Feminist Bad Faith

Or why I feel guilty when I wear a thong

Unpacking my boxes from summer storage, I began to suspect that I was suffering from a severe case of mauvaise foi. Perhaps it was a symptom of the anxiety surrounding my recent 20th birthday or my more deep-seated tendency toward hypochondria, brought on by watching too many episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Yet, as I unearthed heart-shaped perfume bottles, caked tubes of mascara, and back issues of Vogue, I felt as though I had violated some ill-defined feminist responsibility. A twinge of guilt, beyond the purely financial, accompanied my purchase of a new flower-printed dress; a strange uneasiness followed my Google search for “grapefruit diet.” Was my allegiance to the accoutrements of pink-packaged femininity a violation of my political commitment to feminism? And what was the alternative—not shaving my armpits, wearing board shorts, eschewing Diet Coke for beer?

Feminism is a frustratingly ambivalent movement, unclear as to exactly what it requires from those who self-identify as members. Its relationship with femininity—those mysterious qualities that characterize the female sex—is even more ambivalent. Apologetic qualifications (“I’m a feminist, but…”) are frequently invoked by young women, who associate the doctrine with the overly serious, overly desexualized, and inadequately shaven activists of the ’60s and ’70s. Even those girded with feminist theory, and fully aware of the dangers of the feminine mystique, have refused to relinquish their fidelity to the heterosexual culture of beauty—myself included.

Attempts by feminists to chastise other women for failing to assume a suitably feminist outlook have by and large failed. Take, for example, Naomi Wolf, author of “The Beauty Myth.” The phrase describes the idealized standard of beauty whose realization is upheld in Western culture as the end-all task of being female. Yet, despite the myth’s devastating implications—self-loathing, eating disorders, bodily mutilation via plastic surgery—no woman wants to be patronized into giving up eyeliner and lipstick. Nor does she want to be told that her low-cut blouse shows that she’s been hoodwinked into a patriarchal conspiracy intended to keep her perpetually insecure, perpetually plucking, and, therein, perpetually tame.

Granted, Wolf’s militant excoriations have significant cultural resonance, even to women who aren’t convinced that their stilettos mean they’ve done something wrong. Despite our society’s emphatic assertion that an objective standard of beauty exists, the concept is actually grounded in female inadequacy. Regardless of how many hours, dollars, and brain cells women spend, there will always be an un-pluckable hair, an un-erasable wrinkle, and an un-toneable ounce of cellulite to eliminate. The pursuit of beauty is eminently frustrating (and eminently profitable) for the very reason that it can never be successfully realized. Feminism, on the other hand, aims to vitiate this notion of female inadequacy by demanding gender equality in both the public and private spheres.

Feminism and femininity thus appear to stand dogmatically opposed. As women, the line between doing things to feel better about ourselves and doing them to become more sexually attractive to men is tenuous. Using the rationale “I did it for myself” to justify breast augmentation rings of self-deception, yet for more subtle procedures and regimens, who can be the judge?

Deciding where Wolf’s beauty myth stops and where inconsequential delight in aesthetic products begins has dominated feminist debates for decades. One proposed solution, advanced by the so-called “girlie” feminists, is for women to reappropriate traditional models of femininity in much the same manner as gays reclaimed the term “queer” and blacks reclaimed the term “nigger.” According to this movement, almost any choice that a woman makes—from exposing her midriff to getting off on camera—can be empowering, provided that it is executed in a sufficiently fierce manner. Women are invited to make themselves sexual objects, to ironically assume the male gaze in an effort to be insiders rather than aloof and prudish victims.

Questioning your intentions every time you shave your armpits is exhausting. But “girlie” feminism does not advance a viable solution, nor does it assuage females’ anxieties about the authenticity of their efforts at self-improvement. Voluntarily choosing to objectify oneself may feel like empowerment. Yet such empowerment is ephemeral, given the inability of the female subject to control others’ interpretations of her choices. Brashly assuming traditional feminine tropes is no more productive than brashly assuming masculine ones: the taboo of the hairy-legged, power-suit-wearing, man-hating feminist from which “girlie” feminists so hope to distance themselves. The term “girlie” is itself problematic: It evokes “girlhood”—a juvenile, enervated version of femininity, in contrast to the maturity and power of “womanhood.”

Feminism is too conflicted, and too confused, to tell me whether I should feel guilty for still owning a tube top. Perhaps this is a good thing: After all, doing what one is told, rather than assuming the agency to decide for oneself, goes against feminism and its existentialist ethics. Perhaps remaining conscious of the debate and begging the question is the best that I can do.

Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.