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.
I 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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