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How do I look? Thoughts on feminism and white middle-class femininity October 15, 2006

Posted by Winter in class matters, feminist theory, race matters.

The discussion, if it can rightly be called a ‘discussion,’ about feminism and feminine beauty practices which has taken place on feminist blogs recently seems to have become particularly vindictive and counter-productive. I am not going to get into the “can you be a feminist if you engage in feminine beauty practices?” argument here, but just to clarify my position from the beginning, I generally try and stick to Carol Hanisch’s argument in her essay the Personal is Political. The early radical women’s movement took the ‘pro woman’ line that personal problems are political problems: ‘There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for collective solution.’ This means that I do not want to argue about whether individual woman should not wax their legs because I don’t see how that argument makes any difference to present conditions, and I think it serves to divide women into the good sister/bad sister roles we’re all manipulated into occupying. If we sat around at Mind the Gap meetings arguing about who’s the better feminist because she doesn’t shave her legs, we’d never get much done; hell, we probably wouldn’t even have a group, and we probably wouldn’t deserve one.

I do want to say more about this argument, but right now I want to talk about femininity, feminism and class. Recently, the Happy Feminist and Hugo Schwyzer wrote long posts in response to the femininity debates (both contain links to earlier posts on the subject). Hugo’s, in particular, drew heat from feminists who grew up working-class, angry at the white middle-class privilege underscoring the entire discussion.

Bitch Lab said,

you can see how it’s damn disappointing to hit BlogLandia to find this overweening obsessiveness on issues that matter primarily to white and middle/upper-middle class people — because they don’t have to think about making a living on the edge of poverty. they never had to think about how some women might like to “dress up” becasue for 8 hrs of their lives, they’re wearing a freakin’ uniform. …Hence, it all has to be about gender gender gender gender gender gender gender gender because and centered on that issue because lawd knows we couldn’t possibly, you know, hold more than one concern in our heads at the same time. The luxury of white and class privilege is that you can imagine that you can decide when race and class matter. A lot of other feminists can’t. And worrying about high heels and pink tool belts is so much horse hockey.

Arwen said,

I said it at Happy’s and at Feministe too: to me, the femmy issue is DEEPLY rooted in class, and what may be dis-empowering on gender (heels, for example), may in fact be portraying *economic* power, (not having to work for 10 hours doing assembly line work on one’s feet.) No one really expects their hispanic maid to show up in heels, and if she did, she’d be construed to be trying to use sexuality to advance herself through her employer. Whereas a female lawyer can show up to court in heels, and very few believe she’s trying to sleep with the judge.

My experience with feminine beauty practices has been oppressive. You can read about it here if you’re interested, but now I realise that when I wrote about my experiences, I should have paid a lot more attention to the fact that my own attitudes to feminine practices are deeply class-based. I have not been talking about “femininity,” I have been talking about the specifically white middle-class femininity that affects my life, and which often seems to be taken for granted as a universal experience for all women when white middle-class women speak on the subject. Hence the accusations of class privilege: white middle-class people are all too used to getting to speak for everyone.

When we have fights about waxing for example, are we assuming that all women can afford waxing, that waxing is expected of all women in the same way, and that waxing has the same significance for all women? The way in which women experience, or take part in feminine beauty practices, is enormously tied up with class, race, and also sexuality.

The construction of white middle-class femininity and its practices define my experience of oppression, not least because my own family has, over the last two generations, been in the process of achieving middle-class status. My father comes from a working-class family. His mother was a milliner and later a caterer, his father was a merchant seaman, and he was the first in the family to go to university. My mother’s parents were also both from working-class backgrounds and were obsessed with becoming middle-class. My maternal great grandmother drove herself crazy trying to convince everyone that she was white and middle-class (she was neither, but that’s a story for another day), and so the feminine beauty practices encouraged in my maternal grandmother and mother had a lot to do with the pursuit of a middle-class white identity and with erasing marks of race and working-classness.

