Beauty as power is something that is taught to every young girl. Common adjectives that are used to compliment girls often refer to how pretty, sweet, or kind that they are. Very seldom do we reward girls for their intelligence, assertiveness, or passion. As a child becomes a woman she internalizes the idea that is what is most valuable about her, is her physical appearance. That this is something that will decline in value, often keeps young women awake at night; plotting the best way to take advantage of the small window of opportunity that beauty as a source of power offers.
Feminism has engaged with beauty on many levels. Some feminists feel that performing beauty even to gain personally is internalizing the male gaze. Others feel that the daily ritual is a sign of their autonomy in that they actively chose which beauty procedures that they will adhere too and which they will reject based on personal desire. The debate between the lipstick feminists and the I will not subject my body to social discipline feminists has been waged since the 1970’s.
What is beauty without the finery and the flash? Each season the fashion industry deploys an army of models to inform us how to best maximize on our feminine whiles. One simply cannot be caught wearing the wrong shade, or sporting a purse that is the wrong size. On the other side of the equation, you have women that are blissfully unaware of the fashion trends and dress for comfort over style. These are the “utility women,” who find power in thwarting the seasonal call to the mall. Utility women take pride in dressing only in what makes them feel comfortable, while at the same time voraciously attacking their dolled up sisters as patriarchal dupes.
Back and forth the conversation goes. You’re a patriarchal colluder says the utility feminists. Well you’re lazy, jealous and don’t realize that autonomy can be found in many different ways retort the lipstick feminist. Normally I would refrain from calling two groups of women engaged in conversation a cat fight, but what else can you call it when both sides display such narrow minded western privilege over beauty and clothing?
What neither of these groups ever seem to want to acknowledge is that whether or not your purse cost 500$ and has a DKNY label, or it is a 35$ Walmart find, both are participating in the impoverishment of women globally. The problem is larger than whether or not you are dressing to please a man.
According to The Feminist Majority Foundation, “Women make up 90 percent of sweatshop laborers. Women are paid as little as six cents an hour and work ten to twelve hour shifts. In many instances overtime is mandatory. In some cases, women are allowed only two drinks of water and one bathroom break per shift. Sexual harassment, corporal punishment, and verbal abuse are all means used by supervisors to instill fear and keep employees in line.
Many of the companies directly running sweatshops are small and don’t have much name recognition. However, virtually every retailer in the U.S. has ties to sweatshops. The U.S. is the biggest market for the garment industry and almost all the garment sales in this country are controlled by 5 corporations: Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Sears, The May Company (owns and operates Lord & Taylor, Hecht1s, Filene1s and others) and Federated Department Stores (owns and operates Bloomingdale1s, Macy1s, Burdine1s, Stern1s and others).
Several industry leaders have been cited for labor abuses by the Department of Labor. Of these Guess? Clothing Co. is one of the worst offenders – Guess? was suspended indefinitely from the Department of Labor’s list of “good guys” because their contractors were cited for so many sweatshop violations.
Other companies contract out their production to overseas manufacturers whose labor rights violations have been exposed by U.S. and international human rights groups. These include Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart, Reebok, Phillips- Van Heusen, the Gap, Liz Claiborne and Ralph Lauren.
When women who are middle/upper class engage in a debate as to whether an article of clothing, or makeup is suitably feminist what they are ignoring is that they are in a position to engage in this particular conversation, because they exist with class privilege.
A woman who is making less than 1USD per day does not have time to concern herself with whether or not patriarchy is informing her clothing choices. This woman must deal with trying to provide subsistence for herself and her family under brutal economic slave labour. Her class location informs her position, as the realities of her daily lived experience extinguish the angst that lipstick/utility feminists engage in.
Regardless of your position regarding performing femininity through make up and or clothing, what cannot be denied is that any purchase within our capitalist economy is predicated on the exploitation of women. The cult of I blinds us from the reality that in our debate about agency and autonomy, we are completely obscuring the degree to which we personally are responsible for the impoverishment of others. Class position we posit is based on meritocracy, but I must ask, who works harder than a sweat shop labourer? Though feminism is a movement to end oppression against women, often times the failure to acknowledge privilege leads to the marginalization and exploitation of the most vulnerable within our society. Class division is not a flight of fancy, and to ignore the ways in which the Cult of I, turns us into oppressors is to decide unilaterally that only certain women matter.
Cross posted from Womanist Musings
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