Salon published an article the other day titled Feminism vs. femininity. It's a review of a book by Laura Kipnis.
Femininity -- which Kipnis defines as "tactical: a way of securing resources and positioning women as advantageously as possible on an uneven playing field, given the historical inequalities and anatomical disparities that make up the wonderful female condition" -- seeks to ameliorate all these disadvantages by "doing what it took to form strategic alliances with men." But that means that femininity "hinges on sustaining an underlying sense of female inadequacy," which puts it in opposition to the goals of feminism. No wonder we feel a little uneasy when the possessor of a brand new boob job proclaims, "I did it for myself." I believe this is what Marx called false consciousness.
Recently, every time I get dressed to go out -- heels, skirt, jewelry -- it strikes me how incredibly non-functional are the clothes that make women look feminine, especially in high fashion. When I wear heels I can't run, I have to take small steps, I have to balance carefully, I have to take cabs. Small evening-appropriate bags are absurd: I can rarely fit keys, phone, wallet in one of the small and sleek bags that are favored for evening. Big earrings: attract attention, and if they snag on something, you get hurt. A tight skirt? Can't walk. Padded bras? Typically very awkward. Full skirt, short? Gets blown about by the wind, and I have to dedicate extra attention to ensuring I don't pull a Marilyn. Full skirt, long? Yeah, try to do anything functional: you spend half your time keeping it out of the dirt or needing a red carpet underneath. (Don't get me wrong: I love ballgowns.) Makeup: you have to periodically check it to make sure it hasn't gotten smeared in the wrong direction. Fingernail polish: oh god, the dreaded chip! There goes another half-hour to redo my nails plus an hour of drying time when I have to be really careful about what I do with my hands (or $20 if I go to a salon) and you have to do it every five days -- maybe more frequently if you wear darker polish that shows chips; I wear neutrals, which mostly don't.
I doubt I'm saying anything new on the subject; there are legions of feminist scholars who have written books and papers and discussed all of these issues. But the above excerpt from Kipnis crystallized the conflict that I feel every time I dress in a way that looks feminine. Because when I dress like that I am less functional. I can't ride my bike or walk to the BART -- I have to drive or cab or be picked up. I specifically avoid walking through my rather-sketchy neighborhood when dressed like that because I get way more untoward attention than when I'm wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
I don't have a huge beef with anyone trying to look attractive, but it sucks that the definition of female attractiveness is so tightly bound to female helplessness. Perhaps this is also true for male fashion, but I can't say because I'm not well versed in it and don't feel its codes the way I do the codes of female dress. Surely, too, dressing to helplessness is also a marker of social class and wealth -- I don't need to walk so I can wear high heels, I can wear a white dress because I can afford to have it cleaned, I don't need to run because I am safe and protected and have other people to do my work for me, I don't need a big purse because.... I have a boyfriend to pay for all my drinks and drive me around.