From Susan Sarandon to Rihanna, Taylor Swift to Theresa May – ripping women apart for their appearances is nothing new. And whilst judging a woman based on her outfit choice is vomit-inducing at the best of times, at worst it can be something far more unpleasant.
When Kim K posted that nude selfie on Twitter she was slammed by many for being a poor example to young women. People who had never met her said she was cheap and tacky, that her husband and children would be embarrassed. In almost too perfect contrast, just weeks later M&S released their first ever burkini range, causing Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson to declare that Britain was allowing misogynist attitudes to creep in, and that soon headscarves would be ‘all the rage’. In their polar opposite clothing choices, Kim Kardashian and M&S were bizarrely facing the exact same accusation of being bad advocates for women’s rights – of being unfeminist.
Now, when dismantling the patriarchy, it’s important to be dressed for the occasion; so, which is it: should women be empowering themselves by stripping off or by covering up? It’s dead simple really: both, or neither, or anything in between. In the same way that it is impossible to tell another person what music they should like or what their favourite food should be, what makes a person feel empowered is a deeply personal thing. If women choose to post nude pictures of themselves on social media, and they feel good about it, then good for them because they are taking control of how the world see’s them and owning their image. If women choose to cover up from head to toe and they feel good about that, then good for them too because, guess what, that’s also taking control and owning their image.
Judging women’s personal clothing taste as unfeminist is a nastier side of the women’s movement, one that’s decidedly less than inclusive. It’s the kind of misguided feminism that comes out when women are called old-fashioned or unambitious for giving up their careers to have children, when women are accused of being too girly because they like wearing make up or too traditional because they like cooking. It’s the kind that judges women from different cultures as ignorant of their oppression just because they have different ideas about what they want from empowerment. It’s one of many indicators that feminism has a major exclusivity problem, and whether this manifests through naivety or something worse – it desperately needs to be addressed. What’s degrading for one woman might well be empowering for another, because, funnily enough, we are not all exactly the same. What’s actually unfeminist is telling women what they should or shouldn’t do, should or shouldn’t wear. What makes them more or less attractive, more or less moral.
Neither choosing to take your clothes off nor choosing to cover up is inherently empowering. The empowerment comes from having that choice in the first place. Where a woman’s choice in what she wears is compromised, then – and only then – does it become something worth discussing. But until that happens women can cover up, get naked, wear dungarees or dresses or onesies, whatever makes them feel good about themselves. You don’t have to post nude photos of yourself on the internet any time soon, nor do you have to invest in a burkini. But that other women want to, and feel empowered by doing so, is nobody’s business but theirs.
Image courtesy of Mashable Composite. Kim Kardashian/Twitter. Noel Vasquez/Getty.