Over at the Happy Feminist’s I made a guilty admission to sometimes feeling superior to women who take part in the practices of femininity and Happy noted that she too has had that feeling at times. I know this feeling is wrong headed (see the Personal is Political) but it’s almost a reflex. I’ll be striding along in my boots, see a woman in high heels and think, ‘How can she walk in those things? Doesn’t she know they might damage her legs?’ Then I’ll see a woman in heavy makeup on a bus and think, ‘Why does she waste her time and money!’ Then I mentally slap myself on the wrist for presuming myself to be in a position to judge the actions of other women. As I said above, we try and avoid such arguments at MTG meetings, but occasionally when the wearing of makeup has been mentioned, a number of women (including me) immediately pipe up: “I don’t wear makeup.” Anyone looking at the speakers could not be under any illusion that they are wearing makeup, so why make the statement at all? What effect does the statement have on women in the room who are wearing makeup? I’d hazard a guess that they feel pissed off if they interpret the claim as being about claiming feminist status thanks to their freedom from all that ‘nonsense.’ I will write more on the illusion of freedom from gender norms at some point.

What I didn’t say over at HF’s place is that I worry that my sense of superiority has been enabled by my interpretation of feminist thinking on the subject. No matter how much we claim not to be criticising what other women do when we critique feminine practices, if we’re telling them that they should analyse their behaviour, are we not putting ourselves in the position of authority, taking on the role of she who gets to tell other women what they should do/think? Where does the authority to make this demand on other women come from? Feminism? I was disturbed by HF’s post because I wondered why she felt impelled to explain herself. The comments over there are full of more women justifying their actions and talking about whether femininity can be feminist. Why, I asked myself, are they allowing themselves to be put in the position of she who must explain herself? The aim of HF’s post (correct me if I’m wrong) seems to be to discuss whether taking part in middle-class feminine practices can be compatible with feminist values. I think danger lies down this road too, the danger of setting up yet more standards of good and bad femininity, this time along middle-class feminist lines. Here are the bad practices. Don’t do these or you shouldn’t really call yourself a feminist; if you do them, you will at least have to beat youself up about it reguarly and ‘we’ think you should stop, even though we tolerate you. Here are the practices which are not too oppressive, but remember you’re still not as good a feminist as a woman who rejects feminine practices altogether. Wouldn’t “feminist femininity” just become yet another means to police the behaviour of women? Isn’t the policing of female behaviour what we really should be resisting?

I do feel that some feminist thinking enables my superiority complex (intentionally or not), but I also think that it comes from the very white middle-class femininity I like to think I’m resisting. Looking down on other women is absolutely fundamental to white middle-class femininity because it is all about feeling superior to other women. It’s about class, about exerting and expressing one’s economic power through the feminine practices in which you engage and, as such, it is very much about distinguishing oneself from feminine practices associated with women of color, working-class women and poor women.

White middle-class femininity polices the behaviour of all women, but it’s also very much about self-regulation. It presumes there are good and bad, right and wrong, ways of doing feminine. In the UK, middle-class women have words for the ‘wrong’ kind of femininity, words such as ‘common,’ ‘vulgar’ and ‘cheap,’ words which convey the economic nature of the issue. No middle-class woman wants to be accused of looking ‘cheap.’ ‘Trailer park trash’ seems to work in a similar way for people in the US. Middle-class feminine practices are all about appearing a certain way, about cultivating a good (modest, but expensive) look. Yes, you should look feminine, but you should never be ‘obvious’ about it. You are brought up to a horror of wearing ‘too much’ makeup, appearing with obviously dyed hair, in cheap clothing, or having too much of a tan and looking ‘orange.’ The items which signify middle-class femininity are extremely expensive because they are supposed to signify the economic power to buy them in the first place.

I remember being told as a teenager to apply just enough makeup to ‘enhance’ my ‘natural’ looks and no more. It is a discourse tied up with the discourse of female modesty. In the UK, the media regularly presents images of ‘bad’ women who go out and get drunk; they are called ‘ladettes’ and are filmed roaring and screaming, rolling around in the road, flashing their knickers at the camera. They are the women middle-class women are not supposed to identify with because they are doing femininity all wrong.

The argument about whether women should engage in feminine beauty practices, and the insistense that they must analyse their behaviour if they do, makes working class-women and women of color angry because it stinks of privilege, of the power and leisure time to sit at a PC (as I am doing right now) for hours on end and argue about wearing lipstick because you don’t have to throw on a uniform and rush out to a 10 hour shift at the minimum wage job you have to do to feed your kids.

I had a chat with a working-class friend the other day about these issues. I’m not saying my friend speaks for working-class women, but she did have something interesting to say to me about my attitudes. In the community where she grew up, women would save up a little money to treat themselves to the occasional trip to a beauty parlour where they could take a day off relax, spend time with female friends and relatives, and enjoy being taken care of because life involved an awful lot of taking care of other people, including wealthy women and their children. Feminine practices do not mean the same thing to her as they do to me. For the women in her community trips to the beauty parlor represent a treat, time off to socialise, take a break and spend just a bit of the money they earn on themselves for a change.

