Freeing the Female Body: On A Quest For Feminist Fashion

Warner ad for Concentrate girdle & Little Fibber bra (LIFE magazine 09/08/67)

by Maddie Ruud

“Feminism” and “fashion”—two words one rarely hears together. In fact, for many feminists, fashion is the new “f word,” a dirty, two-syllable utterance to be spat out with contempt and disgust. And, let’s face it, fashion doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to liberating and empowering women. Historically, clothing trends have been used to control and contain the female body, molding it into something more palatable for and less threatening to the masculinity of the world.

Extreme examples spring to mind—the excruciating practice of foot binding, the infamous tight-laced corset. Without further scrutiny, these may seem isolated practices buried in the past, with no bearing on the modern style-savvy shopper. But watch a broadcast like last week’s Academy Awards and you’ll see, the ultimate sex appeal still lies in the constricted form. Open your underwear drawer, and reveal the everyday tools for the reshaping of the female body: control-top pantyhose, push-up bra, padded panties, Spanx, or maybe even a girdle. These items are meant to make us more attractive, and what is attractive in women remains what is controlled.

Nor is this limited to our bodies. Gender roles dictate that a good woman is one who does not take up too much room, either physically or emotionally.  According to scientific studies, men who assert themselves in the workplace are seen as go-getters, while their female counterparts are seen as overbearing . . . even when they use exactly the same conversational script. Diet advertising is another case in point: it appeals to our cultural standards equating eating with immorality, and self-discipline as the route to ultimate femininity. Femininity itself is defined by what is acceptable (or palatable) to men. And too often, men are threatened by the prospect of liberated, confident women.

Now, we know, as feminists, that we ought not to be catering to the hetero-normative, sexist standards of beauty, but it is unclear what alternatives we have. This dilemma has often kept me up at night and prompted me to conduct an informal survey of the women in my life—women of all shapes, colors, sizes, and backgrounds. The responses I got left me no further ahead. These women—bright, intelligent, sweet women—were as muddled as I was. Overwhelmingly they spoke of dressing for your body type, of flattering your assets . . . but these are things still dependent on the “male gaze,” that disembodied, sexist critic we have all internalized from youth. (Studies show that women are far more critical of each others’ appearances than men are.) There was also talk of wearing what makes you, as an individual, “feel good,” and though this, too, falls subject to the sexist standards in place, the phrase itself stuck in my mind, and returned to surface again and again as I continued my meditation on the subject.

Wearing what feels good. Now there is a concept. On a women’s forum I often visit, there is a running joke that the more a shoe hurts, the cuter it’s likely to be. I think that speaks volumes to our mindset. Whatever is opposite to our nature that is what you should strive for: If your hair is curly, it needs to be flatter; if your hair is straight, it needs more volume. If your breasts are large, they need to be lifted; if your breasts are small, they need to be padded! If only we could turn off that (male) inner critic, close our eyes, and feel our clothes, and our bodies within them. What if that were the basis on which we chose our apparel? Suddenly fabric would mean more than brand name; suddenly comfort trumps constriction.

This line of thought brings up vivid remembrance of following my mother through the fabric store as a child, running my little hands over reams of fabric, eagerly devouring the feast of textures through my stubby fingers. But even this memory is tainted—as it turns out, in a very symbolic way. Small digits catch in a loose end, fabric comes tumbling down. A (female) clerk comes rushing over to scold me loudly and severely enough that my mother takes offense and, vowing never to patronize said store again, takes me by the hand so recently engaged in such delicious sensation, and drags me, crying, home.

One day, I may be able to pull some of those fabrics intentionally off the shelf, cut and piece, and sew a new standard in which to dress myself. But for now, I cannot. My mind is full of patterns pre-designed for me by a patriarchal society. First things first. Let’s break back into that fabric store and banquet. Let’s make a mess! And instead of throwing the clerk out . . . perhaps we can convince her to join us.

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6 thoughts on “Freeing the Female Body: On A Quest For Feminist Fashion

  1. Society keeps dictating rules about women beauty. To reach this level of beauty is financially hard since we need to use the help of a plastic surgeon, or a laser specialist or expensive diets. The kind of clothing you are discussing is maybe the least expensive way to start reaching the female body figure most of women desire.

  2. Janet, I’m so glad to hear you’ve been inspired to throw out those body-constricting garments.

    The undergarment industry is frustrating. Smaller-busted women like yourself can’t find unpadded bras, and big-chested ladies like me can’t find bras that don’t threaten to “minimize.” I want to look like me, not like their idea of what I should be.

    And I agree, natural fibers feel so much better on the skin!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Your insightful analysis hit the nail right on the head, Maddie. and your focus on fabric struck a chord with me. Lately, I’ve been buying and wearing clothing in fabrics that I love the feel of – mostly natural fibres. It’s interesting to note that the synthetics I like almost as well are the new technical fabrics that mimic the properties of “natural” fabrics: soft, breathable, moisture-wicking, etc.
    I’m with you on the underwear struggle, though. Believe it or not, there is no store in my town that sells a functional bra in my small cup size that is not either padded or a full-on sports bra – what’s with that!?!
    (And, BTW, you’ve inspired me to go to my dresser and take out the “shapewear” I hardly ever put on and put it straight into the rag bag.)

  4. Hi April and Natalia! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    April, I haven’t read “On Beauty.” I’ll have to check it out!

    Natalia, I’ve been struggling with the question lately as well. I’m a bridesmaid at one of my very dearest friend’s weddings this summer, and every other female member of the bridal party is ordering her dress 2 sizes down, going on a diet, and wearing Spanx. It’s interesting to note that all of these ladies are small to begin with — almost literally half my size.

  5. I’ve been recently baffled by the fact that many “committed” feminists are still undeniably obsessed with their own vanity, the way they look to others. It’s unsettling to know how deeply the messages of looking a certain kind of “beautiful” have penetrated into the female psyche, no matter how “liberated” a woman may claim to be.

    Have you written an article or book review on the book On Beauty by Zadie Smith? It’s extremely interesting because two of the main characters really reinforce the truth that as a woman, you cannot excape the pressure to be “attractive.” Claire Malcom is a white, feminist, liberal poetry professor at a prestigious college, yet clearly displays behaviors of disordered eating (e.g. deliberately starving herself, ordering only salads at restaurants). Kiki Belsley is an African American nurse and mother of three, who in recent years has gained weight (she is 300lbs) and constantly lives under the scrutiny of strangers, acquaintances and even her family for her “larger size.”

    Anyway, as disenheartening as it may be to know that ALL women struggle with some form of body insecurity, at least we can try to pursue new norms of beauty together.

  6. Thank you for this. I’m really interested in the use of Spanx, etc. and what it means for us. I’ve been feeling very conflicted about this since I bought one last year… it’s hard.

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