Feminist and Feminine: My Struggle with Performing Femininity

There is a concept, deep in the recesses of second-wave feminism, that to be a “good” feminist, one must eschew patriarchal beauty standards. I understand that, I understand the principle of rejecting beauty ideals set up for us by men (and women!) for profit and pleasure. It makes complete sense to me that we should not have to exemplify these standards, especially when nobody is telling men to wear makeup and spend an hour curling their hair in the morning. And yet, I just can’t do it. I love my makeup and my hair straightener and my designer clothing, even though I know it’s just a show.

Now, my politics tend to fall much more closely in line with second-wave and radical feminism than third-wave and liberal feminism, minus some contentious issues of course. I embrace intersectionality, and I don’t participate or condone the trans* hate. However, as I’ve noted before, I don’t generally play the fun feminism game. I’m a little too angry for that. I don’t want to buy into the disturbing industry that says I need to have a certain type of body, wear certain clothing, and paint my face. And yet, here I am, writing makeup tutorials! I’ll just go ahead and say it: I perform femininity, and I like it.

I’m really not the most feminine person. It’s not like I’m wearing heels and floral dresses all day long, though I certainly like both those things. I rarely wear heels; when I do, they can best be described as “angry.” I like aggressive, ugly platform wedges and architectural shapes. Most of my dresses are drapey, asymmetrical, or floor length, though some fall into the “edgy but classic” style. I spend my time in black, white, and gray with touches of subdued colors like navy or pale pink. My boyfriend tells me I dress like a supervillain, which pleases me. But girly isn’t feminine, and my style, while aggressive, is decidedly feminine. I follow fashion, I follow trends (or start them, in my sartorially devoid city), and I stay current with what the hip kids are wearing. I follow the beauty standards, at least to some extent. Like I said, I favor what most people would call ugly or odd, but I’m still industry-brainwashed.

These are the kind of shoes that I favor. Seriously, someone buy me these.

Oh, and makeup. I love makeup. I have some major cognitive dissonance surrounding this. I’ve even made little compromises so I don’t feel like I’m betraying my cause. I have a ten-minute cap on hairstyling. I have a five-minute cap on makeup, unless it’s a special occasion or I’m going out, and then it’s ten minutes. While I blow dry and straighten my hair, as I normally do, I try not to use any products. I have oodles of designer makeup (I’m a NARS addict), but I try not to wear a lot on a daily basis. I give a fair amount of money to an industry that makes their way by creating unreasonable beauty standards for women, and I have a lot of guilt about that. I feel like I’m being a bad feminist if I feel self-conscious leaving the house with just powder on, but I have to go through the motions of filling in my eyebrows (use mascara, it’s a great trick!), putting on a touch of blush, and swiping on some powder. Maybe I’ll add some liquid eyeliner on my top lids. My mother always taught me, from even the young age of about seven, that a “lady” never leaves the house without at least powder and lipstick. I don’t care for lipstick personally, but the message has stuck. I can’t shake it, despite my ragey feminism. I feel like I have to do these things, and it almost takes the pleasure out of them, depending on my mood or time constraints.

Here’s the thing though–I don’t do this for anyone but myself. I suffer from almost debilitatingly low self-esteem. Hell, I’m recovering from an eating disorder brought on by that low self-esteem. I feel like if I can make myself feel better in a non-destructive way, then I should. Wearing stylish outfits makes me feel good about myself. I don’t care if some guy thinks I look hot, not that most guys are generally attracted to my edgy, non-sexy style. I do tend to get a lot of attention, however, when I go edgy classic, which generally means that I’m wearing very fitted outfits. And see, that bothers me. I am not candy for men’s eyes. I don’t want to be. I just want to wear what I love and feel great about looking good, because I think I look good.

I think there is some truth in those horrible lady mag articles that declare that women don’t dress up for men, they dress up for women. The truth is not, mind you, that we want all the other ladiez to be omg totes jealous, like they seem to think it is. Inspiring jealousy does nothing for us as a sisterhood. But I do like looking good for other women, and it’s because I know that women like me enjoy seeing style out on the streets. I have been accused on several occasions of “checking out” a girl or guy at the grocery store or at a restaurant. In reality, I was giving them the up-and-down because I loved their style. I wanted to take in what they were wearing, get some inspiration! However, I’ve recently tried to move away from the look over bit, because I realize that it might make that person uncomfortable. They don’t know I’m not checking them out, after all. So yes, I do dress up for other women in part, but not because I want to be envied. Stupid lady mags, always trying to create conflict”¦

I’ve struggled with this issue quite a bit over the past couple of years, and I don’t think it really gets easier. One part of me says I’m just rationalizing liking all of that “girly” stuff. The other part of me knows that I am navigating my life within a patriarchy. It can be a little of both, or just one, or none of those. That’s okay. We don’t have to make excuses to anyone for liking what we do. But it is undeniable that we as women have it easier when we play the game, and if I’m taking the easy way out, then so be it. We all make compromises. You can’t do everything all the time, as all those Pinterest inspiration boards say.

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

134 replies on “Feminist and Feminine: My Struggle with Performing Femininity”

I’ve always believed that true feminism teaches us to be comfortable in our own skins, follow our dreams – whatever they may be, and to be treated with respect and equality. We need to be strong, learn that self-esteem (which seems to come easier with age), and be true to ourselves… whether girly or butch or somewhere on that ever-sliding scale.

Love the shoes, but Birks are much more comfy!

I grew up a pretty big tomboy. My uniform is still pretty much jeans and a tshirt because this is what I’m comfortable with. I have friends whose mothers always put them in dresses -  there are very few photos that exist that show me in a dress.

