Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Lipstick Feminism and Dressing The Part

Beauty as power is something that is taught to every young girl. Common adjectives that are used to compliment girls often refer to how pretty, sweet, or kind that they are.  Very seldom do we reward girls for their intelligence, assertiveness, or passion.  As a child becomes a woman she internalizes the idea that is what is most valuable about her, is her physical appearance.  That this is something that will decline in value, often keeps young women awake at night; plotting the best way to take advantage of the small window of opportunity that beauty as a source of power offers.

image Feminism has engaged with beauty on many levels. Some feminists feel that performing beauty even to gain personally is internalizing the male gaze.  Others feel that the daily ritual is a sign of their autonomy in that they actively chose which beauty procedures that they will adhere too and which they will reject based on personal desire.  The debate between the lipstick feminists and the I will not subject my body to social discipline feminists has been waged since the 1970's.

What is beauty without the finery and the flash?  Each season the fashion industry deploys an army of models to inform us how to best maximize on our feminine whiles.  image One simply cannot be caught wearing the wrong shade, or sporting a purse that is the wrong size.  On the other side of the equation, you have women that are blissfully unaware of the fashion trends and dress for comfort over style.  These are the "utility women," who find power in thwarting the seasonal call to the mall.  Utility women take pride in dressing only in what makes them feel comfortable, while at the same time voraciously attacking their dolled up sisters as patriarchal dupes.

Back and forth the conversation goes. You're a patriarchal colluder says the utility feminists.  Well you're lazy, jealous and don't realize that autonomy can be found in many different ways retort the lipstick feminist.  Normally I would refrain from calling two groups of women engaged in conversation a cat fight, but what else can you call it when both sides display such narrow minded western privilege over beauty and clothing?

What neither of these groups ever seem to want to acknowledge is that whether or not your purse cost 500$ and has a DKNY label, or it is a 35$ Walmart find, both are participating in the impoverishment of women globally.  The problem is larger than whether or not you are dressing to please a man.

According to The Feminist Majority Foundation, "Women make up 90 percent of sweatshop laborers. Women are paid as little as six cents an hour and work ten to twelve hour shifts. In many instances overtime is mandatory. In some cases, women are allowed only two drinks of water and one bathroom break per shift. Sexual harassment, corporal punishment, and verbal abuse are all means used by supervisors to instill fear and keep employees in line.

Many of the companies directly running sweatshops are small and don't have much name recognition. However, virtually every retailer in the U.S. has ties to sweatshops. The U.S. is the biggest market for the garment industry and almost all the garment sales in this country are controlled by 5 corporations: Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Sears, The May Company (owns and operates Lord & Taylor, Hecht1s, Filene1s and others) and Federated Department Stores (owns and operates Bloomingdale1s, Macy1s, Burdine1s, Stern1s and others).

Several industry leaders have been cited for labor abuses by the Department of Labor. Of these Guess? Clothing Co. is one of the worst offenders - Guess? was suspended indefinitely from the Department of Labor's list of "good guys" because their contractors were cited for so many sweatshop violations.

Other companies contract out their production to overseas manufacturers whose labor rights violations have been exposed by U.S. and international human rights groups. These include Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart, Reebok, Phillips- Van Heusen, the Gap, Liz Claiborne and Ralph Lauren.


When women who are middle/upper class engage in a debate as to whether an article of clothing, or makeup is suitably feminist what they are ignoring is that they are  in a position to engage in this particular conversation, because they exist with class privilege.

A woman who is making less than 1USD per day does not have time to concern herself with whether or not patriarchy is informing her clothing choices.  This woman must deal with trying to provide subsistence for herself and her family under brutal economic slave labour.  Her class location informs her position, as the realities of her daily lived experience extinguish the angst that lipstick/utility feminists engage in.

Regardless of your position regarding performing femininity through make up and or  clothing, what cannot be denied is that any purchase within our capitalist economy is predicated on the exploitation of women.  The cult of I blinds us from the reality that in  our debate about agency and autonomy, we are completely obscuring the degree to which we personally are responsible for the impoverishment of others.  Class position we posit is based on meritocracy, but I must ask, who works harder than a sweat shop labourer?  Though feminism is a movement to end oppression against women, often times the failure to acknowledge privilege leads to the marginalization and exploitation of the most vulnerable within our society.  Class division is not a  flight of fancy, and to ignore the ways in which the Cult of I, turns us into oppressors is to decide unilaterally that only certain women matter.





