Should feminists be allowed to ask stupid questions?

I am 37 years old and have thus been an adult for quite some time. Nevertheless, I have still managed to think some incredibly stupid things. Here are just a few of the things I have believed while being an actual grown-up:

  1. if you use too much bath oil, the oil sinks in through your pores and makes you fat
  2. if you inhale while standing too close to someone eating a sausage roll then you can’t be a proper vegetarian
  3. it is both possible and morally acceptable to achieve gender equality and sort out all the other “equalities” later

I will allow you a few moments of headdesk / facepalm despair.

<A few moments later>

And now, the excuses: the first two, as you’ve probably worked out, are related to having an eating disorder. The third is related to being a Person Of Privilege. They are not very good excuses, but there they are. Ridiculous they may be, but those are actual beliefs that existed in my head. One look at them and you can see I’m hardly a go-to person when it comes to level-headed, rational thought. And yet …

Over the past few days I have come across the following questions:

Can a feminist wear high heels?

and

Should you wax before giving birth?

As we have already established, I am capable of inventing the most idiotic worries and reaching the strangest conclusions. Nonetheless, even I am shocked by the sheer pointlessness of these queries. Even I find myself thinking WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?? Wear whatever shoes you like! And as for the state of your pubes while you’re giving birth – it doesn’t matter! Not unless you have a massive, impenetrable thicket that the midwife will have to hack through, rather like the Prince approaching the thorn-covered castle in Sleeping Beauty. And I rather suspect you don’t but if you do, who cares? You probably won’t. So do what you like (or get someone else to do it for you, seeing as you won’t be able to see what’s down below, let alone smear hot wax on it).

So there. I’ve said my piece on those two issues. But the whole thing bothers me. I do not want to be classed as one of feminism’s straight talkers. If it’s reached a stage where, relatively speaking, I am one of those feminists who just doesn’t give a shit, then I’m seriously worried about everyone else. Just how fucked up must they be? How unbalanced has the world become?

I have no desire to mock people on account of their worries. If you’re the kind of person who focuses on irrelevant nonsense (and I sure am), then that’s just your misfortune. However, while I may have spent years dwelling on complete and utter bollocks, I’ve never yet seen column space devoted to such burning issues as “why Diet Coke might not be properly ‘diet'” and “why deciding there are no burglars in your house means that actually, there are”. And yet we have reams on how to rip out our ante-natal pubic hair and on what constitutes sufficiently “feminist” footwear. Is this because we are meant to be worried about such issues? Or at least meta-worried about them, like I am now?

Obviously all of this plays into the hands of those who wish to portray modern-day feminists as a bunch of spoilt middle-class women with no “real” worries to speak of. Of course, this is hardly fair and besides, the right to get in a tizz about crap is surely a right worth defending on principle. If women suddenly have a responsibility not to “let the side down” by expressing concerns which might seem frivolous, but which are nevertheless linked to the sexist cultural currents that surround them, then that’s not fair. I do not consider dishing out advice on footwear to be a feminist act but still, it’s not something that should bring down the whole feminist project.

All the same, I just wanted to say this: I am a bit concerned. It should not be the case that I feel sensible. When it comes to pointless worries, I should be the expert. Sort it out, fellow feminists. Then we’ll all know where we stand.

7 thoughts on “Should feminists be allowed to ask stupid questions?

  1. I sort of agree with you here, but also, I sort of don’t. Something about the whole ‘should feminists wear high heels?’ thing has been troubling me lately.

    On the one had, I agree with you that these are silly trivial issues and by fixating on them, it gives the impression that feminists are so bloody bourgeois and privileged that we’ve got nothing better to do that fret about our footwear. And clearly, there are far bigger, more important feminist issues than these, and they are the real focus of most feminists’ concerns.

