At some point in the last 50 years, some marketing genius in the vein of Don Draper came up with one of the greatest advertising schemes ever: They claimed that if you use the same soap on your face that you use on your body, you will die an ugly, unloved spinster.
And we bought it. Not just women, men, too. One of my roommates currently has upwards of 7 different bottles of bizarre scented chemicals standing in our shared shower. I’m sure each and every one of them does something magical for every individual part of his body, from the tips of his hair to the calloused skin of the feet. There is probably a taint softener somewhere in there.
I have two items in the shower: A combination shampoo/conditioner and a bar of soap.
I assure you, I am a hideous, unlovable troll. But I think that’s just a coincidence.
What Kind of Feminist Are You?
Feminism is all the rage these days. And by “all the rage,” I mean, the mention of the ‘f-word’ makes people want to Joe Pesci someone’s neck. There’s a civil war erupting right now between 40-something feminists and 30-something feminists and 20-something feminists and then the (mostly) teenagers who are #womenagainstfeminism.
I suppose this kind of rift was inevitable. Every group will splinter, every religion develops sects. Feminism has existed long enough for it to go from a political movement with easily definable goals to an ideology with nebulous theories on ‘equality.’ It’s not so much that the ideology is flawed or wrong, it’s that the message isn’t being conveyed very elegantly.
The speech that Emma Watson recently gave at the U.N. for the #HeForShe movement (and that movement itself) is precisely the kind of feminism I signed up for when I was in college and first being exposed to the cause. It’s a movement of inclusion, not exclusion. It’s a movement that says, We lift women up, not by knocking men down, but by helping each reach a higher level.
As Emma said in her speech, “It seems uncomplicated to me.”
So it is.
But there are a lot of future women (and men) growing up today that, while they would agree with the individual checkmarks of feminist equality (equal pay for equal work; women’s right to choose; anti-discriminatory policies; etc.), don’t want to be saddled with the Feminist tag. And I get it.
I’ve been a feminist for over a decade, but waking up to a Twitter feed that is positively exploding with abusive rhetoric (on all sides) makes me want nothing to do with the label. Whether it’s about “rape culture,” “gamergate,” “misogynistic atheists” or some other hot button topic, I find myself compelled by the arguments. Compelled to turn off my computer and run away.
I’ve never been one to shy away from giving my opinion, but the ferocity of the debates has encouraged me to stay back. I don’t engage, I don’t respond. If I see an article that makes some interesting points (even if I don’t agree wholeheartedly with it), I’ll surreptitiously retweet it, but otherwise I keep my mouth shut.
I have become a Secret Feminist.
Be A Secret Feminist
For the young girls and boys growing up today that think gender equality is a no-brainer but have only ever known the term “feminist” to come with scare quotes, it can be hard to feel like there is a movement that represents them. This is especially true for white teens who for all intents and purposes are living in the utopian future that feminists of the 19th and early 20th century envisioned.
(Keep in mind: Equality doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen to a girl. Life is still life, shit happens.)
The thing is, sexism is not as overt as it used to be. The Mad Men office environment would never fly today, and there are laws intended to make sure that’s the case. But that doesn’t mean sexism in the workplace has been eliminated, and it certainly doesn’t mean that feminism has won the fight and can now be put back in the closet next to your Sexy Snowman Halloween costume.
But for a large subset of the younger generation, there is a huge disconnect between the rhetoric of Feminism’s most outspoken members and the world they actually live in. Activists tend to believe that people will fall into complacency if they let off the gas at all, but that sort of gung-ho advocacy can be repellent to people who aren’t confronted with inequality in their daily lives.*
So, how does Feminism rehabilitate its image? That’s a tough question, and something that isn’t going to be answered in a 1500 word essay. I do know, though, that it’s possible to be a feminist and stand up equality without wearing pins and starting every conversation with, “Well, I’m a feminist, so…”
It’s okay to be a Secret Feminist.
I grew up in an excitable Christian community that would have had a term for that kind of devotion to the cause: Luke warm. Well, who asked them?
The world needs activists. It needs proud, outspoken proponents for causes. Without them, important issues would fall between the cracks and change would never happen. But the world also needs regular people who don’t fight over every little detail and live in relative harmony with their fellow humans, even when they have fundamentally different worldviews.
What was the biggest boon to the equal rights campaign for homosexuality in America? Not marches or parades, not politicians or scientists. It was Ellen on television every weekday afternoon. It was Neil Patrick Harris charming the (figurative) pants off of Middle America. Ellen Degeneres, the Lesbian sitcom character, disappeared from TV in a scandalized flash, but Ellen the flamboyant TV host is the new Oprah.
So, how does your average, mellow citizen live as a feminist without turning into a caricature? The easiest thing I can think of is finding the little nuggets of sexism in your life and pushing them out. For instance? you ask.
Stop buying into the beauty lies of an industry that insists every natural part of you is an abomination. And I mean that literally: stop buying their products. Yes, when these companies came up with these marketing tricks, they were just making up things for us to be insecure about. They were fake problems. Now, though, society has embraced those standards of beauty and they are ‘real’ (as real as any cultural standard can be).
It’s nice to say, “You’re beautiful just the way you are,” but that’s a bunch of greeting card horseshit, and while you’re embracing your inner beauty, someone else is getting made up and winning the heart of the guy/gal you wanted. It’s a brutal world out there. Sometimes you really do have to fight for what you want.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t hit back at the industry that birthed this monstrous culture. The easiest way is pretty obvious: Stop buying those stupid fucking magazines. Women’s magazines are more pornographic than Maxim. Why are you buying them? (I mean, I get it if you’re a teenage boy and you can’t get your hands on Playboy, but even then, have you not heard of the internet??)
If you really must have those beauty tips, may I suggest doing what housewives have done for decades: Get in the longest line at the grocery store and read it there. Those magazines are 90% ads and about 6 pages of content, so you should be able to get through 3 or 4 different issues by the time Widow Henderson finds her $.50 coupon for that 30-pack of toilet paper.
For crissake, cancel that damn subscription (may I suggest getting something else instead).
There are a lot of insidious ways that sexism has seeped into all of our lives, but none of them is more pervasive than these beauty standards. Some might see the new impossible beauty standards for men to be a step in the right direction; after all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. But that’s the poisonous mentality that is hurting feminism. We shouldn’t be hoping for a worse world for men, we should be hoping for a better world for everyone.**
It’s not easy to push back against the tide of mass culture and the multi-billion dollar beauty industry, but a million individuals making a small change in their life is more impactful than an angry Twitter feud or a dozen articulate blog screeds (of which this is attempting not to be). Enough small steps become massive marches.
The beauty industry’s profits rely on you hating yourself. I’m not saying that the answer is to just “Love yourself.” I’m saying the answer is to hate them back. If you must participate in the zero sum game that is Cosmetic Beauty, do it without feeding their coffers. Self-esteem is hard; spite is easy.
(Now, I would never suggest that you steal beauty supplies, but…)
*Some feminists would argue that we are all, daily, living in a world that is shaped by inequality and sexism. While this is likely true, it’s in ways so subtle that an innocent bystander can’t be blamed for not necessary seeing everything through those lenses.
**Standards of beauty aren’t all inherently bad. It’s part of our very biology to seek them out and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t find some people more attractive than others. There comes a time, though, when those standards grow so unrealistic that they cross over to the level of satire.