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Apr 22 2014

Individualized Feminism

Public scrutiny of individual women’s choices is a spectator sport in our society. Women’s aesthetic, sartorial, professional, parental, sexual, social, and health decisions are debated passionately whether these women are entertainers, politicians, business executives, relatives, neighbors, or fellow PTA moms. These decisions are presumed to reflect strongly on who these women are as mothers, daughters, friends, girlfriends, wives, and employees, much more than they reflect on the context in which they are being made.

This is not surprising when you consider how individualistic American culture is–much more so than other cultures that fall on that end of the individualistic-collectivistic spectrum. It seems to be difficult for many people raised in such a culture to think about other people in ways besides the individual. If we believe that everyone’s ultimately on their own and gets to make their own decisions without much influence from other people or from the surrounding society, then it makes sense to believe that how someone raises their children or which career they choose says a lot about who they really are deep down, and does not say very much about anything else.

For societies with a high value of individualism and a high value of sexism, a particular love of scrutinizing individual women’s actions to determine how Good At Being Women they are especially makes sense.

Feminist theory and practice replicate the biases and prejudices found mainstream culture. That’s the reason feminism has such a storied history of racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other bigotries. We keep realizing that the rabbit hole of bad thinking and the oppression that results from it goes so much deeper than we thought.

Another (much less harmful but still counterproductive) way in which feminism as I often see it practiced here in the U.S. carries on preexisting cultural trends is a myopic focus on individual choices. Should women stop shaving? Should women wear their hair short? Is this a feminist thing to do? Is that a feminist thing to do? Can you be a feminist and love football? Can you be a feminist and wear feminine clothes? Can you be a feminist and a stay-at-home mom? Can you be a feminist and let the guy pay for dinner? Can you be a feminist and wear makeup? Can you be a feminist and _____?

Consequently, it seems that no major feminist website is free from frequent articles to the tune of “Why I Shave My Pubic Hair” or “Why I Gave In And Married The Guy I Love” or “Why I Stopped Shaving My Legs” and so on.

First of all, I do recognize the value of women speaking and writing about their experiences as women, especially in a society that often treats these narratives as “inappropriate” or “silly” or “gross” or what have you. This is the case not only for stories of sexual assault or harassment and such, but also for stories of these everyday choices and decisions that are influenced by our socialization as women, and then further impacted intersectionally by factors like race, class, and so on.

especially recognize the value of these types of articles when they’re coming from voices that we don’t hear very often within the feminist movement or anywhere else: women of color, gender-nonconforming folks, women from impoverished backgrounds, and so on. At that point, these articles are vital because people need to hear these stories and try to understand these perspectives. 

But yet another article from an able-bodied thin white woman about her decision to shave her legs despite her feminist ideals isn’t the same thing. Or rather, it is precisely the same thing as we’ve all read a dozen times before.

It seems that the constant production of these narratives and their eager consumption by readers speaks to two problems with the way many people understand feminism: 1) that to be a feminist is to perform a certain series of actions and make a particular set of choices, and 2) that if you identify as a feminist but stray from these actions and choices, you have to justify yourself by writing an article to explain how you can be a feminist and still love football/love men/get married/shave your legs/shave your pubic area/wear feminine clothes/wear makeup/stay at home with the kids/choose a traditionally feminine profession/”lean out”/etc.

It’s no wonder I’m constantly having to explain to men that who pays for the damn date is not the be-all end-all of feminist discourse.

As feminists, we all presumably understand that society puts a lot of pressure on women to act a certain way, and that women who ignore this pressure face backlash. So nobody should be particularly surprised that a women who identifies strongly as a feminist may nevertheless do certain things that she doesn’t really want to, or that don’t feel entirely genuine, but that are prescribed by her feminine role.

