Every now and then, fashion-y types decide that the most fashionable thing ever is to pretend to be anti-fashion. Witness, for instance, the so-called “anti-fashion” movement of the 1990s (which, from what I can work out from Wikipedia, involved dressing as though you were either very poor or in a CK One advert, providing you were both thin and not actually poor). I’ve always thought this kind of thing was not just bollocks, but snobby bollocks, the kind of thing a manipulative playground bully would try on (“wear this! Ha-ha! Fooled ya! What we actually meant was wear the precise opposite! It’s un-fashion!”). But hey, what do I know? I’m properly unfashionable, as opposed to being fashionably unfashionable, which is something completely different.
And now we get Louise Mensch’s Unfashionista, “a lazy girl’s guide to gloss – style for the style-challenged”.* Thanks, Louise! What a boon to all of us almost-middle-aged “lazy girls” out there! I’m oddly fascinated / outraged by this kind of thing, as indeed other feminists are. Following a trend (untrend?) set by glossy magazines, it’s all about taking our feminist name in vain. It looks as though you’re simply making women feel dissatisfied with their appearance, but hey, actually you’re liberating them. “Is being attractive unfeminist, shallow and superficial?” muses Louise. “I don’t know.” Well, I do: no, it’s not. But what Mensch is doing here is suggesting that some women – some silly, misguided feminists, one assumes – think it is. Woman beware woman! There are types out there who want to part you from your L’Oréal! Don’t listen to them! Because you’re worth it, or to use Mensch’s words, spending a fortune on makeovers “will give you confidence in the ageing process and make you feel good about facing the future” (until there’s a lipstick that grants freedom from disease and immortality, I’m just not buying this).
Recently I wrote a piece for Comment is Free on why magazines such as Heat, Closer and Star are so damaging, particularly to those suffering from eating disorders. Many of the comments that followed were, as expected, along the lines of “well, since women write, edit and buy these magazines, you can hardly blame the patriarchy, can you?”. Since anyone who visits Louise Mensch’s blog will have actively chosen to, I guess you could say the same thing. If women want Mensch’s advice on what to wear, how to apply makeup, which exercise regime to follow blah blah blah, who am I to disapprove? And indeed, sat here with my straightened fringe brushing against my plucked eyebrows, I wouldn’t judge anyone for making that choice. But it’s worth examining just how much of a free choice it is. In a world in which women are grossly undervalued, for some of us – and often we’re the lucky ones – it’s easier to change our appearance than it is to change the minds of others. So why make life extra-hard?
If there really was a movement against fashion – a genuine one, as opposed to a pretend one that’s actually more oppressive than straightforward “urgh, you’re a minger!” criticism – I’d want it to be about, not judging women such as Katie Price or inventing imaginary mascara-snatching feminist adversaries, but about un-learning, about teaching women and girls that so many of the messages we internalise about ourselves aren’t true. Our bodies should be our own. Right now they’re not, not in legal terms nor in the ways in which they’re depersonalised by cultural beliefs about a woman’s role. We might buy magazines and read websites which reinforce the idea that we’re not good enough, but many of us do it only because we’re trying to be better in an environment which isn’t giving us many options. Women and girls should feel angry about this, but instead they are turning this anger on themselves. If we are afraid of facing the future, perhaps it’s because we’re more likely to be murdered by our partners, more likely to be forced into work that is badly-paid or not paid at all, more likely to be told we’re responsible if we’re assaulted, more likely to be denied medical treatment on spurious “moral” grounds, more likely to face old age in poverty. If we fear ageing for reasons other than the perfectly logical ones (infirmity, loneliness and impending death), perhaps it’s because we already know it’s a time during which our value as human beings is perceived to drop even further. And yes, some women fight the ageing process with No 7 Protect and Perfect, in the hope of at least not looking “menopausal” (which now seems to be an insult in and of itself). But we don’t deserve to be told this is all our own fault. If you live in a state of oppression you internalise it. It’s a basic survival mechanism. Even so, we could be teaching women and girls that it doesn’t have to be this way. It might not be fashionable to say this, but it would be the right thing to do.
*Hmm – another WordPress site using the word “gloss”? Maybe I am unfashionably fashionable after all …