Dressing While Feminist: Bras, Hobbies, and Pictures in the Park

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Quick note: I am writing this post as part of the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network. I'll be writing a few more posts in the coming weeks that bring feminism and fashion into conversation with each other, so be watching for those. And for more information on the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network, click here.

I started out by taking a Saturday off from blogging. When Sunday rolled around, I figured I should rest for the whole weekend, which became a three-day then a four-day weekend. Between the tragedies in Japan, camera struggles, work, lackluster outfits, and menstrual stress, I didn't much feel like writing new posts. But it's back-in-the-saddle time, all for the good of the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network.

Purple sweater: Moda International brand secondhand, free from clothing swap
Blue sweater: Gap, $15
Jeans: American Eagle Outfitters, $20
Shoes: secondhand, free from clothing swap
Necklace: secondhand vintage, free from mom
Pin: saved from the floor of a friend's car
Turquoise ring: $11 from consignment shop
Book: gift from friend

I'm pondering a question today: How do I express my feminism in the way I dress? Answering honestly, I have to say that it's sometimes a question of if I express my feminism in the way I dress, and occasionally, the answer to that is "No."

There's no guideline out there for "dressing like a feminist," nor should there be. However, I think a valid approach would probably include respecting your own body and not hurting it for the sake of fitting some societal mold. Dressing with that rule in mind would certainly be an expression of my own brand of feminism, and it's what I tried to do today. Not one inch of me is uncomfortable, people. Do I follow through with this intention 100% of the time? Nope.

I wrote back in January about an especially painful day spent wearing heels that were pretty but didn't fit my feet. My shoulders have occasionally ached from carrying huge, trendy purses that I couldn't help but stuff loads of crap into. On my wedding day, I wore a pretty white dress so tight that I struggled to breathe; my mom and I took regular breaks where she would unzip the back, let me fill my lungs for a minute or so, then zip things up again so I could greet the next round of guests. When it comes to respecting the needs and limits of my own body, I am not a perfect example and I am not the perfect feminist.

But I have had my breakthrough moments. All through high school and college, I wore padded bras in order to mask the true, underwhelming size of my breasts and look more "womanly." These padded bras were never ridiculously over-the-top or painful, but they were usually uncomfortable, and about a year ago, I opted for some well-made bras that didn't hide or accentuate a thing. The change in comfort level cannot be overstated. Lo and behold, I've come to love the silhouette that I see in the mirror by first being real about it. A woman's self-acceptance is, I think, a boldly feminist act, and that's what I found when I started to acknowledge the true state of my body. I'm sure I'll have to work on that same kind of acceptance as my body changes in the coming years, and surely honoring the needs of my body in the form of comfortable clothes (and undergarments) will help me to do just that.

Aside from the pain vs. comfort factor, another dimension of this issue is the way in which a woman presents herself and identifies herself through clothing choices. Can someone clearly demonstrate her/his feminism with clothes? In the case of a "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt, sure. Short of slogans, though, what are some other markers? I'm not sure there are any.

I'm a fairly-feminine woman (at least as far as my culture defines "feminine"), and I imagine that contradicts some folks' ideas of what a feminist looks like. I wear makeup frequently, enjoy skirts and dresses, own my fair share of jewelry, and maintain an acceptable level of leg/armpit hair. We can't devalue these practices in favor of gender equality, because devaluing the markers associated with women only serves to devalue womanhood itself.

We see an example of this when it comes to traditionally feminine hobbies (knitting, crocheting, quilting, etc.), which have occasionally been scoffed at as meaningless, frittering tasks that repressed women undertake because they have nothing worthwhile to do with their time. Sometimes this view extends to other domestic arts, such as cooking, keeping a clean house, or caring for children, and I've also seen it applied to the sphere of hobby-blogging. Such an outlook is really off-base, in my opinion, because it sends the message that whatever a sizable number of women are interested in must be second-rate, perhaps for no other reason than that women are the ones expressing interest.

What we can change is the way that we associate these hobbies and talents with gender. There is truly no 1:1 correlation when it comes to a person's gender and his/her habits, interests, or hobbies. If someone's going to judge the way I dress, it's only sensible that he/she should see it as a reflection of me (though not the sum total of me, I should note). I think I express my feminism by expecting that other people will see me as an individual and not as a representative of my gender; this assumption frees me up to dress for myself (and to triumph or fail for myself) rather than for a huge segment of the population.

