Feminism has gained traction over the past few years, but it brings up many uncomfortable questions for women.
Yes, I believe that a woman’s worth is not measured by her appearance. But does that mean I have to give up my passion for makeup?
Sure, I want to create a society in which all genders have equal opportunities. But I would much rather stay at home with my kids than fight my way to the top of some big corporation to become its first female CEO. Does that make me a bad feminist? Or, worse, does that exclude me from the movement completely?
“Not to worry,” advertisements, influencers and celebrities vehemently assure you. “Any choice you make is inherently feminist, as long as you are making it based off of your own personal preferences and ideals. After all, how could your desire align with that of the patriarchal system that’s oppressing you?”
This idea, that a decision, no matter what it is, is feminist as long as a woman makes it of her own free will, is referred to as choice feminism.
For a while now, mainstream feminism, which is fueled by consumerism and corporate profit, has focused on relating individual choice to self-empowerment. The fact that women’s choices used to be made for them is capitalized on and thrown in our faces, making the perceived freedom we now have seem sacred and definite.
But, when we take a closer look at the reasons behind the choices we, as women make, this freedom and sense of empowerment may start to fade away. We cannot remove ourselves from the patriarchal system we live in. From the moment we are born, we are socialized to uphold these existing power structures. We are taught that we need to wear makeup and shave our body hair, that female beauty is the ultimate goal for women, that we should aspire to the labels ‘mother’ and ‘wife’ more than anything else.
That does not mean that we cannot start to find pleasure and personal identity in these actions. It does, however, mean that these choices are not made in a vacuum.
Capitalism has no interest in diminishing the patriarchy. These two systems are intertwined; destroying one severely endangers the other. However, as the trend of feminism continuously expands, companies need to make it profitable. It is in every corporation’s best interest to convince women that by deciding to buy their product, they are making a feminist choice. This way, women can feel individually empowered at the cost of systemic change, and radical action and consumerism can continue to uphold the patriarchal structures it inherently represents. If everything is sold as a feminist product, women will leave any store feeling good about their actions, regardless of whether they bought a sledgehammer or a new eyeshadow palette.
A fitting example of the dishonesty of corporate choice feminism is Vogue India’s #VogueEmpower. This advertising campaign centers around women finding freedom in their choice of appearance, their choice of partner, and their choice of career. Reporter Gunjeet Sra accurately notes the hypocrisy of these statements coming from “an industry that is based on fetishizing, objectifying and reinforcing sexist standards of beauty on women.”
Playboy, too, advocates for choice feminism, claiming that their models are discovering individual sexual liberation based on their own free will when posing for the magazine. Conveniently, this stance fits perfectly with their business model.
A choice or an action is by no means feminist just because a woman made it. This ideology paints all women as a two-dimensional force of empowerment, with all their actions resulting in a more just, equal world. If that were true, any semblance of patriarchy would have been dissolved long ago.
Choice feminism also leaves us with a sense of victim-blaming. It relates directly to the argument that if women chose to become housewives based on their will, it could not be reflective of a larger, systemic issue. This idea disregards the fact that women do not have the level of unmitigated freedom needed for all their choices to have empowering effects. It ignores the consequences of societal expectations and intersectional limitations. Poor women, for instance, do not have the same opportunity of choice between a career and staying at home with their kids as wealthy women do. Feminism is a diverse movement compiled of women from many different backgrounds (read: different levels of access to choices).
I am not here to tell women how to live their lives. We are not feminist robots, created solely to further the movement. We are three-dimensional human beings who are here to find as much joy as we possibly can in our limited time on earth. But there is danger in referring to every choice we make as feminists. Danger of ignoring the larger picture, danger of blindly supporting oppressive systems, danger of erasing the experiences of women from different intersectional backgrounds than us.
All our choices exist within the patriarchal system we aim to free ourselves from. Perhaps our choices are only feminist if they result in more freedom for women, or maybe there is no such thing as individual feminist choices under patriarchy. Most importantly, our personal decisions usually do little to affect the bigger picture. Instead of focusing on the discussion of how shaving our legs can be feminist, it is more vital to put that energy into building an equal future society for women of all backgrounds and identities – be that with or without our body hair.