I must confess, I love to go shopping. Although my meager grad student stipend doesn’t generally afford outlandish spending sprees, I delight in simple, gratis pleasures such as testing lotion samples at Bath & Body Works and visiting boutiques to try on colorful, lush silk dresses that I could never afford. Like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I will go out of my way to stroll past the sparkling windows of Manhattan’s diamond district.
Of course, as many of my lipgloss-toting, ladder-climbing classmates would agree, all this does not mean life should revolve around the latest issue of Cosmo. In fact, I spend most of my days earning top grades at a major university and logging hours towards my private pilot’s license. I just also make time for reveling in all of the sensual prettiness to be found in the world.
So, it is with some dismay that I have come to discover that many of my “sisters” don’t approve of my attitude. Perhaps this is unsurprising; bra-burning, Birkenstocked feminists have long been known for inciting a backlash against beauty. On the other hand, there have been recent attempts within the feminist movement to reconcile the fashion and cosmetics industry with “women’s lib.” The question is, have these attempts been successful? Answering this requires us first to consider what it is about beauty that feminists find so objectionable.
Strident feminists berate beauty as an insidious mode of oppression imposed by a patriarchal society. It is a fundamental tenet of women’s studies that gender is “socially constructed.” Many undergraduates encounter this viewpoint in their intro to women’s studies classes. There, they read representative articles like “Doing Gender” by Candace West and Don Zimmerman and learn that “doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine natures.'” And: “Rather than as a property of individuals, we conceive of gender as an emergent feature of social situations: both as an outcome of and a rationale for various social arrangements and as a means of legitimating one of the most fundamental divisions of society.”
In other (actual English) words, “social construction” is the theory that gender is merely a product of society. There is no such real thing as a masculine or feminine nature. Nor do we as individuals have any choice or control when it comes to the way we express our sexuality; we are merely puppets of various societal forces. Feminist Naomi Wolf offers a revealing example of this in her much-touted book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women: “The influence of pornography on women’s sexual sense of self…has now become so common that it is almost impossible for younger women to distinguish the role pornography plays in creating their idea of how to be, look, and move in sex…” In Wolf’s view, the way a woman dresses herself (her whole sexual manner of being, in fact) is shaped by the pornographic images she is bound to encounter in society.
Must our sex lives be determined by pornography? Certain feminists openly disavow Wolf’s viewpoint and declare themselves instead to be “pro-beauty.” But what kind of case do these “new feminists” make for femininity?
In her book Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism, feminist Linda Scott reassesses the politics of personal appearance, often questioning and amending tenets commonly upheld by feminist historians. As one example, Scott researches 150 years of fashion history and discovers that it has been women, in fact, who have dictated the dominant trends. Even beauty advertisements, she points out, have been written mostly by women.
Unfortunately, pointing to such instances of cultural control concedes the major error made by the feminists Scott condemns. Like the feminists before her, Scott ignores two critical facts: individual women can make genuine choices, and these choices can be based on real sexual needs.
An individual woman can exercise independent judgment in how she expresses her femininity (if she chooses to express it at all). The argument that a patriarchal society imposes certain inescapable “constructs” of femininity evades the fact that individual women have the capacity to make authentic choices. A woman is always free to choose to base the way she looks, dresses, and moves on the trends set by porn stars or not. One woman may decide to emulate Britney Spears, another may admire Audrey Hepburn, and still another may flout all typical models (have you ever seen a photo of feminist Andrea Dworkin?).
In addition to the fact that women do make choices, there is also something to be said for the real existence of a “feminine nature.” There are biological differences between men and women, and stressing those aspects of herself that are distinctively female is part of a girl’s sense of her own sexuality. When a woman wears clothing that highlights her feminine curves, it heightens her awareness of herself as a sexual being. This type of awareness is a reflection of a real condition of her body, not a random invention of “social conditioning.” As a girl who loves the way high heels make her legs feel longer, I know I’d wear my strappy sandals even if I were trapped for the rest of my life on a desert island.
Ultimately, my passion for beautiful, girly things is far from a product of society. It is a product of my identity as a female human being with my own mind as my guide to reality.
But an independent, reality-oriented mind is something that never gets recognition from any academic feminist.
Kara Zavarella is a first year doctoral candidate at NYU where she studies English.