My mother went to a liberal all women’s college (I actually attended the same one) and I honestly think that is part of why she rarely put any pressure on me dressing up as a kid. Dresses were for special occasions when you really had to dress up fancy, and that was pretty much it. I remember the horror that was shopping for my Bat Mitzvah dress – it was mostly my fault though. I decided that if I had to wear a dress it was going to be the perfect dress AND it had to be black & green because my Bat Mitzvah had a Rainforest theme. I also remember complaining wishing I could have worn a suit, but that would have been too much for my Bubbe.

Now that I’m older, I’m slowly adding dresses to my wardrobe. There are many reasons for this.

1. Adult women dresses don’t seem to itch as much. This is actually a pretty big reason.

2. I’ve learned that wearing dresses is actually a quick and easy way to get ready for an event and I rarely have to steam or iron them. Throw on some tights  and I don’t have to worry about getting cold. Two pairs of tights can be warmer than pants.

3. Many trial and error sessions later, I’ve let Meghan Krogh Young pick out dresses for me because she seems to understand my silhouette better than I do. I have recently bought some ModCloth dresses on my own, but I still showed them to her first before I bought them.

4. I love compliments. It’s not that I don’t get complimented on my other clothes, but when I wear the right dress I get so many. It’s almost like a special treat, and sometimes I want special treat days.

5. No one is forcing me, and that’s really all that matters.


This sounds so much like the arguments I have with myself about my corsets. I love my corsets. I love the way I look in them. I love the way they feel. And then I remember that they are the least feminist undergarment ever. So then I have to start rationalizing them to myself. I don’t wear them all the time! Sometimes I put them on when no one can see me, so it isn’t all about other people! If I do wear them out of the house, it’s usually as a costumed persona, so they don’t really define me or anything! And then it cycles around into me being resentful of the idea that a piece of clothing should be so tied to a philosophical idea. Why should I give two shits what my wearing a corset says about my feminism? Well, perhaps, Ms Opifex, it has something to do with wearing a garment that restricts your movement and changes your body shape to conform to a male gaze ideal? And the cycle starts over again.

Really, this sort of thing is head trash. My goal lately is to get rid of head trash. My corsets don’t affect my health* and they make me happy. I don’t ask or expect anyone else to wear them. So, I’m trying to move beyond the “can I wear a corset” problem.

*I do not wear my corsets for long periods of time, and I do not tight lace to extremes. I am aware of the health problems associated with corsets.

Late to the post, again.

I go to a monstrously unstylish university. Every time my mom visits campus she comments on it. I, however, kind of enjoy being one of very few people around with a style that isn’t schlumpy or sexy-boring. And  wouldn’t say I do it for anybody else; yes, bf likes it when I wear that one skirt, but I wear it because I want to wear it, not for him, and certainly not for anyone else. Sometimes it feels a little funny wearing interesting tights and a fancy barrette when everyone else is in sweatpants and Uggs, but I always ask myself when I’m going to wear these awesome things if I don’t wear them today.

That sounds like it could get a little intimidating! I know how you feel about dressing up a little when everyone else just rolls out of bed and comes to class. I always wonder if people are confused when I show up to class one week in jeans and a solid tee and the next week I’m wearing a trailing maxi dress and boots.

I’m so long past the idea that I dress in competition with other women (about 12 years), and agree with what you say. I dress up for myself and others. I like to see that I’m the only one in a red coat in a sea of black, but that doesn’t make me feel the victor of the color kingdom. I like to watch a group (of a subculture) pass by, but it doesn’t mean I stare in disgust or jealousy. We’re allowed to enjoy architecture, nature and cars but when we appreciate a stranger’s outfit we’re suddenly ..weird? Creepy? It’s utter nonsense.

I ran into an acquaintance the other day. I don’t know her well at all, but we run in the same circles and our paths often cross, and I often compliment her on what she’s wearing.  She’s someone who very deliberately adopts a particular look (hair died a color not found in nature, but looks stunning on her, etc.)  When  I saw her the other day, I said, “Once again, you look marvelous — it seems as if you are an artist, and one of your art forms is you.”  She laughed and agreed.  Not appreciating that kind of art is just another way in which an activity or art form is valued according to gender; if women do it, it’s not that important.

Years ago, a woman who was my roommate at the time noticed that I sometimes used moistened towelettes for, ahem, hygiene purposes, and remarked, “Oh, I thought you were too much of a feminist to use those.”  This blew my mind slightly, and provided me with a term I have used ever since, which is “asswipe feminism”.  I use this term to describe the kind of feminism in which women minutely examine and criticize other women’s choices about things like make-up and clothing and, ye gods, what they wipe their asses with, because they have never adequately understood the difference between having a political philosophy and being a fucking busybody.

I, myself, am not a big wearer of make-up, and I don’t tend to spend a lot of time on self-presentation, for the very simple reason that I am too lazy to make the effort most days.  However, when the occasion merits it and/or the mood takes me, I will get gussied up and enjoy it.  There are women I respect and admire and whose company I enjoy who spend a great deal of time on self-presentation, and I often delight in the artistry they employ in doing so.  There are women I respect and admire and whose company I enjoy who eschew make-up entirely, and I like them none the less (or more) for it.  Generally I think that people are at their most attractive when they do what makes them feel comfortable.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I dream of a world in which people dress and decorate themselves however the fuck they feel like it, and that has always seemed to me to be at least one of the goals of feminism.

I think you and I have the same dream. Also, I second the commenter above me-“asswipe feminism” is a great phrase. While I think that yes, the personal is political, but sometimes we need to mind our own damn business and stay out of people’s moist towelettes!

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