    On the other hand, these seemingly trivial matters are nonetheless decisions women have to make, and they are issues that affect only women and not men; therefore, they seem like issues about which feminists should have something to say. And I found a lot of the responses to the high heels question a bit, well…unsatisfying. So many feminists seemed to say only: “do what you like! If you like high heels, wear them! If you don’t, don’t!” Which is a perfectly acceptable position to take, but there’s nothing specifically feminist about it; it’s a liberal position grounded in the value of autonomy that says all that matters is that people make a voluntary choice to do something.

    I am a liberal and so have a lot of sympathy for this view. But as feminist analysis, I find it pretty unsatisfying. After all, something we know is that high heeled shoes, when worn frequently, inflict long-term harm on the wearer. And we also know that the dictates of fashion and social pressures make it the case that this is a form of harm that is only experienced by women. Similarly with the waxing issue – it might not inflict long-term damage, but it’s painful, expensive and time-consuming, and it is primarily women who face these pressures. The idea that feminists would be content to say nothing more about these matters than: “if you like it, do it, it’s your choice!” depresses me. I want feminists to at least engage in some critique of the social practices and context in which these things take place; especially given that the more women make a voluntary choice to do these things, the harder it becomes in practice for other women to make a voluntary choice not to do so (think of the hassle received by women who choose not to shave under their arms).

    1. Those are excellent points.I suppose it is question of teasing out what’s meant by “is this feminist?” I too find “free choice” as a cover-all unsatisfactory, but don’t like it to be suggested that if you wear high heels or whatever you are making an implicit statement and should therefore be judged “less feminist” than someone else (largely because we all make compromises and can’t always tell whether what we’re doing is down to social pressure, a need to express a particular position or just because we enjoy it). But yes, critiquing what high heels signify and do (but not the wearer) is worthwhile. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. Now you mention it, I’ve recently been thinking more about dieting and eating disorders in this way. I used to be very defensive about people citing the dieting industry as a cause of eating disorders. I worried this made sufferers appear frivolous and superficial while undermining a basic right to control what goes into your own body, whatever your motivations. Nowadays I’m much more inclined to think we have to criticise diets and slimming programmes because however trivial they appear, their influence is extremely damaging. Moreover, an attack on the diet industry doesn’t have to be an attack on women who bow to the pressure (but often it is – as in Closer etc. bullying of “size zero” celebrities). Thank you for giving me so much to think about!

      1. Yeah that’s a really good example. Other similar issues are pornography, or sex work. I don’t have strong feelings about either of these issues at the level of principle. I don’t think that porn is always misogynistic, or that sex work is always rape, or exploitation. And being a liberal, I’m inclined to tolerate them, even though I don’t engage in them myself.

        That said, it bothers me that a lot of contemporary feminists seem content to say about these things: if the women taking part are happy, and made a free choice, then there’s no problem – the only problem would be if there was coercion. But again, that’s not a feminist argument, it’s a liberal one, and it’s fine, as far as it goes. I agree that coercion is a problem. But I would hope a feminist analysis could do more, could go beyond that – to look to the social norms and cultural practices that influence our choices, as well as looking at how the choices of one individual impact upon the choices open to another.

        I think it’s partly explained by a desire to make feminism as open and democratic and ecumenical as possible, so that like you say, we’re never in any way judging any one (well, any woman). But I think that strategy is doomed to fail, really. We need to be able to criticise other women’s behaviour – just in the way we often want to criticise men’s behaviour. Women can’t be immune to the criticism that their behaviour is perpetuating harmful norms or practices.

        I’m not saying that women who do any of these things – wear high heels, wax their pubic hair, go on diets, engage in sex work – are guilty of perpetuating harmful social norms. I just want to be able to have a debate about it that goes beyond the simple choice is all that matters position. Every woman who waxes her pubic hair, gets breast implants, or goes on an extreme diet makes it harder, maybe practically impossible, for all the other women to refuse to do these things without attracting unbearable social costs. We’re already there with underarm shaving, getting there with pubic hair waxing.

