Posts Categorized: feminism

The “All or Nothing” Conundrum


Over the summer, I read/listened to Caitlin Moran’s book How to Be a Woman. I knew she was British, funny, and beloved by many feminists, but very little else, so I went in with a pretty open mind.

For the most part, I found the book relatable, hilarious, and endearing. She tells stories about growing up female and navigating the world as a young woman that weren’t universal, per se, but still engaging and accessible. And she’s an astute observer of pop culture.

However, there were several sections that actually enraged me. I didn’t just disagree with her views, I wanted to punch her in the face for expressing those views in the ways that she did: She stated that the reason men view women as inferior is that we haven’t really done anything notable yet as a gender – in science, art, politics, or humanitarianism. She had some preposterously backwards views on body image that bordered on fat-phobia. She made statements about evolution and sociology that she’d clearly extracted from her own butt without consulting any research or getting any expert input. And she’s touted as “a feminist heroine for our times,” looked up to by countless impressionable young women, setting a sloppy example for the generations coming up behind her.

BUT. I still enjoyed the book, and I’d still totally take her out for a cheeseburger if I had the chance. And perhaps more importantly, I would never say that she’s not a feminist. Or not a good feminist. Or that her views – which occasionally clash with my own – will ruin feminism.

And you may be saying to yourself, “So what? That just makes you a reasonable human being.” But here’s the thing, friends: It also puts me in the minority, especially amongst my fellow feminists. The feminist blogs I read are clogged with call-outs and overrun with in-fighting. One of them seems to have created an editorial calendar that revolves around pointing out all of the things feminists and allies are doing wrong. You are expected to be completely perfect, or turn in your feminist badge and go home.

“All or nothing” works beautifully in many realms, but it is unwise to take it on as a universal life philosophy. If a designer you love releases a collection you loathe, you don’t need to write them off forever. If a family member you respect says something boneheaded, you don’t need to cut them out of your life. If a prominent figure makes a statement that enrages you, you don’t need to decide that they’re a minion of Satan. Discarding mere disagreement in favor of outright hatred turns people into closed-minded robots focused on false binaries.

There are may ways to be a Christian, many ways to be a woman, many ways to be a teacher, many ways to be a mom, many ways to be a leader, and – of course – many ways to be beautiful, and many ways to be stylish.  We may want a simple, easy, black-and-white world, but we just can’t have one. Instead, we have the one in which Caitlin Moran thinks women are historical underachievers and still gets to be a feminist. We have the one in which hypocrisy is part of human nature. We have the one in which we could all stand to get a little more comfortable with the gray areas.

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Reader Request: Bodies and Decency

Reader Leah sent me this question via email:

Views on body hair seem to me like part of a larger trend of regarding certain secondary sexual characteristics of women as obscene or inappropriate. Here are several examples:

“Bikini area” – The top 6″ of my inner thighs grow pubic hair rather than leg hair. I don’t think I’m allowed to wear a bathing suit that shows this hair. Showing leg hair might be seen as icky or unconventional, but I’d be concerned about being reported for indecent exposure if I showed pubic hair. I’ve never seen a woman wearing a bathing suit that showed this type of hair in this location. (Incidentally, shaving gives me terrible ingrown hairs, so I eventually started wearing board shorts when I swim. I’m quite satisfied with that solution, but it makes me “weird” and people ask why I don’t wear a standard bathing suit.)

Nipples – You’ve mentioned several times that you have permanently erect nipples. Mine aren’t permanently erect, but they might as well be since I get cold easily. It irks me that it would be considered inappropriate to go around with the outlines of nipples visible through my shirt. (I’m pretty flat chested so otherwise have little need to wear a bra, and I find the thicker, more supportive bras uncomfortable. No good solution here.)

“Camel toe” – When did this become a thing? Having random creases in the clothing around one’s groin probably isn’t the most flattering look, but now there’s a name for it and it’s considered gross. As someone with unusually large labia, I’m more likely to have problems with this than some women are.

Certainly there are plenty of characteristics that are considered gross and shouldn’t be, such as being fat. However, the specific ones I list are secondary sexual characteristics. I’m usually fine with violating norms for what’s stylish or flattering, but it’s much harder when one is considered obscene and when it’s a sexual characteristic. What do you think?

Oh, I think so many things. I think about my friends with big busts who have been called “slutty” even when they’re wearing high necklines and layers. I think about the movie “The Cooler” – which is just marvelous, by the way – and how I learned that one of the sex scenes originally showed the leading lady’s pubic hair which caused the MPAA to give it an NC-17 rating. Because women’s body hair is that scandalous. (The scene was removed so the movie could get bumped down to R.) I think about the fact that unlined bras are almost impossible to find because of nipple fear. I think about the multitudinous ways in which women’s bodies are policed, and how strict and judgmental that policing becomes when it pertains to body features that are related to sex and sexuality.

But beyond that, I don’t know what to think. American culture is simultaneously obsessed with pushing the boundaries of bodily exposure and shaming anyone who enjoys exposing her body. I have no idea how to react to that, much less change it. I understand that the simplest way to push back is to refuse to conform – let your nipples show through, wear your swimsuit even if you haven’t shaved or waxed your bikini line – but, as Leah points out, when you run the risk of crossing the “decency” boundary, it makes that pushback trickier to navigate.

