Feminism, body image and the line between personal and political

“Body image is the new, self-involved frontier of feminist expression” wrote Lizzie Crocker in an article on The Daily Beast. Modern day feminist media on social platforms has focused a lot of positive attention to ‘the girl who doesn’t care what she looks like’. Growing out armpit hair or wearing no makeup is seen as a huge feminist statement and, rightly so, an expression of self confidence. The message behind this movement is exciting, empowering and mostly positive- your body is your body and you can do whatever you want with it. However, an unsettling trend has come from this, and the shaming of girls who do the opposite- who groom themselves and spend more time on their appearance- has risen as a consequence. Where did the idea come from that girls are somehow better if they opt for a more natural look?

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Twitter: @Alicia Keys

One of the most recent and high profile examples of a woman’s body image and personal expression being politically interpreted was Alicia Keys and her outspoken renouncement of makeup. She wrote in the Lenny Letter, an online feminist newsletter, about how she was tired of feeding her insecurities and being trapped by an obsessive need to look good for other people. She spoke about the fear she felt when she left the house without makeup,”What if someone wanted a picture?? What if they POSTED it???”, and decided that her way of liberating herself would be to give up wearing makeup entirely. I know, pretty badass.Obviously, the response was varied. Some people praised her as a feminist icon for rejecting makeup, because obviously the makeup business is run by evil corporations profiting on female insecurity. Others slammed her for being condescending to women who did enjoy makeup and suggesting she was superior to those who didn’t have as flawless a complexion- and of course, she must have spent a fortune on procedures in the past to be able to achieve such a look, right? Basically, for some reason, a lot of people found her confidence to be offensive. What does that say about how today’s society judge women? It at least proves that the women have stupidly unattainable standards to live up to- evidently, you can’t please everyone.

In any case, to me it would seem that Keys wasn’t making a statement about the evils of makeup, but instead about doing what makes YOU happy, and not changing yourself for other people. Yes, she is proving that you don’t need to alter your physical appearance to be confident and beautiful, but she is also celebrating that if you feel confident and beautiful with makeup- that’s great too! As Keys said herself under a photo on twitter, “Y’all, me choosing to be makeup free doesn’t mean I’m anti-makeup. Do you!”

But this picking apart of the female appearance and what it reveals about the person underneath is not just happening to celebrities. We’ve probably all seen girls be criticised, especially at school or uni, by male and female peers alike, for being vain when they change their outfit 8 times before a night out, for being self-obsessed when they spend hours on their hair and makeup, or for being fake when they show up to school with a face covered in Anastasia Beverly Hills and Mac. Although the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ should be pretty much a universal value by now, it’s unfortunate that, a lot of the time, the beautiful dyed-blonde girl with a lot of makeup on is automatically looked down on as being vapid, unintelligent and superficial.  As women, we could afford to spend a lot less time judging girls and labelling them as ‘fake’ or ‘slutty’ to fit our preconceived perceptions of them and focus a lot more energy into empowering each other and supporting the choices we make. It is simply unfair to judge a girl on her body image, and harmful to promote the idea that the way a girl might express herself reveals her entire personality.

cut-dre-3439-shark-attack-costume-700Halloween this weekend was, and always seems to be, a great opportunity for completely misunderstanding,  but mostly innocent, people to have a moan about girls and their choices. By some, girls who opt for a ‘funny’ or ‘scary’ costume are praised for not going for the cliche skimpy outfits. I told a group of friends about a time I wore a shark attack costume (like the one on the right) to a party and was surprised by how many of the boys agreed that they “respect that”. While obviously I was glad that they found it funny, I immediately worried about the hideously cliche costume I had planned for this Halloween- a cheeky pair of leopard print leggings, a tail and some ears. And yeah, I chose the costume because I thought I looked nice in it- the leggings made my bum look pretty much as good as it gets and I wanted to paint cute leopard spots around my forehead and perfect my eyeliner wings. And I felt great. The point is, wearing what I want to wear shouldn’t make people respect me any less or more; it does not make me superficial to want to look and feel ‘pretty’, and it does not make me more ‘respectable’ if I’m wearing a shark.

Shockingly, neither does it make you a slave to the patriarchy if you opt for shaved legs, like to put on a pair of false lashes or dress up in a barely-there Harley Quinn get up on Halloween. You are not any less of a feminist, or any less credible, if you like to put makeup on to go to dinner, or prefer to go to lectures in jeans and boots over trackies and trainers. By the same token, you are equally  deserving of being taken just as seriously if you’d rather go bra-less, razor-less and makeup-less. In fact, although this may come as a surprise, most of the time these personal choices have very little impact on a woman’s personality whatsoever.

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Ultimately, feminism and female empowerment should be about allowing girls to express themselves in whichever way they please- isn’t the whole concept of equality about giving people a choice? Although perhaps it should be obvious, the body image choices a woman might make can’t and shouldn’t always be analysed with a political mind, because most of the time it will just come down to what she likes (what a shocker!!). Wear make-up, don’t wear make-up. Shave your pits, let them grow. Feminism means that the choice is yours to make. It doesn’t make you a badass feminist if you shame women who don’t make the same choices as you and it doesn’t make you a ‘cool guy’ if you put ‘natural’ women on a pedestal and discredit those who aren’t. Learn to respect girls for whatever choices they make.

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