What does a feminist look like?
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In my last year of high school (yes, this is a story from the hoary past) I developed a sudden and brief fondness for buttons. You know them, the little button pins you can adorn your jacket or backpack with and let the world know about your political or musical affiliations at the same time. My most frequently used pin was a plain white one that simply said ‘this is what a feminist looks like’. It travelled seamlessly from the lapel of my school shirt to my book bag to the slogan tees I’d wear while skipping school (in my defence, it was 2004.) And it never failed to elicit a reaction from anyone who saw it. The most memorable of these, however, wasn’t from any teacher or authority figure, it was from a classmate who was skipping school with me one day.
We’d just left the movie theatre and were travelling down the escalator to the food court at the mall. I was wearing a black t shirt, a denim maxi skirt and an assortment of pins. Suddenly my friend turned to me and said, ‘you know, I’ve always wondered about that feminist pin you wear.’
I asked him why.
‘Well, from what I know, feminists are usually dishevelled, middle aged women in kurtas and they’re always angry at everything.’
‘But you look after your appearance,’ he continued – this was right after my worst year of eating disorders and I was still throwing up after every meal, which I guess had finally rendered my appearance acceptable to my peers – ‘and you dress well, and you don’t seem particularly angry, so why do you think you look like a feminist?’
For a good few moments, I didn’t know what to say. To me, feminism was the idea that women deserve the same rights as men and that patriarchy was a toxic system that needed to be dismantled. I’d never associated it with any particular look or way of dressing. In the end, I told him that feminists don’t necessarily have to look a certain way and that it’s an ideology anyone’s free to believe in, including people who care about the way they dress. Had I been asked that question a year later when most of my university professors would turn out to be these supposedly dishevelled and angry feminists, I’d have had something much stronger to say in response. I’ll always regret not having done so in that particular moment.
Since then, I’ve refashioned my appearance and remade myself more times than I can possibly recall. I’ve hidden my body in shapeless swathes of navy and black and bared it in minis and crop tops. I’ve grown my hair all the way down to my waist and buzzed it off with clippers. I’ve rejected femininity and then come back to embrace it. I’ve been equally angry and outspoken as I’ve been quiet and withdrawn. And all throughout, I’ve been a feminist. That has never changed.
You can be a feminist in short shorts or a hijab. Whether you have hairy pits or shaved. Whether you have long hair, short, or none at all. Whether you’re masc af or femme af. Straight or queer, kinky or vanilla. Whether you love makeup or detest it or don’t have any feelings about it either way. Whether you love domesticity or loathe it, care passionately about your career or not. You can be soft or hard as nails, fiercely independent or in need of support from your loved ones, #girlboss or #earthmother, or a mix of all of the above in a way that only you can be, and you’ll still be a feminist if feminism is what you believe in.
I’m a feminist and this is what I look like. I’m a wife and a stay at home mother, I struggle with my mental health, I’m domestic more out of a pathological need to tidy rather than a genuine love for it, my family – both found and made – is my universe. I would be lost without my husband and I’m not ashamed to admit that. I’m deeply content as a homebody, hate being in the spotlight and work better on my own than in a group. I embrace femininity and softness and it’s my deeply held belief that equality can only be achieved through the empowerment of all women – trans women, queer women, disabled women, women of colour, fat women, women in poverty, women in sex work, women in abusive situations, women who are systemically disadvantaged. I’m raising my daughter to treat others with kindness while standing up for herself, to know that she is worthy and that being a girl doesn’t hold her back from anything she wants to do. This is what feminism means to me.
What does a feminist look like? There’s no definitive answer to that. A feminist looks like however they wish to. All I can say with conviction when you look at me is that this is what a feminist, out of millions upon millions of feminists across the globe, looks like. Just like my pin from my teenage years declared.