Can vanity and feminism live in harmony?
By Natalie Serafini, Opinions Editor
Feminista: it refers to a modern feminist, a feminist hipster, or a feminist barista, depending on your interpretation. I myself use the term in a vain attempt to defend my vanity (feminist + fashionista—get it?). I find that as a woman, I like to look good, at the very least to avoid frightening young children in the streets. Simultaneously, I find that as a feminist, I feel I’m betraying my radical sisters anytime I whip out my mascara wand.
As much as I abhor the fact that there’s a physical standard to which women must hold themselves, I’ve still been raised surrounded by the image of a very specific kind of woman: the busty, blonde, small-waisted, tan-skinned, big-eyed, pouty-lipped urban Amazon (yes, I’ve just described Barbie). To take a peek at my staff picture is to realize that I, Natalie Serafini, could not adopt the Barbie-aesthetic without some extreme plastic surgery.
So although I’m aware that it’s physically impossible for me to be a glamazon (and let me be clear, it’s not something I want to pursue—it seems exhausting), I haven’t been immune to society’s concept of hegemonic beauty. I was more enthusiastic about pursuing traditional beauty in my youth—however unskillfully or unsuccessfully—but I can’t say I’m unaware of the Rosie Huntington-Whitleys of the world today.
I’m not as aggressive as I could be in the moulding of my appearance. I no longer actively pursue skin cancer through exposure to sunlight and the cultivation of a tan: I’ve waved that white flag and surrendered to the fact that I’m Pale4Life. Still, I spend a substantial amount of time applying makeup, damaging my hair into some form of submission, and working on getting a lithe figure.
I don’t think all this time and energy spent on appearance is good, but I don’t think my vanity detracts from me as a feminist, either. It certainly wouldn’t make me less of a woman if I chose to denounce my preening and polishing—I have the parts to prove it.
Besides which, I like to see an aspect of feminism as questioning the idea that women are mono-faceted. I’m friends with plenty of women who challenge the assertion that women can only be smart or beautiful, but never both; why shouldn’t contemporary feminists call into question the idea that feminists cannot be vain? I know that it would be easier to let my face, hair, and body go, but it’s frankly not a look that I could pull off.
The problem is not so much the fact that I, as a feminist, care about my appearance. It’s the fact that, as a woman, there’s a limit to what I can accept about myself and still be considered attractive. These ideas of beauty change all the time—just in the last hundred years, we’ve experienced bodacious curves, boyish frames, fitness mania, and heroin chic—but they act as a girdle, cinching in the parts that would otherwise flow freely and naturally. That’s what the battle should be: not the pursuit of beauty, but the representation of only one, very limiting, form of beauty.
There’s something to be said about challenging the hegemonic image of beauty, if not denouncing it entirely. Especially when what is considered beautiful is impossible for many or seriously damaging physically, mentally, and emotionally, there’s a huge problem. Like the understanding that skinny is the only kind of acceptable beauty: I eat healthily the majority of the time and I work out (almost) regularly, but I like to eat, and I’d like to see the person that’s going to take away my cake. I’m Italian, and my ethnicity is as clear as the nose on my face. Do I care about my Italian nose? No. Especially not when being Italian is part and parcel to amazing food.
Limiting concepts of what people can and can’t be are completely unrealistic. We’re generally multifaceted, and trying to compress ourselves to slip into the one-dimensional mould will oftentimes be an unsuccessful endeavour. The problem here is that beauty is only represented in one form, and women attempt to flatten themselves to fit that mould. Being a feminista is not an oxymoron, and to think that it is ignores what the real problem is.