Am I A Hypocrite For Professing Radical Self Love While Wearing 5 Inch Heels? The Intersection Between Fashion, Personal Expression & Loving Who You Are

High heels: objets d’art or tools of the patriarchy? Or, can you call yourself a feminist & still wear lipstick?

Truth time: When it comes to navigating the spaces between fashion, style & radical self love, sometimes I feel very caught in the middle. As part of what I do, I receive never-ending pitches for ridiculous products, I am invited to industry events, & I have my photo taken quite often. A lot of what goes on in the fashion & beauty industries makes me feel uncomfortable. I will freely admit that repeated exposure to extremely underweight models causes me distress, that I think the fashion & beauty industries prey on our insecurities, & that the pressure on women is astounding.

In fact, after I gave my talk about radical self love at TEDxCMU, a girl approached me & asked me about this very thing. “I don’t understand how you can be a style blogger & talk about radical self love,” she said.

We started to chat, & it became quite apparent that we were approaching the issue from opposite sides. One of the first things she said was, “Well, we all wear make-up to try to attract men.”

“Uh, wait a second…”, I interjected. “I don’t! I’m wearing make-up right now, but my husband is in New York City. I’m not trying to get laid — I’m wearing this for myself.”

I didn’t even mention the fact that her assumption totally excluded those of us who, for example, are not heterosexual!

As we continued to discuss make-up & self love, I mentioned that I saw make-up as a way of accentuating my features. She replied, “That’s funny, I see it as a way of covering up my flaws.”

Now, make-up can do both of these things — & very well — so clearly this is all a matter of perception. It’s about HOW you see it & about your INTENTIONS when you make up your face in the morning. Are you trying to hide who you are, or make the best of your assets?

It’s so important that we break our own habits & examine them with fervour. If you wear make-up every day, STOP. Go without for a day… or two. Or three! See how you feel. If it makes you feel insecure & unpretty, maybe it’s a sign that you should continue to go without until you’re more comfortable in your own skin. (For more on this idea, check out No Make-Up Week!)

Miles Aldridge

The fact of the matter is this: when we put on make-up & fancy clothes & high heels & go out into society, we are rewarded for that behaviour. This is called “beauty privilege”. Beauty privilege presents itself in all manner of forms — your barista might give you a free coffee, you might be more likely to get a raise in salary at work, or it could be as simple as someone holding the door open for you as you walk through it. We receive perks for toeing this line, & for displaying ourselves in a manner that society is comfortable with.

Sometimes you don’t realise how pervasive this is until you opt out of beauty standards. When I was about 21 years old, I saw a whole lot of French movies (!!) & began to think — contrary to everything I had previously believed — that hairy armpits were sexy. In fact, here’s a little something I wrote at the time…

“everyone here is SO CONSUMED with image, that since i moved here, i find myself caring about other peoples opinions on my appearance. i have walked around Newmarket in a singlet with armpit hair before, & i felt so self-conscious that i went home & shaved it off. this makes me sad. seriously, why do i give a fuck whether snide bitches give me sideways glances for DARING TO BE HAIRY?! i am intimidated by those girls in their Gucci sunglasses… i should remember to heed Diana Vreeland’s advice: What do I think about the way most people dress? Most people are not something one thinks about.”

This is a perfect example of the flip-side of beauty privilege. As soon as you step outside the boundaries of what is normal & acceptable, you’re treated differently. I noticed similar effects when I removed my facial piercings: people approached me in a more friendly way. I experienced it yet again when I dyed my pink hair black. In general, people seem to take you less seriously when your hair is a “zany” colour.

There’s no point in even arguing it: the way that we dress & adorn ourselves has power & it is important. The way someone presents themselves completely affects the way we treat them. As much as we try not to be judgmental, the truth is that we make automatic assessments of people based on how they look. 94% of communication is non-verbal!

Plenty of us apply our concealer & mascara every morning with nary a thought as to what it says about us. I had thought a lot about expressing myself through make-up, but it had never occurred to me that I was possibly being oppressed by make-up!

You see, a lot of feminists would argue that being concerned about how you dress, wearing make-up or doing anything to make yourself more “beautiful” is buying into the patriarchy. Some of them say that there is no such thing as “choosing” to put on make-up: we’re constantly told by society that it is something we MUST do, or we will be punished (in subtle & unsubtle ways). Because putting on lipstick is a reaction to society, & it’s something we feel forced to do, it’s not necessarily an expression of our true selves. I have read articles where self-identified feminists say they are ashamed of wearing make-up & feel guilt about shaving their legs. (The comments on that post are excellent, by the way.)

One of the really interesting things about this is that even though many feminists will blame this phenomenon on “the patriarchy”, I have found WOMEN are far more likely to be the ones who guilt or shame their sisters who don’t pluck, tweeze, shave, conceal & highlight. (When I went without shaving my armpits, no man seemed to care. Women, on the other hand, reacted violently.)

Miles Aldridge

It brings me back to that question, how can I encourage radical self love when I also encourage — & indulge in — all things related to fashion, style & appearance? Why are we so ashamed of how we look without concealing our blemishes? Are we not enough when we wear flat shoes? Is covering your true face with cosmetics commensurate with self-hatred?

So I’ve spent some time recently thinking about “beauty” & trying to reconcile that with truthful feelings about myself. A major & difficult piece of the puzzle is that none of us grew up totally free from societal influence, & so it is almost impossible to separate what we really want from what we think we want. This is the kind of logic that could make you want to tear your hair out, but I think that simply recognising & acknowledging that is quite powerful, & gives us a good place from which to start.

