As a young and impressionable fifteen-year old, I spent a lot of time looking for cheap, inspirational quotes that I could tape up onto my bedroom wall. I was scrolling through Etsy one day, and my gaze immediately gravitated towards a graphic of a pink banner interlaced with roses. On it, printed in bubbly font, were the words: EYELINER SHARP ENOUGH TO KILL A MAN.
As pretty as these slogans are, printed on rose-colored throw pillows or pasted onto signs at a Women’s March, they really only hold aesthetic value and don’t provide anything beyond that. As much as we wish the “heels of our stilettos will stomp out the patriarchy” or “our resting bitch faces will scare off sexists,” it simply won’t happen.
All of these generic confectionary phrases fall under one blanket term: choice feminism. Many are unfamiliar with the term, as it is a rather new phenomenon that rose up with media culture and the ideology of post-feminism.
Choice feminism is the belief that the individual choices of a woman are inherently feminist.
According to choice feminism, a stay-at-home mother and a business woman are equally feminist, because they both have exercised the right of choice and therefore expressed their individual freedom.
Likewise, whether you choose to wear makeup, shave your legs, or opt out of such beauty routines, your decisions are still considered feminist, as long as it was a choice. At first glance, this reads as an agreeable kind of feminism, appealing to the broadest constituency possible. After all, the feminist movement suffers greatly from the terrible reality of women bringing each other down. Patriarchal society has led women to believe that their source of strength derives from male validation, which leads them to compete toxically with other women and weaken female solidarity.
Choice feminism, on the other hand, seems to promote the antithesis of in-fighting within the feminist community by uniting women under the pretense of choice. Ironically, the positive impacts of choice feminism don’t reach all women. Instead, choice feminism really only benefits a small minority of extremely vocal privileged women, particularly white feminists.
Choice feminism’s fatal flaw lies within its name: the assumption that choice is a liberty that everyone has.
The spectrum of choice is completely different between an affluent white woman and a low-income woman of color. When an affluent white woman chooses not to buy expensive brands of clothing or put on makeup, she is often praised for her nonconformity. A low-income woman of color cannot do the same, because she was not born with the cushion of privilege. Low-income Black and Brown women buy cheap knockoffs of expensive brands and put on makeup in order to stay afloat in a society structurally built to constantly antagonize them. In their situation, there is no choice, this is only a matter of survival.
Women who suffer from additional injustices as a result of their race, class, sexuality, or ability have little time to worry about whether or not they are buying into the patriarchy. If a low-income Black woman were to choose to abandon societally-expected makeup and clothing choices, she could be ridiculed for looking unpresentable and lacking social stature.
White women are fortunate in their ability to worry about nit-picky, tiny expressions of feminism, while women of color are struggling around institutional roadblocks. As such, obsession with choice feminism neglects intersectionality and conflicts with POC (person of color) feminist narratives by ignoring the inability of some women to ‘buy’ into the narrative of choice. In a harsh society that systematically discriminates against queer women and women of color, individual choice does not push real political change—only policy does. Focusing exclusively on exercising individual choice is actually radically depoliticizing. Choice feminism’s leniency towards a woman’s choice diverts attention and discourse away from the oppression that drove women towards those choices in the first place.
For example, choice feminism tends to champion performative femininity as a form of self-empowerment. If a woman decides to get a makeover, according to choice feminism, she draws power from her own choice as it was her decision and only her decision to reinvent herself in terms of appearance and lifestyle habits. But in fact, this isn’t true at all. The very essence of makeover culture implies that there was something wrong with the woman to begin with, that there was some flaw that could only be fixed by a complete transformation. Choice feminism stifles discourse on this, and instead focuses on congratulating the woman for the expression of her choice.
Another example is the contemporary celebration of the sexually-autonomous woman, who claims her sultry behavior and scandalous clothing are emblematic of her individual choice. Though this new figurehead of feminism may not feel external pressure from men to look attractive, she has, in fact, internalized the male gaze and external pressures of expected femininity and re-purposed it as her own. She constantly has to rely on her own femininity for power, and has to partake in the rigorous upkeep of her own appearance. Her experience is similar to the popular trope of the femme fatale found in media, where a woman derives her value and power solely from her sex appeal to men.
Additionally, the figurehead of the sexually-autonomous woman does not even represent the majority of women. In reality, it probably only resonates with an extremely small portion of women that fit into socially accepted standards of beauty.
As an Asian-American woman, I find that I do not fit in that niche. I am not as confident as I want to be, and I am extremely insecure in some areas, especially my appearance. Under the philosophy of choice feminism, I should have the choice of what to do with my body, such as whether or not I want to shave or put makeup on. The disheartening reality is that I feel less confident when I do not shave or put effort into my appearance, which leaves me little to no choice in this situation, contrary to what choice feminism advocates for. Even if I am given the individual freedom to do what I want, it does not change how society believes I, as a woman, should dress, appear, and act.
Is there really choice when it comes to my appearance if I only feel good when I invest resources, time, and money in it?
Again, choice feminism takes a leap of faith when it assumes all women have the same accessibility to choose. Choice feminism glosses over issues, preferring to re-brand real, contentious problems that have not been fully solved into the illusion of choice. Back to my cheerful eyeliner slogan that I found when I was fifteen, I may believe that my eyeliner is sharp enough to slice the patriarchy to shreds, but my money is lining the pockets of a man who has told women that they look more acceptable with eyeliner on.
Choice feminism has been heavily commodified in recent years, with companies profiting off of T-shirts that regurgitate quirky feminist slogans or self-help books. Choice feminism does nothing to address the increasing commodification of feminism that results in only superficial change that solely benefits the minority of women who enjoy accessibility to such brands and resources. Today, feminism is used as fuel for capitalism, where companies hide their exploitative consumerist tendencies behind feminist ideology.
Knowing these implications of choice feminism is important, but it shouldn’t be all-consuming. Being a good feminist shouldn’t be about denouncing all makeup and swearing off razors for life. Being a good feminist should also not feel like a constant burden that inhibits you from doing the things you love. It is entirely okay to feel confident in a revealing dress or a full face of makeup. Indulging in buying clothes or makeup and feeling good about yourself does not make you a bad feminist. It has become increasingly difficult to always make feminist choices when feminism is hardly ingrained in today’s society.
It’s okay to be feminine and enjoy feminine things, as long as you don’t religiously believe that things such as makeup can actually be weaponized to enforce real political change. Good feminist practice does not require you to drop makeup for social justice. Instead, you can continue to buy your favorite eye shadow palettes and lip liners while staying educated on which politicians stand for women’s issues. You can still enjoy a nice feminist Etsy sticker—but make sure it doesn’t perpetuate the false claims of choice feminism.
Diversity and social justice work is about thinking about someone other than yourself, and choice feminism is marked by its tendency to only focus on the individual.
If you are able to go out without a bra comfortably, or exercise any kind of control over your femininity without feeling the leering pressure of society, that is commendable in its own right. Just be sure to remember and think about those who can’t do the same. Feminism is about making strides for all women, not just yourself, and the most important thing you can do as a good feminist is to allow these different narratives of different women to guide your feminist actions in the future.
Illustration: Diane Lin