        I am a hypocrite about all of this stuff, of course. I shave my underarms and I pluck my eyebrows and I wear makeup every day (and, shameful though it is to admit it, I’m often quite judgemental about women who don’t do these things). I make it harder for other women to refuse this stuff. So we should be able to criticise this, even if ultimately we decide it’s a choice I should be allowed to make – I just shouldn’t pretend that I’m not having any impact on other women, because I am.

        Oops, went on a bit, sorry! This is a hobby horse of mine….

        1. > > Every woman who waxes her pubic hair, gets breast implants, or goes on an > extreme diet makes it harder, maybe practically impossible, for all the > other women to refuse to do these things without attracting unbearable > social costs. We’re already there with underarm shaving, getting there with > pubic hair waxing. > Except I only wear makeup and worry about food because of all those other women who did it first, so it’s not my fault, it’s theirs (I always think that whenever Closer has a go at a thin actress for being a poor role model – why is she not as much of a victim as those who are allegedly copying her?). If we make this a criticism of individual behaviour then it seems to suggest either that certain people don’t have as much of an excuse as others, or that the pressure placed on women really isn’t that bad (because we expect them to resist it for the sake of other women – except maybe the latter need to resist it, too, for the sake of women to come etc.). How can we define when the “unbearable social costs” kick in? It’s bad enough feeling guilty for not being thin or pretty enough without feeling that you are letting the side down for responding to this guilt. That said, I am doing my bit to hold out against the waxing (which, to be fair, you didn’t really need to know!)

      2. Definitely not advocating guilt. It’s shit enough feeling under pressure to conform to oppressive social norms, without also feeling terrible that you are part of the problem – that you are perpetuating the very thing that is oppressing others!

        I’m not sure what the solution is, but we need to at least start by addressing the wider social and cultural context in which choices are made, and which rewards certain choices while penalizing others. I think that is part of what feminism should be be about – providing a critique of all the shitty aspects of our culture that have negative consequences on women’s lives. It doesn’t mean blaming women who engage in problematic practices – but neither should it mean that whatever a woman chooses to do is entirely unproblematic, just because she’s chosen it. There needs to be some middle ground between attacking women for betraying the sisterhood, and uncritically accepting everything they choose to do. Maybe it begins with consciousness-raising.

        But yeah, this all comes down to the fact that I think feminists should have something to say about high heels! They cause long-lasting harm if worn every day. Men are not expected to wear them, so are spared this harm. This seems to me, on the face of it, problematic. (I don’t want to ban high heels. But I do think they are clogs of the patriarchy!)

        1. Definitely agree about questioning the wider context. It does irritate me when it’s argued that “feminism is about choice” as though outside influences have no bearing on this. In the meantime, next time I wear high heels I won’t shave my armpits, so I’m “cancelling it out” (not really. I own heels but never ever wear them anyhow. Enough external pressure to make me buy them, not enough to make me put the damn things on).

  2. Very interesting post and discussion. A thought I had is about the difficulty feminists and others have when something e.g. high heels, is a symptom of a much greater cultural oppression, but in itself is pretty trivial. It is very difficult to complain about high heels, even to those who are sympathetic, without sounding petty, it shouldn’t be important what shoes we wear but sadly it is. So how do we talk about it without sounding, and indeed feeling petty? Often people will just say “well don’t wear high heels”, and that’s fine, I don’t. I also don’t wear make up, but I do shave my armpits (if on public show) and do other things which are symptoms of cultural oppression. What the person who says “just don’t wear high heels” doesn’t appreciate is that non-conformity is difficult, and while the ‘norm’ allows a certain amount of variation- I can get away without wearing high heels- chances are I’ll conform I’m some other way instead and still be a product of that oppression. So before we can tackle the cause we have to at least recognise and discuss the symptoms, and find a way of doing so that doesn’t come across as petty and isn’t victim blaming. So an easy task then! This probably isn’t very well expressed sorry!

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