AR said...

Class position we posit is based on meritocracy, but I must ask, who works harder than a sweat shop labourer?

Farmers in the area who weren't lucky enough to get a sweatshop job, of course.

"But when I talk to a young Vietnamese woman, Tsi-Chi, at the factory, it is not the wages she is most happy about. Sure, she makes five times more than she did, she earns more than her husband, and she can now afford to build an extension to her house. But the most important thing, she says, is that she doesn't have to work outdoors on a farm any more... Farming means 10 to 14 hours a day in the burning sun or the intensive rain... The most persistent demand Nike hears from the workers is for an expansion of the factories so that their relatives can be offered a job as well."


Jewelry Rockstar said...

So then what is the answer? Making our own clothes? I already make my own jewelry and bath and body products, so I can't do much more there. I don't really consider myself a feminist or a womanist, although I think some feminist/womanist views are definitely valid. I am more of a "familyist," In that I think of what is best for my family before anything else. Believe me that doesn't mean taking a back seat to my husband because "if mama ain't happy nobody's happy." In any case, I still like to look good for me. It might be programming, but I embrace it wholeheartedly. I certainly don't buy expensive name brands because I support the world with my extra income. My husband has bought me an expensive handmade bag, I won't apologize for that. I guess I just don't really get your point. I want to though, maybe I have to be a feminist to get it. Might be a historical argument? Anyway, I appreciate the new brain activity you have caused me to have.

Meadester said...

@AR Better to constantly suffer than live a life of relative ease if the life of ease benefits some evil capitalist. Somehow all of those years of Marxist indoctrination hasn't convinced the Vietnamese, but that is only because the true revolution must be led by intellectual superior western academics.

@Jewelry Rockstar, Buy what you want and receive what gifts you do but remember to always feel guilty about them. You can relieve some guilt by pointing fingers at others and trying to make them feel guilty for whatever they have. You don't need to be a feminist just a Marxist. Remember that where the Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, North Koreans and Cubans have failed western academics will succeed. Then again, maybe a Communist revolution would eventually turn the USA (or Canada or some other western nation) into a hypercapitalist state like present day China or Vietnam. If so, I could get behind it, were it not for the brutal dictatorship.

Adrianne said...

"What cannot be denied is that any purchase within our capitalist economy is predicated on the exploitation of women."

"Any purchase"? Really? You had me until this one. Sweatshop-free, organic, vegan, kind-however-you-like-it clothing has become a pretty profitable niche market -- there are boutiques devoted to the cause on the ritzy shopping streets of nearly every city. American Apparel has become a massive *chain*, for Christ's sake. And if you don't have the eighty bucks to drop on a cotton skirt, what about Salvation Army stores, the Goodwill, consignment and thrift shops, Etsy.com, garage sales?

There are plenty of ways to put your money where your mouth is. It aggravates me to no end when people assert otherwise, allowing them to throw their hands in the air and claim helplessness.

@Jewelry Rockstar: check out this amazing post. "If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist. Yes, you are."

Renee said...

@Adrienne even in the places that you mention, they mostly employ women and since every single exchange with a capitalist labor economy is exploitation the statement stands correctly. The value of your labor is what is the product sells for on the open market and not what you get paid.

@Meadster...there are plenty of examples of people working in those factories that are not grateful, you are simply cherry picking.

AR said...

The value of your labor is what is the product sells for on the open market and not what you get paid.

I don't think so. Marx's theory is one big logical contradiction. The fact is demonstrated and analyzed in detail in Karl Marx and the Close of His System, conveniently hosted at marxists.org

"Either products do actually exchange in the long run in proportion to the labour attaching to them–in which case an equalisation of the gains of capital is impossible; or there is an equalisation of the gains of capital–in which case it is impossible that products should continue to exchange in proportion to the labour attaching to them."

Adrianne said...

@Renee -- There are many steps in retail which all add to the final price. Saying "the value of your labor is what is the product sells for on the open market" is an incredible simplification that does not take into account anyone *else's* labor in the long process that has become product to consumer. For example, my stepmother is a sales representative, helping stores select what lines to represent and in what quantities. Store owners with store employees. Advertisers. Display artists. A lot of salaries and jobs are represented in a fifteen dollar t-shirt. Is that really so deplorable?

Of course, one can bypass all of these complications by purchasing directly from the laborer/artist on sites such as Etsy, as I mentioned. Or do you object to this as well?