But it’s also quite possible to be a fierce feminist and to also genuinely want to stay at home with the kids or wear high heels or whatever. In fact, it’s probably impossible to pick apart what is “genuine” and what is not, because we all grow up hearing certain messages about how we should live and many of those become internalized and therefore start to feel authentic and good and meaningful.

Men, too, face a lot of pressure to act in line with the masculine gender role. Yet I don’t see a preponderance of articles about whether or not you can be a male feminist who also works in the tech sector, who prefers having lots of facial hair, who plays sports, who wants to advance to the top of the career ladder, or whatever. I find this interesting.

The pressure that many feminist women feel to refrain from doing traditionally feminine things may stem from the belief that if everyone just started ignoring gender roles and doing whatever the hell they want, they would just go away. While the particular gender roles being flouted might subside if a critical mass of people started to ignore them (which would probably require a LOT more people than currently identify as feminists, anyway), new ones would probably emerge to take their place. For instance, some have noted that advertisements for children’s toys (and, therefore, the toys that end up being bought for children) have become more gendered, not less, over the past few decades. How could this be? Women’s rights have made so much progress!

Because we keep looking at it as a matter of individual lifestyle choices rather than as an entire system in which the only two recognized genders are strictly divided, and one is considered more powerful, agentic, and strong, while the other is considered more sexually attractive, gentle, and pure.

(And also because fucking profit motive.)

Sexism would still exist even if every single woman stopped shaving her legs, and feminism is not being held back by every single woman who has not stopped shaving her legs. While these individual choices can be (and often are) politicized, focusing on them myopically at the expense of the bigger picture means much less time spent discussing the rigid gender binary itself or the glorification of physical beauty or the double bind that women find themselves in at the workplace.

It’s not surprising to me that the sort of feminism that focuses so intently on individual choices is also the sort that often fails so badly at intersectionality. When you make it all about individual choices and not about the context in which those choices are made, you miss the fact that, for example, a woman of color might not view staying at home with the kids while the husband works as “traditional” because women of color have not traditionally had that option. A trans woman might not view cutting her hair short as “edgy” or “political” because all it means is that she doesn’t pass anymore. A woman who grew up poor might not see anything “liberating” or “radical” about growing her own vegetables in a cute little balcony garden because her family had to do that to survive.

I get that it’s easier to talk about personal lifestyle choices that everyone makes and understands than it is to talk about all the sociological structural shit, but it’s not getting very much done. As far as I’m concerned, the only individual choice that is “not feminist” is the choice to restrict other women’s rights and freedoms. That’s why, no matter how you try to spin it, you cannot be a pro-life feminist. You can be a feminist who personally feels that abortion is morally wrong but that others deserve to make that decision for themselves, but you cannot be a feminist who advocates for reduced (or no) access to abortion and contraception.

Otherwise, any negative impact you have on the dismantling of the patriarchy by continuing to shave your legs can only be so minuscule as to be irrelevant.

