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

Posted by:Vicki Li

Vicki Li is a blog staff writer for F-Word Magazine. She is a sophomore at UPenn studying Biology with a concentration in Mathematics.

11 replies on “Choice Feminism: New and Hip, but Not Necessarily Good

  1. Your article is contraditory. Choice feminism is based in the idea that femininity is not harmfull for women when it is really is.Femininity was created by men to dehumanizing and sexually objectifing us,why in the end of your article you say that´s ok for us to embrace it in any way? it´s terrible just because it “costs money for women who don´t have it”? How about the terrible consequences of self-sexual objectification like male violence and women tarficking? how about the terrible consequences of beauty stantards? We women all over the world get nothing performing femininity,only male violence,exploiation and discrimination.

    You sounded hypocrital to me. You complain about something and in the end you get into this post-modern crap: “you do whateve make you happpy” .


    1. Femininity was not created by men. There is plenty of evidence to show that women have groomed since ancient times and had sacred practices to preserve their feminine energy and female sexuality / health.

      Eventually men evolved to like the way women groomed and expected it as a standard (as with many other forms of sexually attractive behavior), but just because the patriarchy has tainted many realms of life, doesn’t and shouldn’t take away from women.

      You are equating male violence on women to women’s beauty choices which is a harmful ideology. Violence against women hurts all women whether she wears eyeliner / gets a tummy-tuck, or not. That means the source of that violence is coming from entitlement and a culture of blaming women for their own suffering, instead of addressing toxic masculinity as the source of the abuse.

      There is no ‘performing’ of femininity unless the woman isn’t conscious about the patriarchy to begin win. The author was simply saying that it isn’t a choice for many WOC around the world to adopt their cultures beauty standards to successfully get by (be it work, or finding a mate).

      There is currently an entire online community of femininity that has helped empower women into having high-standards for who they date, how to care for themselves (externally and internally), and how to date better men.

      I’m a sociologist and I’ve studied women, and feminism closely the last four years. I can tell you there is no black and white answer to the impacts of choice-feminism. Sometimes it helps the individual, and sometimes it doesn’t, the key is being aware of why you do what you do as a woman and if it is helping you.

      Some women who feel pressured to behave in the style of their cultures “male-gaze”, often take out their personal frustrations on other women for doing so – as if it would suddenly make their lives easier if all women stopped, rather than seeing the larger picture and being understanding.

      The patriarchy is old, it has been around before us and it will likely be around after us. You can either make it work for you, suffer under it, or live somewhere in between.


  2. the divide between feminists regarding choice isn’t new though is it. I’m in my early 60s and I can remember feminists, they were called women’s libbers back then, having stand-up rows about choice back in the middle 1970s!
    in the 1980s I saw women get mortally offended if they were referred to as feminists. that was because the most prominent feminists were Clare short and Andrea Dworkin. they were looked upon as fat, hairy and ugly. that wasn’t men talking, that was women. granted certain men took advantage of the way the vast majority of women thought about feminism, but it was, and still is women thinking that way!
    feminism, if it is going to mean anything to women in the future, will have to accept that the choices women make, are the choices the original feminists fought for the right of women to make. you may not like it, but you don’t have the right to take those choices away from women!


  3. I’ve been struggling emotionally between the choice feminism that has allowed me to finally give myself permission to self-care and indulge in make up / my appearance, and the radical feminism that tells me none of my choices are my own but instead for the male-gaze.

    I feel cross-eyed between the two.

    As a WOC with mental health challenges, this struggle has been harmful to my identity of late.

    Thank you for writing such a validating and informative piece, I feel seen for the first time in a while on the feminist web. Hope this finds you well!


  4. This is kind of unrelated to this article but it provoked a thought in me. If you’re still checking comments here I’m interested in your thoughts on the intersection between choice feminism and creator-based porn platforms such as Onlyfans. I hear feminists left and right sticking up for Onlyfans creators, often rightly so in the face of unignorable misogyny, and essentially touting OF creators as girlbosses (for a serious lack of a better term). Yet I can’t help but feel that OF and platforms like it are just about the least feminist thing you can do.

    For one, most creators are forced into sex work by extenuating circumstances, especially WOC. For two, OF culture seems to be having a negative effect on society with regards to female objectification and especially the grooming of young women due to it’s accessibility. And three, a lot of women don’t realize just how extensive the negative effects of having such a platform are, including but not limited to sex aversion, exploitation, and boundary crossing. There’s also the aspect of external validation from producing such content. Online validation from men has recently become a huge self esteem booster for young women, from posting thirst traps, to online dating, and so on, which women seek out under the attitude of “I’m just using men for this so really I’m the one in power”, an age-old, widely applicable adage from my personal experience. But I digress.

    It basically feels as though OF culture has repackaged objectification under the male gaze and sold it back to women as a free and independent choice (#girlboss). Almost all of my female friends have considered making an OF account and not one of them has had the reason of “I want to explore my sexuality”. It’s always “Money’s tight and I could use some extra income”, which relates to the idea of choice.

    Anyway. I feel like this is a subject ripe for discussion, yet no one wants to potentially be accused of slut shaming, for good reason. I don’t, however, believe addressing the structures that coerce women into potentially harmful work constitutes as slut shaming.


  5. Having only recently come across choice feminism myself, I thought the article explained it really well and explained the difficulties in its philosophy. I particularly liked your point about how choices are a luxury only so many can be afforded. I’ve seen a lot of choice feminist ideology circulating in white feminist groups – whilst you can say fuck the patriarchy but not shaving your legs, like you said, white women are praised for being ‘unconventional’ and different whereas black and ethnic minorities are seen as putting in less effort. It’s a massive double standard, even when they’re participating in their choices.
    To me, choice feminism is a way for white feminists to have a bigger place at the feminist table (as if it could get bigger). Whilst choices are obviously important, taking small, nit picky things and amplifying it as a roadblock to female empowerment makes issues that do deserve more attention, like institutional racism, seem less important. It comes off as white women wanting something to moan about. And I mean in the nicest way possible (as a white woman myself), my choice to not shave my legs is not a bigger step towards female empowerment for all compared to fighting for trans rights or tackling institutional racism.
    A very good article, and very well written! Thank you:)


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