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.
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.
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)
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
(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.