AR said...

Of course, one can bypass all of these complications by purchasing directly from the laborer/artist on sites such as Etsy, as I mentioned. Or do you object to this as well?

Well, the items shown there include hundreds of inputs and intermediate inputs from firms which are not owned and operated by the laborers, so it only removes one step. Remember, nobody in the world knows how to make a pencil.

dani c said...

I have to say that I love it. You have a lot of awesome valid points.
I always swore to myself that if I was to have a baby girl, that I wasn't going to emphasize beauty but an education instead. Sure as shit, I had that baby girl and I still stand by my belief of praising intelligence, creativity and an education. I really believe that it's necessary for our girls. It creates inner strength and beauty that lasts so much longer.

Meadester said...

there are plenty of examples of people working in those factories that are not grateful, you are simply cherry picking.

Very few things in economics or social sciences are universal. However, I think the article that AR linked to made a good case that in general global capitalism has greatly improved things for the poorest of the poor. The poor are getting richer, just at a slower rate than the rich.

I understand that from a socialist perspective it is better for everyone to suffer equally than for everyone to live a life of luxury if some have more luxury than others. Also, there is the myth that we can't bring everyone's standard of living way up without depleting the earth's resources. The fact is that technology allows us to continually manage resources better so that standards of living can be improved exponentially while using the same amount of, or fewer, resources.

That is how a free market works without interference. Granted there has never been a pure free market, but the closer we have come, the more we have raised standards of living across the board.

here-be-dragons said...

Great post. You might be interested in this site, if you've not seen it before:


It's a group of people who have taken a pledge not to buy new clothes for some period of time, for various reasons, mostly sustainability. I don't have an active pledge going there right now, but I think I've only bought myself maybe one or two new clothing items since I did pledge back in October of last year.

Renee said...

@AR and Adrianne..one I apologize for taking so long to respond, life interrupts blogging occasionally.

Without going to heavily into to theory to maintain the accessibility of the blog, part of the issue is the value that we attach to labor. If a person collects refuse for a living this is an important job physical job within our society however the amount of pay does not reflect its importance. I would argue that the refuse collecter is far more important to the success of society than the professional athelete who receives 100X the pay. It is simply not a fair statement to speak about the additions to production without discussing how we prejudice each function of the production. If we decide that all labor is necessary to the functioning of society it would create an equalization wherein no one person is valued over another.

@Jewelery Rockstar...living in a capitalist economy no one person can completely abstain from exploiting another. This is simply the way that the system is designed. This is why I advocating suberting the system when we can. This includes buying used items, supporting unionized shops, avoiding companies that make no attempt at free trade and supporting micro business efforts. There is much that each individual can do, we just have to me motivated to do it.

AR said...

The case of the refuse collector vs. the elite athlete is a particular case of the classic Paradox of Value, a problem that can be resolved with the marginal theory of value.

The reason, of course, that it seems special is because some people equate someone's just compensation with their value as a person, instead of the value of their product, in this case their labor. I see no reason to privilege labor among all products for special consideration. If you want to privilege it as a means towards, say, poverty elimination, as people usually do, I think it would be better to enact food security and whatever else is determined to define poverty by its absence as entitlements, than to do so in a market-distorting way, as with minimum wages.

AR said...

Some other thoughts about refuse collection vs elite athletes occur to me.

A commercial athlete could do a refuse-collector's job, but the opposite is rarely true. An individual refuse collector can only collect as much refuse as their truck will take them to in a day, but a very small group of commercial athletes can entertain all sports fans in the entire broadcast network. Far more people are qualified to become refuse collectors than commercial athletes. Certain forms of commercial athleticism expose a person to far more risk of serious injury than refuse collection.

Nonetheless, this is all somewhat besides the point because the salaries afforded to commercial athletes can hardly be called a result of the free market, because professional sports would not be nearly so big as it is but not for the utterly massive subsidies given to the industry by municipal governments across the nation in the form of stadiums (often built on land appropriate by force, aka imminent domain) and numerous other things. Insofar as the sports industry, and its associated salaries, constitutes a problem, I'd suggest that part of the solution is more capitalism, not less. Let's see how much they can afford to pay athletes when they have to build their own multi-acre parking lots on land they bought at market price.

AR said...

Opps, forgot to add to the end of that last post: "...assuming they can even convince enough people to sell their land to them at any price without the backing of the state."