It strikes me that that the insistence upon self-analysis and self-justification evident on feminist blogs such as the Happy Feminist’s might itself be an inheritance from the white-middle class femininity which demands that women constantly police their gender performance. So, I wonder if the insistence upon analysis of feminine practices is actually informed by the very femininity we claim to be resisting, the femininity that tells us we should analyse and police ourselves and other women for signs of doing it ‘wrong.’

To what extent, then, does the sense of authority, sometimes assumed, and the insistence upon regular self-flagellation for engaging in feminine practices, come from the discourse of white middle-class femininity which makes a virtue both of feeling superior to other women and self-policing? How have the concerns of white middle-class feminism, including the prioritising of gender performance as an issue, been influenced by the white middle-class femininity which makes gender performance and the analysis of gender performance into such a crucial issue for women? To what extent has white-middle class femininity influenced the white middle-class feminism which tends to dominate the field? Some of us may have given up the feminine practices, but this doesn’t mean we’ve given up all the attitudes, assumptions, norms and ideals we were brought up with. So, we really need to think about where we are coming from and how class and race inform the feminist issues we tend to prioritise.

* I suppose I’m assuming some sort of distinction between feminine practices and feminine identity in this post because feeling that you are a feminine person at the level of your identity does not necessarily mean you engage in any particular feminine practices. For instance, I know women who are not in any way feminine in terms of their identity but shave their legs for various reasons, and also women who say they are feminine but don’t shave. But that’s really a subject for another post.

* For the sake of convenience, I’ve made ‘white middle-class femininity’ sound like something monolithic in this post, when really I see it as a set of norms and ideals which of course are not taken up or experienced in the same way by all middle-class women!

STOP PRESS: Maya and Hugo continue the discussion in interesting directions.


1. Tara - October 16, 2006

Your post asks a lot of good questions…

A quick thought:

It seems to me that our cultural norms for women’s looks affect women of all classes and potentially poor and marginalized women more harshly.

As white woman with a uni degree and a professional trajectory, I can ‘get away’ with a lot more in terms of gender performance and still have a good shot at success.

If I *want* to conform, razors/waxing, make-up, frequent haircuts, hair products, nice (and many) clothes are an unpleasant but bearable expense.

Not so, I think, for many other women – women who rely on customer service jobs where they have to wear clothes that show their legs, or shoes that damage their bodies when they’re on their feet more than most men, women that naturally have hair (on their head) that society considers ‘unprofessional’ without expensive and continual alteration, women whose skin color or accent or weight makes them seem so foreign to what power or even worth/acceptability looks in our culture that they must conform in order to have a shot at being treated like a human being to have an entry into (traditionally white) positions of power or even employability etc.

I totally agree with you about the importance of not policing, largely because we can never know another person’s experience.

But since
1. Cultural beauty norms impact all women, and marginalized women especially, and
2. Comfortable White women are often (ymmv) in a better position than most women to take actions that can affect cultural norms (ie, the costs of non conformity are lower and our cultural visibility/cache higher),

I think our conversations about femininity are important.

2. Bitch | Lab - October 17, 2006

this is just effin’ brill! i love it. i am going to write something up a bit later. i’m exhausted and depressed from the burqa/colonialism/race wars at the mo’.

part of me thinks that the attention to policiing internatlized sexism is the result of having — at least among USers — a lack of imagination about how to fight sex/gender oppression through any means than individual change. at other times, i tend to look at the way theories shape how we think about solutions. anyway, too tired to speculate more, i just wanted to say how much i enjoyed this self-reflectied essay. Plus, since I’m secretly on Carol Hanisch’s payroll, it’s important to see my work pay off! 🙂

3. Laura - October 17, 2006

Thanks for this post, it’s given me a hell of a lot to think about.

4. The Happy Feminist - October 17, 2006

Great post– I don’t want you to think I’m ignoring it. Have just been mulling it over.

Only minor quibble is that I don’t think I felt obligated or compelled to explain myself. It just struck me as an interesting topic with feminist implications that I hadn’t given much thought to in recent years. So I figured it couldn’t hurt to try to think it through on my blog.

5. Winter - October 17, 2006

Yes, I was thinking I might have misinterpreted your motives for writing your post actually. You were discussing and reflecting on the subject, rather than explaining yourself to anyone.

