Thursday, February 17, 2011

Aesthetics, Lifestyle and survival strategies

Ten years ago I was attending a reunion of a Women's liberation group, as an observer. It was an incredible experience and an honour. And on the first day, in the first session, one of the women got up excitedly and said "I just want to say look at all the people wearing trousers, when we first met, every one of us would have been wearing a skirt, Isn't it fabulous."

She was an awesome, friendly, loving woman. She had the best of intentions.

And over the next two days I heard pretty much every woman who was wearing a skirt talk about what she'd said. She'd made them feel self-concious and judged. And other women who were wearing trousers that day felt the same way.

By celebrating one form of dress within a feminist space, a well-intentioned woman had alienated many of those there. And I don't think that she ever knew the effect her words had.

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I have been misquoted pretty consistently as arguing that The Wellington Young Feminist Collective 'should' take issues of aesthetics/lifestyle/survival strategies off the table. I didn't say that. What I said was this:

This is the reason I wrote my post: "I used to think I couldn't be a feminist because I like looking a certain way and I am interested in certain things."

I think this is a real danger - equally the inverse - that women can feel that they can't be a feminist because they don't look a certain way and aren't interested in certain things. And I think the easiest way to avoid that is to make aesthetic/lifestyle/survival choices off the table for feminist discussion.


Now I want to talk about why I think that, what I meant by it, and why I think it's important.

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I'm going to take as a basic assumption of this post that it is not OK to criticise another woman's aesthetic/lifestyle/survival strategies in the name of feminism.* I know that this isn't a universally held belief. This post and the discussion at Boganette's makes that clear. But I think it also makes it clear why other women's survival strategies should not be open to criticism.

Why isn't it OK to use the language of feminism to judge other people's decisions?

Because it's alienating, none of your business, and the survival strategies other people choose has nothing to do with your liberation.**

I am happy to argue about this in the comments, but I am going to spend the rest of the post speaking to people who don't support criticising other people's aesthetic/lifestyle/survival strategies in the name of feminism, but don't understand why they should be off the table. I'll try and explain why I think celebratory, or supposedly neutral comments about aesthetic/lifestyle/survival strategies can be damaging in feminist spaces.

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I opened with a story, here are some more.

My friend was at a feminist action. She had been given free razors as part of a promotion. She didn't shave her legs. She gives them to someone and says "here you shave your legs have these". Later, much later, the person she gave the razors too tells her how shit she felt in that moment, how judged. My friend doesn't even remember it happening. [Please respect this story. I'm not going to accept any second guessing of it in the comments]

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It had been advertised as a feminist meeting, but it was actually a clothes swap. Indeed it wasn't really a clothes swap at all, but one woman giving her clothes away. People tried on clothes, and they mostly didn't fit . One woman, who was probably half my size, put her hand on her hips and thighs and said "They're huge, that's why this is never going to fit."

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An older feminist is running a feminist workshop. She makes frequent references to where she does and doesn't shave. She was trying to put us at ease. In fact it just made me feel like this mattered.

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I could give many more examples like this. Think of the effect of celebrating a particular aesthetic/lifestyle/survival strategy in the name of feminism has on those who for whom it is financially impossible, or for those for whom it is inaccessible because of the way society disables their bodies.

When you're celebrating a particular survival strategy it still has nothing to do with anyone else's liberation, it's still alienating, and it's still none of anyone else's business.

In particular, in my experience, discussions about aesthetic/lifestyle/survival strategies take on more meaning and become more fraught when they happen in feminist spaces - and even more so the larger the feminist space.

This is just an observation. It may not be true in all feminist spaces, but it has certainly been a consistent experience of mine. I'm just guessing, but I think this is a result of the impossibility of women to win with their choices - they're always too much something, and are juggling so many different expectations, as well as their own and other people's needs. Therefore any kind of expression within a feminist space about these issues becomes a whole nother axis of pressure.

You'll notice that I only feature as an observer and the one excluded in these stories. This is not because I have some magic non-alienating super power. It's because what these stories have in common (as does the Trousers one I mentioned) is that the people who have made others feel alienated and excluded by discussing survival strategies have no idea that they've done unless someone tells them.

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I stand by my statement that the easiest way to solve the problem that I have now explored in quite some detail is to make discussions of aesthetics/survival strategies/lifestyles off limits in feminist spaces.

Let's consider a different way of dealing with discussions of clothes shops on the WYFC feed. Another way of doing it would be to post "Hey we all know clothing yourself can be super difficult. I just found this neat boutique called Emma's which works for me for [x reasons], but it might not work for you. What are your favourite clothing shops?" That's less universalising and I would have made no comment on a post like that.

Would people feel posting that they liked City Chic? The Warehouse? Hallensteins? Glassons? Supre? Each of these spaces provide different types of clothes at different prices for different people. Is this a space where people would be able to say, actually I can't afford to shop for clothes. Or I don't go to the clothes shops because of anxiety. If those things don't get posted how do you know why?

So what if someone comes a long and all the shops seem to them super-femme, or expensive, or don't cater to bodies anything like hers, and she's think "oh", and feels like feminism is a bit further away. My experience suggests that this is not just a hypothetical. This is a likely outcome.

The reason I say that I think the easiest solution is to take these matters off the table, is because I think having a good conversation about survival strategies/aesthetics/lifestyle is really fucking difficult. (for ones that go badly see any number of discussions on Feministe) If you want to initiate these sorts of conversations you have to know what you're doing and take the responsibility really seriously.

Can it be done? I was very interested in some of the conversations they had a FWD. They put a lot of effort into making sure that different experiences were heard. But who knows if people felt alienated by the way they did it.

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I know how useful discussion with people, those who share your experiences, about your aesthetic/survival strategy/lifestyle can be. They're useful for understanding why you do things the way you do, what meaning you've given to them, they can help making you stronger. I know what a difference it's meant so much to me having not just a name for the set of things that I found hard (dyspraxia) but someone who finds some of the same things hard.

I think spaces which tell individual women's stories and describe their aesthetic/lifestyle/survival strategies are really awesome and important. I follow a lot of blogs about women's lives, with their experiences and their analysis all rolled around. And then it's really clear 'this is me'. Locally, I love, and learn a lot from Letters from Wetville and Tales of a Redheaded Devil Child

The discussions which are useful for one person - will be unbearable for another. A description that one person finds really speaks to them is super alienating for another. There is value in creating spaces for all of us where we can feel comfortable, relax and socialise.

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And I know, many people have said, that it can seem ridiculous that when I've caused so much division to be so concerned about alienating people. But to me divisions based on ideology - 'what is feminism' are necessary and important. And if I write a follow up post - a response to all the people who asked me "Who the fuck are you to say what feminism is?" I'll try and explain why.

Alienating people who are wearing trousers, or who shave their legs, or who can't use the products you promote, when you don't even mean to, that's completely unnecessary and avoidable.

* Just to be clear I differentiate betweens survival strategies and the use of power. So, for example, if you take a job that gives you management responsibilities then you can and should be criticised for the way that you use that power. However, almost all survival strategies don't involve the wielding of power over someone else.

** The other exception I would lay out to when other people's survival strategies become other people's business is if you cross a picket line, but I don't think that applies here.

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