Feminism, Politics and Femininity
Feminism, Politics and Femininity by Joy Watson
It can be hard being a woman. Feminism, politics and femininity and its associated implications of the pressure to conform to limiting notions of right and wrong ways of being a woman are enormous. The assumption is that most of us are heterosexual, well-groomed ‘goddesses’ (a word I’ve secretly come to loath!) – we have boyfriends or husbands, we become mothers, we have successful careers, we manage our homes in ways that are exemplary and most importantly, we must manage our time and precariously balance all of these roles. Heaven forbid if you are an intersex person who is not interested in having children and would like to spend your life sitting on the sofa in a home that is synonymous with a hippy commune. You definitely do not fit the mould!
Women who break the ‘mould’
Women who do not conform to dominant social constructions of what it means to be a woman are different, alien and ‘othered’ by our society. They are hard pressed in finding a niche and staking a claim in a world governed by rigid gendered constructions. The notion of femininity and its associated focus on our bodies as sites of expression of our womanhood is inextricably linked to societal expectations of what it means to be a woman. We are encouraged to spend an inordinate amount of time in grooming and presenting ourselves. This can be an extensive exercise that includes complex rituals of skin care (pre-cleansing, cleansing, toning, exfoliation, masques, moisturising etc.); hair care for maintaining your hair; hair removal for getting rid of all the rest of your hair that is not situated on your head and; last, but not least, the complicated rituals of make-up application. Skin care practice has also come to normalise medical interventions in the form of cosmetic surgery aimed at keeping us younger and perter.
I marvel at this given that for every good face job, there are about 1000 bad jobs with women walking around with transfixed, static faces that look strangely macabre. Equally, the sets of massive, abnormally round boobs walking around, balanced precariously on small chests, are quite unfathomable to me as I cannot imagine that they would not cause moderate to severe back pain. Time spent on our bodies should also include whipping them into shape into preconceived notions of what a beautiful body is. The cult of thinness dictates that we should be small hipped, big breasted, with toned abdominals. Accepting ourselves, our bodies and going against the grain of what has become normalised as appropriate expressions of femininity is a treacherous, difficult tightrope to walk at times.
Is it all right to wear lipstick?
Now here comes the complicated bit. I recently had a discussion with a group of women friends who cut across a traverse spectrum of sexual orientation, race and craziness. I consider all of these women to be interesting, secure in their sense of self and able to find their voice and claim space. We got to talking about notions of femininity and the points at which it can be problematic. We were all very clear that when femininity is a tool of patriarchy, then it certainly is a dangerous thing. When we mould our bodies and construct our look predominantly for a male gaze and become sex objects in the process of so doing, then it becomes a huge problem. But we started talking about the fact that for some of us, there are times when we enjoy putting on make-up, wearing a shoe with a bit of a heel on the odd occassion or going for a facial.
We’re all very sensitive to the fact that our bodies are not sites of ornamental display off which we hang symbols of sexualised, gendered oppression. But we unashamedly feel that wearing lipstick, putting on nice clothes or even feeling ‘sexy,’ does not make us any less feminist, because we remain loyal and committed to the key issues important to the feminist movement. These include issues such as violence against women, the fight against patriarchy, and the need for recognising intersectionality in advocating for women’s rights. As long as you’re conscious of not bowing before the alter of sexist stereotypes in advocating for femininity, there is nothing wrong in wanting to express this part of your identity. When femininity is linked to issues of self-loathing, then it certainly is harmful, so this must be distinguished from ways in which it is used to empower and feel good about yourself. The important point here is that when we choose to deny women the right to be “feminine,” we inadvertently become part of reinforcing sexism because we contribute to a culture that is obsessed with harshly judging women on their appearance.
Halting self flagellation in its tracks
As feminists, we also need to stop the self-flagellation. It will never ever be possible to reconcile all our feminist values and aspirations with every single aspect of our lives. Lipstick will not do irretrievable damage to feminism. So there is no point beating ourselves up over the small, inconsequential things that we do that may well emanate from institutionalised patriarchy. The point is that we stick with the principles of the feminist movement, do our best in living a good feminist life and look after ourselves in ways that are beneficial to our health and well-being. In so doing, we must strive for self-acceptance as well as acceptance of those who differ from by wanting to denounce femininity in all its forms.
Chimamandra Ngozi Adichie has pointed out that while there are tough standards for women, these standards are notched up for women who are supposed to be particularly intellectual or creative. This brand of woman is not meant to be fashionable or interested in make-up and grooming. The ‘look’ for such women is generally not associated with expressions of femininity. These limiting stereotypes serve to ultimately reinforce the oppression of women.
While Ngozi Adichie has chosen to embrace aspects of beauty, fashion and grooming, there are also those who have boldly made a statement against some of these things. Alicia Keys, for example, bravely started the #nomakeupmovement and took a stand against using make-up, sending out a solid message that “we are enough just as we are.” The stance was a progressive one, born out of the need to challenge the obsession with how women look. As a result, however, she was subjected to harsh personal attacks, with one person imploring her on twitter to “Put on concealer and call it a day.” This is illustrative of the one-dimensional way in which we think, which is dangerous in its zero tolerance approach.
Being a woman means different things in different cultural and situational contexts and we need to be able to accommodate different expressions of this. We need to be broad minded enough to allow for multiple and complex expressions of gendered identity that are not damaging to the feminist cause on the whole. Yet at the same time, we need to be mindful of the fact that the personal choices that we make such as what we choose to read, how and what we think about, how we live, the activities that we embark upon, how we engage in our relationships etc. all say something about our politics – the things that we believe in, our view of the world and our aspirations for changing it. And ultimately, we want to have the kind of politics and concomitant lifestyle that says that we care about the world that we live in, the dynamics of power within it and the extent to which women are living free and meaningful lives.