But I think I reacted to it because I have often seen women making explanations and justifying their feminine practices in great detail and wondered to whom they were speaking and why.

Don’t feel that you have to write a response though!

6. Professor Zero - October 21, 2006

Brilliant post – ! 🙂 At last, someone makes sense of those beauty wars, the insistence on self-examination re this, etc. 🙂

7. Anonymous - October 21, 2006

Thanks for this Winter. As I approach the next major change in my life I have been struggling with a lot of these issues for myself, and reading that I am not alone is very heartening indeed.

8. laurie toby edison - October 23, 2006

Great post. As someone who’s work is on body image issues parts of it was particularly apt.

9. Anonymous - October 25, 2006

On waxing, to just pick one example… do you think it matters that “advice” books for women have no shame in actively encouraging things like waxing? They’re obviously perpetuating a beauty norm – is it harmful or perhaps that’s just what you would expect from a popular “advice” book? (For example… the book “How to Walk in High Heels” by Camilla Morton says you should get a brazilian wax once a month. I guess I would assume most women do not do that, nor consider it a norm.) Or to pick a non-beauty example, Gail Saltz on the Today show (the resident pyschiatrist) says couples should have sex twice a week. Are the “experts” that perpetuate these norms hurting us in some way or do they have little effect?

10. Professor Zero - October 25, 2006

I’ve realized I was once involved in a huge argument over this. It was about how to dress to support abortion clinics and their clients against harrassment by Operation Rescue.

It was femme/conservative dressers vs. radfem dressers and others who looked obviously lesbian, trannie, etc., and also against people who looked like punks/goths, or who were not white or not middle class.

I look like a hip middled class woman, and not like a frump. I was with the radfem group because they were the ones I knew. And I was in favor of their participation because
– the more the merrier, right? But the mainstream types thought they should be in charge.

They hated us and would rather have fewer clinic defenders, than clinic defenders who did not look respectable in their view.

There were some reasons (e.g. media, setting in a conservative town, etc.) why one might not want to turn clinic defense into a drag fest or anything, but the femme/conservative types were quite homophobic and quite racist, and some of the radfem dressers seemed more committed to looking radfem than to the issue at hand.

It was very weird seeing all of these people fight tooth and nail over clothes. The clothes fight was, of course, a fight over identity, and everyone seemed to want to tell everyone else how they should be.

11. Winter - October 26, 2006

Are the “experts” that perpetuate these norms hurting us in some way or do they have little effect?

I would say that as part of a larger discourse, this kind advice about beauty practices is extremely harmful. One individial book, no, but as part of a much bigger picture, oh yes. Quite aside from other feminist concerns, this discourse has absolutely no concern about the damage done to women’s health.

I’ve definitly seen waxing become more normalised in my adult lifetime. This comment isn’t meant to smack individual women who wax, but I was really shocked when I found out that the practices is so widespread, and even more shocked when I discovered that women are expected to do it.

12. Winter - October 26, 2006

It was very weird seeing all of these people fight tooth and nail over clothes. The clothes fight was, of course, a fight over identity, and everyone seemed to want to tell everyone else how they should be.

A very good point. I’ve been lucky not to encounter any fighting about appearance aming feminists I know in real life. However, I have been to events where it quickly became apparent that conventionally feminine women would be made to feel very uncomfortable indeed.

There’s a lot more than feminism going on in these situations. A lot of it is about being a member of a certain group.

13. cristy - November 5, 2006

I know I’m late, but brilliant post. Thank you.

I always shy away from discussions about policing femininity, because they seem to turn into a war between the positions of ‘girl power’ and ‘all feminine practices are ant-feminist’ – neither of which seem appropriate. The race/class/culture elements underlying these issues are also extremely important, and don’t really get discussed enough.

I have never felt a huge amount of pressure to conform to a gender standard (appearance wise) and so this has never been a big issue for me. For me, I don’t really wear make-up and never wear heels simply because I cannot be bothered – there is nothing particularly political about my choices. However, there is something quite privileged in the very fact that I can make this choice without very much thought.

14. Alexis Pierre-Louis - April 8, 2009

This is a well thought out blog post, and you ask some interesting questions. I was particularly interested in the differences in feminine practices in working class women and middle-class feminist women. You almost make the argument that working class women are not feminist, which I think we both would agree isn’t true.

I just got finished posting about how women of color try to meet white beauty standards imposed by capitalist media, so it’s interesting to see how you nicely tie together the link between economic values and class aspirations.

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