Have any of you had direct experiences with these issues? Have you been scolded or called out for dressing in clothes that expose or reveal secondary sexual characteristics? How did you react? Any ideas for how to stem the tide?

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If You Want to, You Should Totally Chop Off All Your Hair

pixie haircut

Like many, I’ve got a Pinterest board dedicated to hair and hairstyles. Although I don’t personally have enough to braid, I pin braids and updos. I pin textures and colors I’ll never have.  And I totally get that Pinterest is a place for bookmarking things we actually want to try, and also things that we may never try but like to fantasize about. Really. I get that.

But I’m going to be a little nervy and blunt, here. Because I’d say that around 70% of the hair-related pins I see in my feed are short, spiky, pixie-style cuts with comments like “Someday I’ll work up the nerve” and “Love this look, but just can’t pull it off.” Short hair, wishful thinking. So here it comes:

If you want to, you should totally chop off all your hair. You should. And even though you may already know them, I’ll give you a whole bunch of reasons why.

It grows back

In most cases, the hair you cut off will grow back eventually. This is one of a very small handful of life decisions that is TOTALLY REVERSIBLE. You can play around with short hair now, and in a few years you can play around with long hair again if you want to. And yes, growing out a pixie can be a long and difficult process. But who’s to say you’ll definitely want to grow it out someday? You could become a lifelong short-hair convert. Either way, you can make this change now and it will not permanently alter you. Big picture-wise, it’s low risk.

Short hair won’t make you any less attractive

And anyone who says it will? They can swing by my house later today and I’ll give them a long, stern lecture about the patriarchy and hetero-normativity and controlling the beauty paradigm. Just as women who are short and tall and fat and thin and old and young can all be attractive, so can women with long or short hair. Partners and parents can be pushy and vocal with their opinions about your hair length, but the choice is yours. It may take them a while to get used to the new you. Heck, it’ll probably take YOU a while to get used to the new you. But you’ll be just as gorgeous and lovely and sensual as you were with longer hair. Promise. Your hair is only one aspect of your appearance, which is only one aspect of your self.

You don’t have to have a specific face shape

Those charts showing which face shapes suit short hair and pixie cuts make me want to set things on fire. You know how certain dress styles work fabulously with certain figures? Well, lo and behold, certain short hairstyles work fabulously with certain face shapes. You don’t have to go buzz-cut or pixie short to play around with shorter hairstyles. There are plenty of chin-length or shorter options that can ease you into the world of short hair. If you’re not sure about the style you’d like to try, consult your stylist. If your stylist offers no or crummy advice, tinker around with hair makeover tools like this one. And if you’re still undecided and worried? Try going short in stages. Do shoulder length, a long bob, chin-length. Once you get there, you may be able to move your hair around a bit more to see what it would look like in various super-short configurations.

You don’t have to be thin

This is the one that really gets me. OK, they all do, but I’ve actually had women tell me that they’d love to try my hairstyle but not until they lost a bunch of weight. Will having super short hair make your face look rounder? Maybe. Will it reveal more of your face? Probably. Are these things bad? No, although everyone will have her own comfort level. Faces come in all shapes and sizes, and although balancing your face shape with hair, accessory, and glasses choices can be great, it isn’t actually necessary. If you’re fat or not-thin and want to try short hair, I would encourage you to go for it. Because the whole can’t/shouldn’t-based-on-body-size-or-shape thing? It’s bunk.

Being afraid of “ruining” your looks can be very stifling

Another thing I totally get: Fear of looking weird for a long time. I have a fantastic hairstylist and a magazine-sanctioned face shape, so it’s all well and good for me to say these things. But I do understand that a drastic hair change means a big risk. If it doesn’t work out how you’d like, you may feel “stuck” or “ruined” or like you’ve made a horrible choice. And if that fear is stronger than your desire to take the plunge, please don’t think I’m saying you absolutely must cast that fear aside and chop away. But, again, in the vast majority of cases your hair will grow back. So if you cut it all off and don’t like the end result, you can – over time – change it back. And breaking free of the idea that your looks should be consistent and as close to perfect as possible at all times? That can be freeing. Nothing you do will ruin your looks. Nothing. And you have every right to make active decisions about the aspects of your looks that you can change and control.

Short hair is more expensive to maintain. It can take a while to hone in on the perfect shape and cut for you. And it is risky. But if you’ve wanted to go short for ages and just haven’t been able to muster up the nerve, I hope I’ve furthered the mustering process somewhat. Because lemme tell ya: I love my short hair so very much and can’t imagine ever growing it out. I feel more like myself with short hair than I ever did with long hair, even though everyone in my life fawned over my long curls. And every time I open Pinterest and see a string of darling pixie cut images and accompanying captions of stifled longing, I wish I could project my voice through the computer to that pinner and say, “Go for it.”

This is me whispering to you.

This post first appeared on Huff Post Style

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