking however I darn well wanted to look didn't seem to enter the equation; it was all about power and assimilation. My identity as a bisexual woman was seen not as genuine, but as a concession to male domination.

    That always chapped my buttocks, as my granddad would say. I grew up in a small town with no support for queerness, or feminism, for that matter, except from other queers–back home, we stuck together. When I moved to a city, I was frankly amazed at how schismatic the queer community could be there, with identity politics all over the place. I thought, for goodness' sake, we have one common enemy: prejudice. We all know what it feels like to be discriminated against. Why on Earth are we directing our energy inward, on infighting, when we could be putting that energy into a push for positive and realistic media presentation, equal legal rights, and safer schools?

    Then I realized that women do the same thing. We in-fight. We back-stab. We do it not because we want to, in many cases, but because that's how we've been trained by an establishment that has a vested financial interest in seeing us hate each other. If we don't feel insecure, we don't buy useless products. (Anti-aging creams, I am looking at you.) If we aren't fighting each other, we might fight the system.

    And there is no reason–no reason at all–why we can't look good while we do it. I love my body. I love pretty clothes. And I have every right to love both of those things, and still want to be hired like a man, paid like a man, and respected like a man.

  • spacegeek

    What came to my mind is something about being kind to oneself. Empowerment and good body image are not results only of ignoring the negatives, but actually forgiving those things and being as kind and nurturing to oneself as women generally are to others.

    Just a point I wanted to make…

  • Elissa

    As I was reading this, I was thinking, "Man, she could really base an academic program based on this!" I can't wait to get to that article… I love thinking about these kinds of issues…. identity theory, etc., you reminded me because I forgot I did! I even taught a class on it! Man, I'm missing school right now!

  • SR@MyStyle

    Hi there-a very well written and inspirational post, I agree it is about making choices, I like to think I present myself the best way I can!

  • Make Do Style

    You should read Elizabeth Wilson's Adorned in Dreams, it is very ineresting.

  • hiking in stilettos

    I love this post. I completely agree that fashion and feminism are inextricably linked. I also agree with you that individuals who say that they don't care about their appearance or about fashion are still making choices. They still care to an extent, and just because some of us take it a bit farther and actually buy fashion magazines, it doesn't mean that we are vain. I just found your blog, and adore it!

  • Posy

    great post! I'm a feminist and fashion-lover, but I have always felt like they were contradictions as the fashion industry is often very harmful to women. Thanks for showing me that I'm not the hypocrite that I thought I was.

  • The Seeker

    This is such a deep and food for thought post, Sal.
    I love the way you put things up and write about them.
    Thank you.

    xoxo

  • lagatta à montréal

    I love beautiful clothes (I am an artist, for one thing) but find that fashion and feminism are not always such good bedfellows, especially because of the very narrow and unnatural body type modern fashion dictates (very tall and slim with artificial boobs tacked on).

    I can't quite agree with this either; it only applies to the most affluent women who don't have other galling restrictions in terms of what fits them and is comfortable:

    "But many modern women have the luxury of near-total control over appearance. We may be influenced by peer pressure, societal norms, outside opinions, availability, and even climate … but in the end, we decide. Personal style is an arena in which we rely solely on ourselves, in which we exert absolute control".

    Control over anything is never absolute, in any society, and if you have arthritis in your feet and joints as I do, this is a major consideration, much as I love pretty shoes and would rather cut them off than wear clodhoppers.

    Jen, what on earth have you got against lesbians? I'm most boringly straight, but some of my dear friends are gay men and lesbian women. Often they endure hell, even in our modern western societies.

    All in all, a most thought-provoking post. True, feminism, like other human-rights movements, is also about pride. Google Rosa Parks for example and look at how beautifully she was turned out way back then for the bus protests.

  • Sal

    lagatta à montréal: This entire blog is centered around helping women who are NOT shaped as you described to love themselves and find flattering clothing. Just because society says a single ideal figure is the end-all, be-all doesn't mean it's true. Additionally, fashion is what's walking the runways, style is personal. I'm talking about the link between style and feminism in this post.

    Any woman who can select from more than one pair of shoes and one robe to wear every day is lucky enough to have choices about what she wears. To say that only affluent women can choose what they wear is patently untrue, in my opinion.

    Finally, I think you are misinterpreting Jen's comment. I would NEVER publish any anti-gay sentiment here, and did not take her comment to mean anything of the sort.

  • E and O

    I came across this older post via the "you might also like" on one of your new posts. You've addressed many important points and I could make a long comment responding to each — but then I realized I'd mostly be reiterating your statements. *L* so instead I'll just say a big, huge "YES! WHAT SHE SAID! THANKS!" to this whole thing. 😉

    Thank you so much for addressing this issue, as it's one I feel is very important and often gets dismissed. I also got a particular giggle about you sort of categorizing your blog as "fashion and feminism". 🙂 I think that would be a great blog name. 🙂

    Oh, re: your remark wondering if people coming here for one of those (say, fashion) get frustrated with the information on the other (for example, feminism) —

    I wanted to step up and say the mix of those two subjects is the whole reason I read your blog. 🙂 It's what makes you, you, so to speak. So I say please keep on doing what you're doing.

    There are hundreds, probably thousands of style blogs out there. If someone wants just fashion they have no shortage of places to go. On the other side, if they want only feminism there are also many sites for that, such as http://www.feministing.com/ and http://www.feministe.us/blog/ or even http://jezebel.com/

    The intermixing is what helps to set your blog apart and make it an interesting read. So I say go with your natural flow here. 🙂

  • Brittany

    "I love beautiful clothes (I am an artist, for one thing) but find that fashion and feminism are not always such good bedfellows, especially because of the very narrow and unnatural body type modern fashion dictates (very tall and slim with artificial boobs tacked on). "

    "This entire blog is centered around helping women who are NOT shaped as you described to love themselves and find flattering clothing."

    I know this is an old post, but I just started reading this blog. Overall I love it, but these two related comments pretty much deeply offended me. I want to explain why.

    I am 5'9". I weigh 135lbs. My bra size is 28HH. I just got back from Goodwill crying. Why? Because even though I love clothes, (I am an artist too) I have nothing but stretchy t-shirts in my wardrobe and jeans that gape at the waist. Not flattering. In fact in most shirts I look about 30lbs heavier than I am, because they are huge at my waist if they fit my chest. Since everybody believes you can't be thin and busty without surgical intervention, there are NO clothes designed for that body type and shopping with it tends to make one feel like some sort of mutant freak. If my body is 'ideal' where are these clothes I should be easily able to find?

    Since when does fashion dictate you have big boobs? Most clothing is cut for a B cup, and is much more flattering (even slimming and curve-enhancing) if you are that body type. And when was the last time you saw a truly busty fashion model? I thought not. Apparently we (busty girls) are just supposed to lounge around in our lingerie (my bra size is only made in the UK) looking like sex objects?

    My point is NOT that I have worse problems than anybody or even that there aren't many people who wouldn't love to have the "problems" that I have. (As per the “compare and contrast” post.) But my body is most definitely NOT perfect.

    My point is, I thought this blog was about the 100% of women who have bodies, don't live in magic photoshop land, and need to find flattering clothes for their body. Shame on Sal for implying that anybody should be excluded from this blog and from the need to find flattering clothes.

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