One day I told my mom, in passing, that I was a feminist. "You are?!" she asked in bewilderment, and I wondered what feminism meant to her. As I see it, I am a feminist because of the things my mother taught me: I believe in educating myself, paying my own way, embracing my inherent strengths, appreciating how I'm different from men, being strong and gentle, standing up to people who would use or devalue me, voting, et cetera. Why would the word "feminist" put her off when she knows and approves all those things about me?
But when I read something like this, I understand where the confusion comes from:
I should be able to dress how I want and act how I want. That's what feminism is about, not about making others feel comfortable.
CAVEAT BEFORE I BEGIN...
I am not writing this to attack Emily Ratajkowski. For one thing, her quote was taken out of context even in the article (it was put over a picture of her, with no surrounding text to explain what she was talking about). To give the benefit of the doubt, maybe she and her interviewer were deep in conversation about how women who feel unfree will dress only to please others or to limit themselves to roles which deny them agency. The "comfort" of others could mean the maintenance of a stifling status quo. In that context, Ratajkowski may have expounded on themes of feminism and the importance of speaking your own words, both with your lips and with your clothes. In such a context, her comment would be hard to attack. But there's no context in the article, just a free-floating statement about feminism and sartorial devil-may-care and not making other people feel comfortable.
I can't say I know what she meant. Nor do I want to attack a straw man of her statement: she's probably not advocating that women run around deliberately flouting convention to discomfit others. It's bad enough that Marie Claire magazine quoted her so sloppily; I don't want to misrepresent her sentiments further. Plus, attacking straw men only makes the attacker look ignorant!
With that said, I do disagree with some of her statement, and I do want to explore the larger ideas which underlay similar statements commonly found in our culture. These larger ideas make feminists like my mom think feminism is a bad thing to claim.
THE RIPPLE IS NOT THE ROCK!
I should be able to dress how I want and act how I want. That's what feminism is about . . .
First of all, feminism isn't about acting and dressing how I want. Feminism is about recognizing the equal worth of women to men and structuring social spaces and situations to enable both genders to flourish and be respected. Sometimes, the surface level effects of feminism can be seen in women acting and dressing how we want, but that's not feminism itself. Nor is it always the case: men do not have complete liberty in their actions or clothes, so why should women, if we seek equality with men? Saying feminism is about acting and dressing how I want is like saying Christianity is about eating bread dipped in juice: one manifestation of a thing is not the thing entire! Let's not conflate a ripple in the water with the rock that caused it!
But the more troubling part of the sentence is the end of it:
. . . That's what feminism is about, not about making others feel comfortable.
It's technically true: comfort and feminism are two separate topics. The problem is: this sentence assumes that someone said they were the same, and then refutes that equivalency claim. It's easy to infer that feminism means not caring about the comfort of others, which makes feminism rude and insensitive. And whether or not Ratajkowski meant that (see my caveat above), there are plenty of feminists who do believe that, and demonstrate it daily.
Imagine pushing on a closed door, leaning all your weight into it. If that door suddenly opens, you'll fly through, falling on the other side. So it is with a lot of feminists. They rightly fight against people telling them it's their job to please others, to be appealing, to fit the roles prescribed for them, to batten down their true selves and be "nice"... who wouldn't push against such dreadful closed doors? But when the doors open, they fall through, still fighting against the idea of niceness or pleasing others or being considerate, because they associate those things with their imprisonment. When consideration is linked to subjugation, liberated people will not want to be considerate. When caring about the comfort of others is equated to not caring for yourself, then people with self-respect will reject the thought. But they look ridiculous, because they're no longer fighting against actual oppression, they're now fighting for the right to offend!
A good example is the case of armpit shaving, which (oddly enough) was also featured in the same issue of Marie Claire. Some women loath their body hair and shave it, feeling shame or vulgarity when it grows out. Other women say that the first group of women is wrong to feel ashamed of their natural bodies, and claim that men are not expected to depilate! So (obviously) being expected to shave is a form of oppression, and liberated women will not shave. The debate gets heated, as women who choose to shave are told that they're kowtowing to the patriarchy, while women who choose not to shave are called disgusting and slovenly.
Someone without a dog in the fight might point out that grooming is not necessarily a sign of shame, that men are expected to depilate (their faces, mostly), and that many men also shave their armpits and other parts of their bodies, for various reasons. Sometimes armpit hair stinks, because hair can absorb a lot of scents and then contain them even after it's been washed; many men, especially men who exercise hard or have strong body odor, shave their pits to keep the smell down, out of consideration for others. That's the main reason I shave, a habit I adopted when I was a very stinky teenager.
But someone without a dog in the fight had better stay out, because it's not a civilized fight!
So the stereotype of the unshaven, inconsiderate feminist--who deliberately makes others uncomfortable as a display of her own freedom--has some basis, and truly feminist women like my mom want nothing to do with it. Likewise the stereotype of the "special snowflake" who feels oppressed by her razor is valid! Some women do feel oppressed by perfectly ordinary social standards or expectations. (Telling them to "man up" probably won't help!)
LA POLITESSE DES ROIS
Louis the Eighteenth of France once said that punctuality is the politeness of kings (sometimes rendered in English as "the politeness of princes", which alliterates nicely). Since a king cannot lower himself without demeaning his nation, many normal courtesies are out of his reach, but being punctual is one way he can show respect. Yet think about this: no event where the king is expected to attend could start without him; the party/meeting/ribbon-cutting-ceremony begins when the king arrives! He is the master of everyone's time, so his decision to be punctual is a yielding of power. When the king yields his power, it shows he had it to begin with.
When we think about good manners and consideration, why don't we think in terms of our power instead of our "oppression"? My workplace has a dress code requiring shirts to have sleeves long enough to conceal the armpits. This is because it's easier for the boss to regulate sleeve length than to make a rule that people have to shave, or wear deodorant, or not drip sweat on customers' goods, et cetera. The rule is in place to make customers comfortable by heading off the possibility of people seeing or smelling more of our underarms than they want to. So the rule is a rule, but it's also a matter of consideration. Should I feel oppressed because I can't wear a sleeveless shirt on a hot day? Should I rant about how following the dress code is "un-feminist" and declare my resistance because I'm so independent? I think that would be childish. If a king can show his power by yielding it, then a woman can abide by dress codes and consider others with the same sense of noblesse oblige. I choose the course of action that respects my boss (following the dress code) and my co-workers and customers (not showing my underarms to people who might find that uncomfortable). I can yield that power because I know my worth as a person is not effected by it, just as the king knows that his kingly dignity is undiminished by respecting someone else's schedule. I also know that if the code were morally wrong or insuperable, I could leave the job and keep my integrity. But sleeve length is not a moral issue, it's just a minor inconvenience on hot days.
THE ESSENCE OF GOOD MANNERS
I had in my head the idea that Miss Manners had written "The essence of good manners is consideration for the comfort of others", but when I went looking for the quote I couldn't find it. I found a few other good ones, though!
There is no outward mark of politeness that does not have a profound moral reason. The right education would be that which taught the outward mark and the moral reason together.
Good manners are made up of petty sacrifices.
So my mom can rest assured that I shave my pits, and wear modest and occasion-appropriate clothing... and I don't feel oppressed by these courtesies. I'm still a feminist. For me, feminism and consideration for others go hand in hand, as they are both manifestations (ripples) of being a decent human.
Ratajkowski, Emily. Quoted in “Dial Em for Major,” by Janet Hock with photography by Thomas Whiteside.
Marie Claire Magazine, June 2018, V. 25 Issue 6: pp 98-103. Print.
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