A while back, I read this article on Refinery29, after seeing a quote from it on their instagram. The Instagram graphic states “Getting rid of hair and advocating for women’s rights aren’t mutually exclusive” while the caption elaborates –
The wider article addresses the shame and judgement women receive for removing facial hair. From the examples within the article, it was clear that the judgement this woman unfairly received was less about the act of removing her facial hair, but more the continuing bewilderment that women possess body hair to begin with. In this way, I found it curious that the article was marketed in a fashion that suggested the shame she had received was as a result of feminist advocacy for women’s right to not shave their body, rather than the patriarchal notion that female body hair is undesirable. Indeed, the consequences of not meeting accepted beauty standards, like shaving, are far worse than any (feminist) outrage at those engaging in such practices.
Regardless, the graphic was correct in suggesting that shaving and being a feminist are not mutually exclusive. Yet, where I take issue is with the wider implication of the caption that if it is a women’s choice, then it is of course a feminist one. This kind of feminism has become hugely popular and is often labelled ‘choice feminism’. The important imperfection with choice feminism is that it fails to consider the structural forces of patriarchy which inevitably govern our choices (even unconsciously). I’m unsure that in a non-patriarchal world, I would feel the desire to shave or wear heels or wear makeup. That is not to say that doing any of these things, as I do, prohibits your ability to be a feminist. But whether they are actively feminist choices either seems dubious to me.
Indeed, the proliferation of tradwives falls into this idea of choice feminism. A tradwife (short for traditional wife) is a woman who decides to take a traditional passive role within her marriage. The movement has proliferated through social media, in particular YouTube and Instagram. Tradwives suggest that the hallmark of feminism is choice – they choose to stay at home. However, such analysis fails to account for the history and current reality of women who do not have that choice. Heterosexual marriage, and its subsequent gender roles, is both a result of and agent of the patriarchy.
That one individual finds it personally liberating to utilise patriarchal structures for their own enjoyment or benefit, does not mean that it is progressive for all women. In choice feminism’s pursuit to grant women agency, we’ve perhaps lost a structural analysis of the way in which our choices are often unconsciously governed and conditioned by wider insidious social forces.
In a review of Natasha Stagg’s Sleeveless, Amber Husain, considers the ways in which to simply understand something is patriarchal, is not to resist it. Husain names this phenomenon ‘informed exceptionalism’ — a term encapsulating ‘the effort to write oneself out of corrupted alignments by conscientiously demonstrating an ability to comprehend them’. In many ways, informed exceptionalism seems to be at the heart of choice feminism.
Since the beginnings of the fight for abortion rights, choice has been central terminology of feminism –and rightly so: women should be free to make choices ungoverned by patriarchal institutions. Choice, however, is an incredibly elusive concept. In many ways, choice is rather individualistic, promoting the importance of the individual and their wants and needs. Yet, feminism has historically been rooted in left-wing politics; a politics which emphasises collectivism, and social responsibility. To marry collectivism and individualism is no easy task, and as a result, this is perhaps why choice feminism sits uncomfortably with me.
The problem with choice feminism is not necessarily the actions taken by individual women. To go back to where we started, you, of course, can be a feminist and shave. However, the issue with choice feminism is its efforts to label these actions as feminist in and of themselves. In fact, some position this strand of feminist thinking as one rooted in a “fear of politics”, that is to say it avoids asking the difficult questions about our daily attitudes and actions. Shelley Budgeon captured the essence of choice feminist thought rather well, noting the conflation of critique with disrespect and agency with resistance. In other words, they position critical engagement with our personal choices as somehow undermining one’s political alignments. They prioritise agreeability over uncomfortability.
Yet, is there perhaps also a place for women to make choices which while not anti-feminist, aren’t exactly feminist either? Do we have to apply a feminist logic to all our decisions?
It’s a question Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes considered on an episode of their podcast The High Low. Alderton, in particular, pondered upon whether there was a place for women to “derive joy from traditional structures of femininity” without compromising their feminism. Ultimately, I think there is, but we shouldn’t dress these decisions up as anything more than that. It’s perhaps for this reason that podcasts like The Guilty Feminist have gained such a cult following. Hosted by Deborah Frances-White, the podcast markets itself as a “supportive forum to discuss the big topics all 21st century feminists agree on, whilst confessing our “buts” – the insecurities, hypocrisies and fears that undermine our lofty principles.”
I believe our choices are always political, and should be scrutinised as such. At the same time, I also believe it is okay for women to sometimes make choices which don’t actively advance the feminist agenda in any meaningful way. Of course, to live a life in which not all our actions are consciously politicised is a privileged one. The question of how far activism should permeate our lives is challenging, and worthy of far more deliberation than I can give it here.
There’s no easy answers to this subject. In fact, most pathways raise more questions than they can answer. I’m certainly not disavowing women who engage in traditional ideas of femininity, or who have, for themselves, reclaimed these practices in a way that feels meaningful. Rather, I’m asking us not to shy away from critically examining ourselves, from asking the difficult and uncomfortable questions about our personal everyday choices. I’ll leave you with this –
“It is because feminism has given women the legacy of increased choice in their lives that a critical language with which to speak about women’s choices is still required” – Shelley Budgeon