Tuesday, August 29, 2006

On feeling pretty

Okay, so I'm a tool of the patriarchy.

It's time for me to come out and admit it. I'm a pro-choice, feminist, seventy-percent-of-a-man-doing-the-same-job-earning tool of the patriarchy. I support easily accessible birth control and sex education, I have no problem with gay marriage, I live on my own, I handle my own finances, and I am a tool of the patriarchy. Because I like looking cute, and that is just plain unacceptable.

Being a feminist is a tricky thing, because there's not a lot of wiggle room. In theory, feminism is all about allowing - nay, encouraging - women to make informed choices. We try to provide the information and the freedom to act, we try to counter any negative stereotypes or myths that might keep them from acting the way they feel they should, and then we sit back and let them make the ultimate decision for themselves. It sounds like a nice idea, but there's a catch, and that catch probably falls under the category of "choosing slavery."

I like looking cute. I like it, I do. I like it when my skin is clear and even-toned and glowing and looking healthy. I like it when my hair is shiny. I like it when my boobs stay where they need to and my waist-to-hip ratio hovers somewhere around 0.7. I like putting on those full-ish skirts that are so popular right now, the ones that emphasize the aforementioned ratio and kind of swish when you walk. I love high heels; I love being tall, and I love the way they make my calves and butt look. I like it when my stomach is flat. I weigh myself, and I like it when that number is lower than it was before. Am I a supermodel? Hell, no; this is far from a paean to my own gorgeousness, JackieMackiePaisleyPassey, and it's not a testament to the success of my efforts, because God knows I have body image issues going back donkey's ears. It's just a statement of fact, and that fact is that I'd rather look cute (within my ability to do so) than not look cute, if I can possibly avoid it.

And I do things to make myself look cute. I wear makeup. I use moisturizers and scrubs to make my skin nice, and then I put makeup on top of it. I buy undergarments that put my boobs where I want them to be, and then I buy cute clothes to put on top of them. And high heels. I run in the morning, and I lift weights, and I do situps, and I do yoga and it's not just to look cute - it feels good (once it stops feeling bad), and that whole endorphin thing isn't nearly the crock I once thought it was - but looking cute is definitely one of the reasons I do it.

When I asked, I would tell you that I do these things because I like looking at me when I'm cute. I like looking at me when I look healthy and rested, and when my body looks like I can run long distances and/or fight off an attacker and not like that bag of Soft Batch cookies disappeared in two days (two days). Anthropologists would probably tell me that humans are predisposed to like people who look this way, who look like they have a long life ahead of them and would be able to fight off a sabre-tooth tiger, because these people are less likely to die. Even babies show an innate attraction to healthy, youthful-looking people.

Feminists, however, would tell me that I'm a tool of the patriarchy. Yes, we like youthful, healthy-looking people because we're genetically programmed to do so, but it's the patriarchy that demands that women make efforts to look healthy and youthful. Women who make those efforts are doing so to please men, or to please the women who are their competition for the men. It's all about the menfolks, and I'm kidding myself if I tell myself otherwise.

I only bring this up because I've been reading about it at some of my favorite feminist blogs, blogs that I otherwise love, and it kind of pisses me off. Kyso Kisaen at Punkass Blog does a much-deserved takedown on a woman who openly admits that she wouldn't work out if it wasn't to impress men and that her sense of self-worth is based on looking sexy for the sexy menz. That, however, was brought on by Twisty's post at I Blame the Patriarchy about Nike's new "sports corset" and the fact that the Oprah "empowered woman" doesn't actually exist.

First, the sports corset: I think it's kind of cute. I think the look of corsetry can be a cute one, and a corsetry-inspired workout top could be a cute idea - if it's comfortable. This doesn't appear to be one of those. It looks like it bypasses the appearance of boning and lacing in favor of actual boning and lacing, and I just don't see myself twisting up into Reverse Right Angle with my workout top poking me in the ribs (or, for that matter, running - doesn't one generally try to breathe while engaging in aerobic exercise?). It's a nice idea, but I kind of wish Nike had spent its time designing a no-bounce sports bra that doesn't pinch and flatten instead.

Twisty, however, sees the sports corset as another sign that "empowerful" women (and I'm assuming someone is actually using that word in a non-ironic sense, which is pathetic) are fooling themselves. She asserts, in her post, that women claiming to be empowered and independent who also want to be feminine are just selling out to the patriarchy, seemingly implying that feminity has no part in feminism. She points to the newest Nike ad campaign as an example; it shows Maria Sharapova, looking entirely fierce and take-no-prisoners, on her way to a match, as the music plays (and the people around her sing) "I Feel Pretty." "We women are empowerful enough to be pretty and pretty good at tennis!" Twisty mocks.

First of all, Twisty, Maria Sharapova isn't pretty good - she's seeded third at the U.S. Open and has a 100-decible grunt on the court, so she's rather awesome and hardly some little girly-girl worried about breaking a nail. But you know what? She is pretty. She's gorgeous, in fact, and the one detracts not one tiny bit from the other. No one is trying to imply that she's less of a tennis player because she's pretty, or that she's less pretty because she's a great player. Sure, when you're out on the court, being pretty or not-pretty isn't going to have much of an effect on your game, but if you're interested in being pretty and being pretty doesn't take anything away from your performance, what's the big deal? If your goal in life is to be a top-notch attorney, or journalist, or waitress, or housewife, and you're working toward that goal and you happen to not look like you just climbed out of a dumpster while you're doing it, what's the problem?

I don't entirely disagree with Twisty. The idea, first of all, that today's woman doesn't need feminism is a crock. The gender wage gap still exists. The government is still trying to take control of women's bodies. In business, the Good Ol' Boys club is still firmly in place. This is no time for women to sit back, gaze upon all that has been accomplished by those who came before us, and say, "Woohoo! Work done! Someone get me my crippling stilettos, 'cause mama's hittin' the town tonight!" And yes, I think that shows like Sex and the City that pretty much center around women's hunt for a fantastic guy and a great outfit at the expense of all else, and then frame that as feminism because we finally have the freedom to be shallow, really do throw the feminist cause into a screeching reverse.

But there's a middle ground, somewhere between Gloria Steinem and Sarah Jessica Parker. I walk to work in comfortable, entirely unattractive shoes, because them hills'll kill you and them heels'll tear you up. When I get to work, I walk around the office in heels because they're cute, and I like looking cute. When I pick out my workout clothes in the morning, my first priority is support, comfort, and shock absorption, and my second priority is not putting the black tank with the navy blue shorts. I can churn out a marketing and fundraising campaign that will actually pull the money directly from your wallet, and I'll do it with mascara on, because nothing keeps me from doing both.

Amanda at Pandagon has an ongoing series wherein she debunks the Myths of the Strawfeminist. The Strawfeminist is the man-hating, sex-hating, over-sexed (contradictorily), baby-killing, hairy-legged hippie-woman construct that anti-feminists love to attack when they have no way to respond to the real thing. She's an easy target, but she's a fake. But posts like Twisty's only feed into the image of the Strawfeminist by attacking the significant percentage of women who firmly support feminist values but see no conflict between those values and basic aesthetic preferences.

Torturing ourselves to please men is wrong, flat-out. It's antifeminist, and women have been fighting for centuries to get away from it. Basing our entire sense of self-worth on the opinion of men (or of anyone else, for that matter) is harmful and stunts our growth as human beings. But feminism is about choice, and if a woman is informed about the issues, knows the history behind the advances made for the feminist cause, is secure in her sense of self and of self-worth, and still wants to look cute while she Sweats to the Oldies? That's her choice. It's the choice I made, and I feel pretty happy with it.

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