Can I be a feminist and still be a "girly" girl?

Zahra
asks:
I am a teen girl/woman, and I want to be feminist. The problem is that it kind of seems like I'm not *feminist* enough to be feminist. I have long hair, wear dresses and skirts occasionally, and love makeup. It's not like I'm trying to please men or anything, or that I'm trying to wear clothes that "inhibit mobility," it's just something I like. It kind of seems like feminist people have cool, short hairstyles, and never wear makeup. And I think it's really brave of them to do that, and it's cool, but I just don't seem like that kind of person. Do I have to actively be *against* stereotypes, or can I just not be *for* them? As a girl/woman, feminism and sexism do affect me directly, and I want that to change, but at the same time, I want to stay a bit of a "girly" girl.
sam w replies:

There's a short answer and a long answer to your question. The short answer is: yes, someone can enjoy "feminine" things like make-up or dresses and still be a feminist. We don't have a dress code you have to follow to be part of the club.

The long answer is that there are many reasons why you, and lots of other people, have this question in the first place.

If we're going to be talking about feminism, a term whose definition is a common source of argument, I want to start the conversation with Heather's comments on feminism in this article:

I think it's important to remember that at the heart of feminism is the goal for women and gender-diverse people to be able to have enjoyment of our lives and the freedom to make our own choices and take our own journeys. We all also get to have our own ideas and opinions about what feminism is or should be: not all feminists agree that this thing or that is or is not feminist. It's a movement made of people, and people vary and also adjust our ideas, and thus, the movement itself, as we all go through our own processes.

In other words, answering questions about whether a given thing is feminist will always be tricky, because there's no single definition of the concept that every feminist agrees on.

One thing that Heather's definition of feminism reflects is that there's not a universal experience of being a woman. Disability, race, class, immigration status, and sexual orientation all intermingle with gender, meaning that my experiences as a white, queer, cis woman may be very different from those of a Black, disabled, trans woman. It also means that because of our diversity of experiences, what one woman finds empowering another may find oppressive. That includes things like make-up or skirts.

Let's take bras as an example. In 1968, a group called New York Radical Women tossed bras (along with many other items like high heels and copies of Playboy) into a trash can in protest of the Miss America Pageant. That event, along with the fact that the contents of the trash can may or may not have been burnt, made rejecting bras a symbol of feminism to much of the public.  And it's true, some women really do see bras as a thing to avoid at all costs. But someone with larger breasts might like--or at least tolerate--bras because they help avoid back pain. Another woman may find a bra helps affirm her gender identity. Another may hate lacy push-up bras but be totally comfy in a wireless, plain one. Another may not have strong feelings on the matter and wear a bra some days but not others.  And none of those choices is somehow the most feminist of the bunch; they're based on what the woman in question feels is right for her.

How, then, should a feminist dress? Broadly speaking, feminism draws attention to how narrowly defined gender roles hurt people, and argues that there's no reason to follow patriarchal expectations of how we should look or act based on our gender. Following that logic, a feminist view on dress is that people of all genders should be allowed more freedom in how they present themselves. That means a person could pick from any number of ways to present their gender, including ones that don't fit within the binary of masculinity and femininity. It's about choosing the presentation that feels right and comfortable to you.

I think a common reason some young women feel that they can't be both feminist and feminine has to do with the discussion in feminist spaces around "compulsory femininity." That's the academic term for the fact that traditionally feminine appearances and behaviors are rewarded--or, at least, not punished--in society, while any deviation from those expectations is risky (you actually acknowledge this in your letter by referring to women who dress in gender non-conforming ways as "brave"). A woman who puts on make-up and modest, feminine clothing is likely to have an easier time moving through her day than a woman who doesn't.

Remember how I said a feminist way of dressing is one that's comfortable for you? Compulsory femininity is one of the social factors that complicates that idea. If a society makes it safer to dress feminine if you're a woman, then we need to acknowledge that sometimes a woman adopts that style of dress not because it's what she actively enjoys, but because of the threat of an unwanted outcome if she doesn't. That threat makes it hard for that gender presentation to truly be a choice at times. Those threats, however, come from how those in power use gender presentation as a means of control, not from the fact that skirts, or make-up, or other things we think of as feminine are inherently anti-feminist or oppressive. Compulsory femininity is about patterns in a society and how those patterns affect women's experiences. It doesn't say that any woman who likes anything traditionally feminine is betraying both herself and the feminist cause.

It is important to stop and think about why you choose the gender presentation you do. Pretty much all of us get doused in gender expectations from the day we're born, and it can be easy to just...not think about them. There are questions to ask that can help you work out why you present your gender the way you do. Who are you doing it for? What elements of it are about practical things, like getting through a workday or accomodating a disability? What elements make you feel at home in your body? Are there parts of the way you dress that you'd gladly throw in the trash if you thought you could get away with it?  Actively engaging with and thinking about your gender is what matters, not choosing the correct shoe or t-shirt to wear.

Speaking of t-shirts, I think part of the reason some young people feel conflicted about whether their gender presentation is "feminist" is that over the last few years, feminism has become a brand. On the one hand, it's been nice to see people more willing to visibly identify with that label. But it also means that it's easy to see feminism as being about wearing or otherwise consuming the "right" things. I'm wary of saying that a certain action isn't enough to make a person feminist because that path leads to some nasty gatekeeping. However, if someone's feminism only extends as far as carrying a "the future is female" travel mug and wearing a "this is what a feminist looks like" shirt, that isn't enough. Feminism is about what we do, not what we buy or wear.

Which brings me to the last part of your question. You clearly do want your feminism to involve action, because you want to change things that negatively affect your life as a woman. That's great! If you need some help figuring out where to start, here are some possible options:

  • Think about issues that feel relevant to your daily life. Is your school's dress code majorly sexist? If you're in college, are you worried about the persistent issues with sexual assault and the treatment of survivors? Are you or your loved ones members of the LGBTQA+ community and looking for ways to fight for the rights of queer and trans women?
  • Look for problems in the world that feel urgent to you. For instance, are you troubled by family separation at the border? Freaked the heck out by climate change? Angered by the way a global pandemic is making it even harder for people to survive? Fighting back against those issues is absolutely a feminist action.
  • Are there places in your daily interactions where you could push back against everyday misogyny and sexism? That could be speaking up against victim blaming, racism, sexism, or other bigoted opinions you encounter from friends and family. In some ways, this can be the most intimidating action to take; it can feel really weird to correct your otherwise kindly uncle who's just said something incredibly sexist. We have some basic tools to help you address that conflict if it arises.
  • And, since your question was initially about your appearance, you can ask yourself if it's important to you to incorporate some kind of indicator of your beliefs into the way you look. It's true that wearing certain things doesn't automatically make you feminist. But it's okay if displaying that you are one is important to you. Some of us live in places that feel like a sea of deeply misogynistic values, and we want to make it very clear from just a glance that we do not share that outlook. Or maybe we want to make it easier for other feminists to spot and connect with us. Or maybe it's just a part of our identity that's really important to us and we want to show it. That doesn't have to mean wearing a jumpsuit embroidered head to toe with "I'm a Feminist!" (although if that's your look, go for it). Things like pins and jewelry can be easy ways to incorporate that identity into your daily wear.

I hope you continue to explore your interest in feminism, and that you keep finding ways to express your gender that feel right to you. If you want even more help in the process, the resources below offer some great starting places.

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