Unexpectedly, pursuing this hobby of style blogging has taken some feminist gusto. I have to keep reminding myself to take my own interests seriously, especially in the face of self-doubt. There's such a weird double-bind in this area; if a woman doesn't care how she looks, she's labeled a slob who's "let herself go," but if she cares too much, she's "trying too hard" and labeled a narcissist. Does liking clothes make me superficial, I wonder? Am I putting my efforts in the right direction? Will other people respond favorably to this blog? I've held back from telling very many friends about my new corner of the internet because of these worries; I've also second-guessed myself.

But, as I mentioned earlier, I really do feel that self-acceptance is a feminist action, and that acceptance can extend beyond the limits of my body. I'm trying to accept my natural inclinations, my curiosities. I'm trying to feel okay taking pictures in a public park, trying to feel that I have as much right to be there as anyone else. In this sense, I'm not so much expressing my feminism in how I dress, but moreso in demonstrating that I value my own opinion -- about how I dress and about everything else.

(Check out other bloggers' responses to the idea of expressing feminism through fashion by clicking here.)


  1. this post is fantastic, i like "A woman's self-acceptance is, I think, a boldly feminist act". as a feminist and a woman who has struggled for years with poor body image, I could not agree more. In the past year I have developed a love for my body and feel as that is one of the most empowering and feminist acts i have made.

  2. This is such a great post and really echos how I feel about the issue. Amazing x

  3. Good post. I agree on almost everything. There is one thing that particularly stood out ot me:
    "There's such a weird double-bind in this area; if a woman doesn't care how she looks, she's labeled a slob who's "let herself go," but if she cares too much, she's "trying too hard" and labeled a narcissist."
    I mean, isn't there always? Women seem to have to walk a thin line in a lot of areas and if the veer left or right, they are considered un-normal. Like when raising a family or working! Getting an education or getting married. Reading too much or reading too little. The list is basically endless.

    Relatable Style

  4. This is a great post that hits the nail on the head for so many issues that exist in the intersection of feminism, femininity, and fashion. I agree with all points you make, and I'm especially annoyed at this implicit devaluing of interests, activities, and passions just because they're perceived as typically female - early feminism has struggled with this a lot (leading to the mis-perception that feminists just want to be like men), and I continue to struggle with this in the form of a tiny nagging internal voice that tells me fashion-blogging is a superficial waste of time... gnah.

    One issue you don't mention is modesty, and I hope it's not offending if I ask you about it specifically because you're also a Mormon. It's just that the majority of Mormon fashion blogs I've seen make a strong and deliberate statement about modesty (even setting as their main goal to prove it can be stylish, pretty, and non-frumpy, or incorporating modesty into their blog name), but yours doesn't, and I wonder if that's connected with your feminist stance, or just happens not to be important to you for other reasons, and what your position on modesty is in general. It's a topic I've been thinking about myself for quite a while. Again, I apologize in case this is offending. I must admit to having an utter outsider's view to most religious communities.

    And lastly, I love the relaxed look of your outfit. I will try something similar as soon as it's warm enough for bare legs round here, if you don't mind!

  5. Love this post. I'm completely with you on the having to remind yourself to take your interests seriously - it's something I consciously do, too.

    It's widely regarded as frivolous to take an interest in, and spend time and money on, clothes in a way that's not the case if you spend your money on books or computer games, and that's both illogical and frustrating.

  6. I agree that self-acceptance is a powerful feminist act, and I love how you take this beyond the boundaries of the body. We do tread a line between a happy lack of awareness and accusations of narcissism, and it's not an easy route to negotiate. I also agree that it would not serve us well to devalue womanhood by hiding those markers of our 'selves'.

    Thank you for this post, and for your thoughtful comment on Mrs Bossa Does the Do - good to read the ideas of someone who has engaged with a post so respectfully.

  7. I loved your insights in this post and especially the pictoral shout-out to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the poster icon of Mormon feminism!

    I found poet's questions interesting and I'd love to hear your reply. I just finished teaching a Women's studies in lit class at BYU where we talked about modesty and the sometimes not-so-savory way it is taught to women; young women in particular. Mormon women are often taught that lest they be viewed as pornography, and to keep men's human appetites in check, they must keep themselves covered. Followed to its obvious conclusions, using this method is completely male-centered and not sexually healthy (nude ankles and exposed hair, anyone?). Is there a line crossed when women expose themselves? A line that indicates an unhealthy self-perception? Good questions worth exploring.

  8. poet and Jen - Yeah, I will definitely cover the modesty issue soon. I'm shooting for next Wednesday. I've been meaning to write on that topic for a while, but, ughh, it is just so complex and heavy. Wish me luck. =)


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