The place I keep coming back to is that even when I recognise that my ideas of beauty have been passed down to me from society, it doesn’t feel good to me when I choose to deny myself something which provides me with genuine enjoyment. I am not fearful of the repercussions that come with not fitting into standarised beauty, because in a lot of ways, I seek to operate outside those limitations. I often wear clothing that is weird or strange, & when I get dressed in the morning, it’s not to attract the male gaze — it’s for my own pleasure.

Putting together a look & creating your own style is art. It’s like painting or sculpture, like decorating a house or building a church. When that skill is elevated, clothing can become a work of transcendent genius. It’s no mistake that Alexander McQueen’s work was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or that fashion week becomes more ground-breaking & brilliant every year. It’s not just about the clothes we put on our backs. It’s about expression & telling a story, like any other artform.

“Fashion is very important. It is life-enhancing &, like everything that gives pleasure, it is worth doing well.” (Vivienne Westwood)

Dressing up is a way that I choose to express myself. It’s not the only way I express myself, but it is immediate, something you can see at first glance. Even without engaging me in conversation, you can tell plenty about me & my personality by looking at what I’m wearing. Expanding our personal style is one way in which we can move from who we are to who we want to be. These acts of transformation are extremely powerful: we have all experienced the magic that a high pair of heels or a bright red lipstick can bestow. I love the expression & the art of texture, shape, colour & fabric. I do not champion function over form, & I think the world is a sadder place when we don’t feel comfortable communicating visually.

How does this intersect with radical self love? Well, learning to love yourself is all about discovering who you are, & the best way to learn these things to become adept at play. We need to learn to play in order to uncover our sexuality, to find out what we really want to do with our careers, to ascertain what we want in relationships, & to discover what will make our lives hum with meaning & purpose. Sometimes our stories are strange & unexpected: I had to change my name in order to find out who I actually was, & Gala Darling is a person I am still in the process of becoming.

The expression of ourselves through dress is powerful. It can be subversive & radical, it can be conservative & quiet. It can be provocative or shy, it can be ironic or ridiculous. It can command attention or repel others, influence trends or follow them. When we reduce this complicated topic & write it off as superficial, or claim that everyone who chooses to express themselves through clothing is simply being oppressed, we do everyone a great disservice.

Some women say that if we wear lipstick, we’re only doing it because society has told us to. I would argue that the woman who tries to buck society by NOT wearing lipstick is just as influenced! No one exists in a vacuum, & almost all of our decisions are effected by external sources.

Ultimately, when it comes to clothing or make-up, whether we wear it or not, whether we buy organic or not, whether we support independent designers or big overseas sweatshops, the choices are ours to make. There are consequences & societal repercussions no matter which side of the fence we’re on!

The conclusion I have come to is that the choice to wear make-up or not, to shave our legs or not, is a relatively easy one. It’s far more difficult to be an objective thinker, to inspire others & BEHAVE — not just LOOK — in a way that is contrary to the norm. It’s trickier to learn to embrace all kinds of beauty: the types of beauty that are not covered in mass media, or that look different to you. It’s stickier to be comfortable with ourselves, no matter whether we’re wearing lip gloss or not. It’s more complicated to learn to love everyone, especially people with whom we appear to have nothing in common.

“Feminist writers have consistently argued that a woman’s attempt to cultivate her appearance makes her a dupe of fashion, the plaything of men, & thus a collaborator in her own oppression… Voices from around the world report a variety of conditions & systems under which only one thing holds constant – the universal second-class status of females. If there was ever a moment when the women of one culture had a responsibility toward their sisters in other nations, this is it. We should not waste time quibbling over what to wear to the conflict. (Linda Scott)

Wanting to feel beautiful does not make you a bad feminist or a bad woman. It does not mean that you are being oppressed or that you lack the ability to think for yourself. Wanting to adorn ourselves is natural & normal — very few of us live in houses that are all function & no form, & while we COULD all drive boxy Volvos, the truth is that most of us are attracted to beauty — however we choose to define it.

This whole idea that we should all look the same, that we should make no attempt to differentiate ourselves, that it’s “shallow” to give a moment of consideration to your appearance, is extremely outdated. Of course, balance is essential. If all you care about is how you look to the exclusion of everything else, you will probably become some kind of superficial monster — but I don’t think that’s even a possibility for most of us!

I also don’t believe that policing other womens’ choices moves any of us forward. In fact, I have seen over & over again that most of those people who are obsessed with other peoples’ choices, are usually trying to avoid having to take responsibility for their own lives.

I think this idea that “real” feminism has to be austere & minimalist, that you should dress down & not make a spectacle of yourself, is total bullshit — & just as oppressive as what we all say we’re against. If you want to wear high heels, DO IT, but do it for yourself, not for anyone else.

Ellen Von Unwerth

“My idea of feminism is self-determination, & it’s very open-ended: every woman has the right to become herself, & do whatever she needs to do.” (Ani DiFranco)

Maybe it’s no great surprise that contemplation of this issue hasn’t inspired me to throw all my cosmetics out on the curb. Perhaps it’s because of my perpetual optimism: I would prefer to think that we decorate & dress up because we love ourselves, rather than because we are trying to hide or disguise who we are.

Regardless, I encourage you to stop & think — really think — about your relationship with your appearance. While you might come to the same conclusion I did, it will at least give you an insight into an issue that affects all of us. Being able to look at the real motivations behind our behaviour is an integral part of understanding ourselves, & learning to love ourselves, too.

Super ultra mega wicked love,

Want more reading? Check out Lipstick Helped Feminism, Living With Contradiction: Beauty Work & Feminism & On Fashion, Feminism & The Power of Self Expression.

Title photo by Chloe Rice; second & third images by Miles Aldridge; final photo by Ellen Von Unwerth.