At the Independent, Charlotte Raven wonders whether the choices available to western (in this case British) women have gotten narrower in spite of feminism.
The following quote struck me in particular:
The pervasive fashion for porn-star depilation (and vaginal cosmetic surgery) is not the same as a fashion for floral prints or gladiator sandals. It is not that they are merely inconvenient or costly; they are symptoms of a deep social and political malaise. The rampant commodification of the female body and interpersonal relationships has become the defining feature of modern British popular culture. You can’t just opt out of it, unfortunately.
When I was a teenager in the 1980s, very few young women shaved their legs (and anybody who shaved down there likely was a model or stripper) or wore bras. Visiting a more conservative part of the US in the late 1980s, I was stunned that girls my age and younger wore bras – even if they didn’t have breasts yet – and that women shaved their legs and with the sort of Gillette razors usually reserved for men, too. The Americans in turn were stunned that I didn’t shave or wear a bra and saw no need to do so.
The fashion for shaving gradually started up in Germany after that and by the time I finished school, I few girls in my class had started shaving their legs. I shook my head and thought that it was just some stupid American fashion that would pass. Only that it became more and more pervasive in the following years. Women started shaving parts of their body that they would never have thought of a few years earlier and male chests started resembling the frozen whole chickens from the supermarket. The social pressure to conform became greater and greater as well and it became increasingly difficult even for normal, not famous women to opt out of high heels, bras, shaving and other excessive grooming habits.
Fast forward another couple of years: All of my female students wear bras these days – and we’re talking of seventh and eighth graders here. There are more high heels than you would have seen twenty years ago. I got in trouble for wearing heels that were two or three centimeters high to school – girls nowadays wear heel twice as high. I strongly suspect most of them shave off whatever body hair they have, too. The idea of a woman not wearing a bra is mindboggling to them.
Now I have never liked the sort of feminists who used to call any woman who wore skirts and dresses and make-up and long hair gender traitors. Feminism is about choice and that includes the choice to wear whatever we want and style our body in whatever way we like.
I’ve had more than my share of run-ins with that sort of feminist in the past such as the teacher (and it wasn’t even a female teacher) who called me to the front of the classroom to present my new white sandals with thin straps and two centimeter heels as a bad examples for shoes one should not wear*. I was proud of those shoes and even if they may not have been the most practical shoes in the world, that’s no reason to publicly humiliate an eleven year old. I never want to be that teacher and I don’t criticize or censor my students’ wardrobe choices, unless it gets into the realm of shirts with swastikas or Nazi slogans (never had that problem, thank heavens). Teenagers have the right to wear awful clothes and make unfortunate fashion choices. Besides, they usually learn from them. The girl who showed up for class in a transparent shirt (luckily she was wearing a bra underneath or I would have had to intervene) never wore that shirt again. And the girl who showed up in a tunic top that looked like she’d snurched it from her mother’s closet and wore it as a minidress (it barely covered her backside) never wore that particular outfit again either.
However, not criticizing the fashion choices of teens doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t criticize the beauty myth itself. Because it is very difficult to make it clear to those kids that there is no law that says “Thou shalt wear a bra and shave off thine body hair” and that they don’t have to do those things, if they don’t want to. It’s also difficult to make them understand that the beauty myths they have been fed all their lives are just that – myths.
What would help? For starters, if female celebrities were to opt out of excessive depilation and the like. Because while young girls probably won’t listen to a teacher (who are by definition old and dowdy to teenagers, even if they are not) who tells them that they don’t have to shave off their bodyhair if they don’t want to, they’d probably listen to the likes of Lady Gaga.
So unlike what Ms. Raven I wouldn’t say that it is impossible to opt out of current beauty myths. It is just very difficult and you have to weather a lot of social pressure.
*For some reason, teachers in the 1980s were excessively concerned with shoes. I even got shit for wearing Converse trainers – the only trainers I ever felt comfortable in – to sports class in that age of Nikes and Addidas (they don’t give enough support to the foot apparently). And heaven help you if you wanted to wear girly shoes with heels and thin straps.