And I can only hope that I never have to hear “I know this makes me a bad feminist but–” ever again.

~~~

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6 comments

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  1. 1
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Yet I don’t see a preponderance of articles about whether or not you can be a male feminist who also works in the tech sector, who prefers having lots of facial hair, who plays sports, who wants to advance to the top of the career ladder, or whatever.

    I’m sure it doesn’t help that I still occasionally see articles about whether or not you can be a male feminist at all. But this is an interesting point…

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I see those too, but I generally lump them in with the “is there any point in having/calling people ‘allies’” types of posts. It just so happens that there’s a word that means “person who is anti-sexist” but no equivalent word for people opposing racism, homophobia, etc.

  2. 2
    Flewellyn

    This post is good post.

  3. 3
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Because we keep looking at it as a matter of individual lifestyle choices rather than as an entire system in which the only two recognized genders are strictly divided, and one is considered more powerful, agentic, and strong, while the other is considered more sexually attractive, gentle, and pure.

    THIS
    It’s also about the things you were exposed to, the models you had.
    I certainly love cooking. While many days it’s just a chore because time!, at others it’s something I thoroughly enjoy. Yet I don’t think that there’s some “cooking module” inside my brain that made me gravitate naturally towards pots and pans. I grew up helping my gran, and sometimes my mother. I grew up in a world where women cooked. It was also an activity to which I was exposed, to which I had access. Same with sewing. There was a range of options I had and I chose within those options those things I enjoyed best.
    And the options I had, the models I had were heavily influenced by my gender, even though my parents did try to mitigate the effect.
    It would be stupid to assume that Americans are born to play Football and baseball while Germans are born to play soccer and go skying. Nobody but some extreme asshole-idiots assumes that this clear divide you see between favourite German sports and favourite USAmerican sports is because of biological differences.
    Choices also don’t happen within a vacuum. There are not only reasosn, but also consequences. Not all women can or want to pay the price that comes with a certain “feminist” choice. Bit of a catch-22: If you don’t do A you’re failing feminism, if you’re doing A and then fail because of the consequences, you’re failing feminism.
    And that’s not even mentioning the femme-phobia that lies at the basis of declaring some choices more or less feminist.

    I found that “short hair” debate bizarre. Really, short hair is feminist? For all women? Because men don’t like it? It’s like saying that getting fat is feminist because it defies the current standards of beauty

    There’s a passage in one of Rita Mae Brown’s novels: The feminist daughter berates her kick-ass mother for painting her fingernails, because that went against the women’s movement. The mother tells her that any movement that worries about the colour of her nails isn’t worth shit.
    I find that a very telling scene and a good guideline: Let’s stop worrying about any individual woman’s choice and let’s focus on the societal norms and pressures within which that choice is made.

  4. 4
    angel

    I am a woman. I stay at home. I make art, sell some. I take care of and love 10 acres and four dogs. I live on the outskirts of a tiny town on the outskirt of big city. I shave my legs up to the knee. I laugh a great deal and I drink and smoke on occasion. I drive an all terrain vehicle because I have to if I want to leave the property. I cook from scratch, grow my own vegetables and buy my meats and dry goods at a coop. I’m not trying to be a good feminist, I’m trying to be a decent human being.

  5. 5
    hoary puccoon

    In the 1970′s when I was doing a lot of local TV interviews as a representative of a group trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified, you’d better believe I shaved my legs and wore makeup. In the 1980′s when I was finishing a 300+ page PhD dissertation, my personal grooming varied according to how much of a roll I was on with my writing. In the 1990′s when I was the navigator on a sailboat crossing the North Atlantic, at the helm in gale force winds because the boat’s autopilot couldn’t handle such heavy conditions, it was all I could do to struggle out of my oilskins and wipe the salt off my face before I collapsed in my bunk after a watch.

    All of the above were truly liberating experiences. And you may notice my personal grooming or lack thereof was all over the map.

    Instead of worrying about such minor points (Whether to shave your legs? Really??) if people want to be good feminists, they need to start working toward the November2014 elections. Reproductive rights is obviously a feminist issue. But minimum wage also impacts women disproportionately. And it particularly impacts women of color. So working on that issue, right there, makes the movement more ethnically inclusive. And then there are the voter suppression efforts, where the immediate victims are the young and people of color, but the net result is to handicap the more liberal side of the political spectrum.

    In 2012 when my daughter was volunteering 50 or 60 hours a week on Elizabeth Warren’s senate campaign, she wasn’t spending any hours at all worrying about whether being a happily-married housewife made her not a feminist. She was just grateful her husband had the financial and emotional resources to support her in a task they both considered important. (And her town not only went heavily for Warren, which everyone expected, but had a huge voter turnout, which was credited to the local volunteers.)

    So if your feminism comes down to whether you should pluck your eyebrows, then no, you’re not a feminist. And I wish you’d stop using the word. Dare to get out and take on the world. Take a risk. Accept a challenge. That’s where the liberation lies in what used to be called women’s liberation.

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