Contemporary celebrity-led, liberal feminism mass markets a super-feminine image to young women today. This brand of empowerment-on-stilettos shouts out independent ladies who make their own money and it promotes unapologetic sexiness as ultimate self-expression and woman power.
This ideal didn’t come from nowhere. In the last decades, as women began to enter the formal economy in droves, they encountered a backlash telling them they were stepping out of their pre-ordained, natural spaces, jobs and roles, and were acting like men or like they wanted to be men. Imagine the pressure to find ways to not be de-sexed, to not be considered the wrong kind of too-mannish woman, to access the validation of femininity as well as education and the economy. Women were, after all, still being brought up to identify with and desire all three.
They had to be better than boys at school and men at work to get to the top, but they also had to make sure they didn’t end up without a man, marriage and children, in case they failed to be ‘real’ women. In addition to leaving room for men to be men, desirability was the other key balance all women had to negotiate, or be labeled too masculine. Failure to be successful in this way came with myriad costs. The fashion industry stepped in to make sure that brains in no way made beauty obsolete.
This brief history explains how smart, qualified women all over can today be seen in offices in five-inch heels, unheard of thirty years ago. It explains how women came to see shoes and makeup as empowering, and why so much hard-earned money is cycled back into lipstick rather than owning land. Do as well as they could in the job market, women would be left feeling like the carpet if they were also not responsible enough to become ‘appropriately’ feminine, meaning as they are expected and are told.
Women get endless messages that being sexualized remains important and defines our worth. Scan months of Carnival photos, magazines that stare from racks, billboards and commercials. We produce a brilliant array of women’s mas, yet one newspaper’s Carnival Wednesday front page was a full-page photo of Amber Rose. You are invisible and undervalued if you are not sexy and beautiful. Even independent ladies hear this loud and clear.
Except Shannon Gomes. She’s among young women denied by such packaging. Intending to be beautiful without stilettos. Looking good and being empowered on her own terms, wherever she goes. Wanting to be seen and valued as a woman without Maybelline making her ‘you, only better’. What happens to her form of femininity in this terrain of empowered womanhood as stereotypically sexy?
Unsurprisingly, it becomes cast as failure, as disallowed, as inappropriate, as ‘man’. And, there are costs for such women. There was a cost for Shannon. Denied her womanhood. Denied her femininity. Denied self-determination regarding her body. Stigmatized for not obeying the fashion fix. Told that this is private property, you have no rights. Made to pay.
Imagine your daughter or sister being told that if she does not make herself desirable on the most patriarchal of terms, then she is not a woman at all. This is how sexism and homophobia police sexuality and gender.
For months I wanted to write this column, highlighting the risks of selling women’s empowerment within hyper-femininity, sexiness and beauty. These normalize and glamorize narrowed options for women to challenge power. They create hierarchies between women. Exclusions are borne by those who don’t conform. Aria Lounge’s petty tyranny isn’t just theory.
Young people are protesting there on Friday night, as they should, for sexist discrimination is worth shaming wherever it occurs. Support them with engagement rather than ridicule. Shannon’s experience is but another example of negations reproduced in media images, religious messages, workplace expectations and relationship negotiations. This is why feminists challenge the beauty myth, though its glamour appears innocent. This is why schooling and jobs don’t mean women are yet free. Women should not be forced to fit stereotypical femininity, and feminist bright lights should also highlight those who don’t live by such rules, and who more greatly face a reality of being denied and demeaned. #solidaritywithshannon