To be honest, I struggled with answering this week’s Feminist Fashion Bloggers prompt. Maybe it’s my academic background, where I focused so much on cerebral activity and not so much on the physical side of things (so much that it destroyed my health a little bit), I have a hard time answering how I express feminism in my clothes. Because frankly, when I get dressed in the morning, I am not asking: “does this make me look like a feminist?” but rather: “does this look good? Do these colours even go together?”
I have started thinking a lot about feminist (and Marxist) implications of the origins of my garments, more than the garments themselves – thus my engagement with second-hand shopping and swapping. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing that I don’t strive to “look like a feminist.” Because to ask that question would be to assume that there is a uniform aesthetic of what a feminist looks like, or should look like – whereas my definition of feminism is about women’s experiences and their diverse backgrounds, aesthetics and cultures.
This feminist had some big hair issues when this photo happened.
I remember some commenters on the Feminist Fashion Bloggers Google discussion board saying that they do not show cleavage, wear short skirts, or wear “obvious” makeup because they want to express their feminism that way. While I understand the rationale for those choices, I think setting such norms can have the potential to instil a sex-shaming attitude – where any attempt to express one’s sexuality is seen as “bad” or conforming to the male gaze. Yes, male gaze is everywhere, and yes, I believe that women can never truly escape the process of objectification imposed upon them by the patriarchal society. But even those attempts to “defy” the male gaze seem to feed into the power dynamic of the gaze, by establishing yet another restrictive norm (feminists must not wear heels), to police our bodies and our self-representation. This is why I enjoy certain performance artists like Orlan or Nina Arsenault, who nakedly reveal the artificiality of feminine ideals, while still being able to play with femininity and enjoy them.
In the realm of the male gaze and the patriarchal ideal of femininity, what I find the most dangerous and harmful is not the feminine signifiers themselves (skirts, long hair, what have you), but the pretension that all of those signifiers are somehow natural to women. And artists like Orlan and Arsenault challenge and deflate that naturalized notion of femininity by revealing the very artificial process of “becoming” (but never quite “being”) that feminine ideal.
There have been a few occasions in my life where, upon hearing that I am a feminist, people responded by saying: “really? You don’t look like a feminist.” Why? Because I wear lipstick? Because I wear skirts? Recently, Colorlines also tackled a similar dilemma regarding Michelle Obama, on how white feminists have been silent on Michelle Obama, who is often seen as more of a fashion icon than a feminist. The fact that the article’s title establishes the dichotomy of feminist OR fashion icon suggests that our world still sees women as incapable of occupying multiple roles and spaces, even as feminists. After all that feminists fought to prove that women deserve to play multiple roles in society and can have choices, discourses like this proves that even feminists still fall under the patriarchal notions of women fitting into one singular aesthetic or role.
When we ascribe a certain look to a group, we lose diversity. The mainstream media has done this successfully by repeatedly showing certain body types and faces as the ideal. I would love to see women with body hair, butch women, and transwomen in the media being represented. In the same token, the mainstream media has also managed to paint a fixed aesthetic of a “feminist.” But to maintain the notion that a feminist must stay outside of the realm of fashion is to uphold the problematic dichotomy established by others before feminists could control their own image.
This is not to say that all feminists should be okay with being conventionally “feminine”-looking, but rather: wear what feels right to you. When you find something that you think looks “good,” it may be fruitful to question where that “feeling good” comes from, and know that some of those origins may have root in the norms established by this heteronormative environment we live in. At times, it would be beneficial to explore some of the uncharted territories when it comes to clothes and representation, just to see what you may discover about yourself. But your self-representation is not an invitation from others – even other feminists – to judge you. Engage in a discussion, of course, but never judge.
[dress - a little shop on rue St-Denis, $10; sash - from another dress; cardigan - Banana Republic when I was 16; tights - Korean night market, $5 I think?; shoes - Value Village, $7.99]