Feminism and the Politics of Appearance

by Amy Winter

In off our backs, November-December 2004

It’s no secret that mainstream media are obsessed with women’s looks. For years we’ve been bombarded with advertising for all kinds of products, from skin cream to diet pills, and titillated with news of Cher’s latest surgical enhancement. Lately, however, the products and procedures advertised have become more invasive, more dangerous and, significantly, more expensive–Botox injections, chemical peels, liposuction, stomach stapling. And whereas Cher and other famous women used to be considered slightly odd for their excessive concern with appearance, or it was understood that for them cosmetic surgery was an occupational hazard, these days, with shows like ABC’s “Extreme Makeover,” MTV’s “I Want a Famous Face,” and Fox’s “The Swan,” there’s no excuse left for any of us to remain tuck-less and nip-free. As more and more cosmetic procedures are presented as “empowering choices” that we’d be silly not to at least consider–breast implants which can cause chronic pain and disease, injections to deaden the nerves in our feet so we can keep wearing those high-heeled shoes, surgery to make our vulvas resemble that of a famous porn star, permanent makeup tattooed onto our faces, liposuction or stripping of varicose veins which can lead to chronic nerve pain–the greater is the pressure on us to conform, and the smaller the space in which we get to be content with ourselves the way we are.

In the last decade, it’s also become very difficult to discuss issues of personal appearance, in fact, any issue of “personal choice” at all, within feminist and lesbian communities. The second-wave feminist emphasis on a woman’s right to body autonomy and sexual self-determination has been widely misinterpreted to mean that any choice a woman makes about sexual behavior and appearance is automatically feminist. This has led to the acceptance and even glorification of profoundly woman-hating behaviors and institutions, such as pornography, prostitution, cosmetic surgery, dieting, weight loss surgery, and various types of “body modification” including transsexual surgery. What we are left with is a practically incoherent public discourse, wherein mainstream journalists, “queer” activists and “third-wave” writers all champion an amoral liberal attitude toward women’s body-related choices, demand celebration of misogynist institutions and endeavors, and call that celebration “feminism.”

In this climate, it’s vital to discuss personal choices in a political context. To do that requires the acknowledgment that feminism is not only a political philosophy, it’s a system of values; within feminism, some activities and choices are seen as contributing to liberation for women, while others are both a result and a perpetuation of misogynist stereotypes about women. An understanding that women are oppressed as a class, and that this systemic oppression is the framework within which we make individual choices, conflicts sharply with liberal political philosophy, which does not recognize the impact of social power or powerlessness on individual choice. The foundation of liberalism is individual autonomy and rights; it ignores class-based inequality in the distribution of power in society. As long as one’s actions don’t infringe on others’ right to freedom, moral judgment about those actions is disallowed. Feminism, on the other hand, recognizes that patriarchy privileges the class of men and hence that men have historically had power to influence the choices available to women. For this reason, it’s important to understand that women’s choices may appear to be free, but in many cases are actually constrained by the system of patriarchy, which encourages us to make choices that support male supremacy and punishes us when we resist.

The merging of the rhetoric of the equal rights movements for African-Americans, women, and lesbians and gays with liberal political philosophy has resulted in progressives embracing the liberal concept of “tolerance.” The Declaration of Tolerance at www.tolerance.org reads:

“Tolerance is a personal decision that comes from a belief that every person is a treasure. I believe that America’s diversity is its strength. I also recognize that ignorance, insensitivity and bigotry can turn that diversity into a source of prejudice and discrimination.

To help keep diversity a wellspring of strength and make America a better place for all, I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own.”

This statement exemplifies the liberal focus on individual actions, rather than an analysis of how the power structure in the US privileges and empowers some groups while stigmatizing and marginalizing others. Emphasis on tolerance, rather than equalizing access to power and resources, deflects attention from systems that concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few, and locates oppression solely in individual acts of unkindness or discrimination.

When “tolerance of diversity” is the highest value, analyzing the political implications of any “personal choice” usually elicits a reflexic, defensive, even enraged response, which stifles discussion. It’s now considered rude, judgmental and intolerant in many lesbian and feminist circles to question the “choice” to be a stripper or a prostitute, or to practice sadomasochistic sex, for example. It’s out of fashion these days, with so many lesbians “transitioning,” i.e., taking testosterone and undergoing transsexual surgery, to critique the social construction of masculinity and the way it encourages and perpetuates men’s violence against women. But accusations of intolerance and judgmentalness impede our ability to have meaningful discussions about the communities and the world we want to live in, and how as feminists we can move toward those goals. We are encouraged to “respect difference” rather than work for justice. Emphasis on tolerance over feminist critique thus maintains the status quo.

Another factor that contributes to the stifling of political analysis of personal choice in feminist communities is an emphasis on feelings. The focus of discourse these days, the reason given for almost any choice, is “I just feel that way” or “I feel better that way.” The assumption behind this is that feelings are immutable and that they are an appropriate basis on which to make decisions that have political implications. Where appearance is concerned, appealing to feelings denies the fact that feeling better about ourselves has been shown to have almost no correlation with how we actually look to others (Freedman); body image, energy level, and self-esteem can fluctuate by the day, or even by the hour, depending on factors like nutrition, sleep, physical exercise, and positive interactions with others. This emphasis on feelings stems from the influence of the therapy and recovery movements in our communities, fostered in part by women’s very real need to heal from the damage patriarchy inflicts upon us. However, while healing and recovery would not seem to preclude political organizing, in practice the two very rarely go together. Thus, emphasis on feelings as justification for our choices “…has encouraged us to do what “feels right” to the exclusion of political analysis. As a result our community is tolerating behaviors we used to find abhorrent.” (Ward) We’ve forgotten that resisting patriarchy is often difficult and uncomfortable–but also satisfying in a way that conforming is not.

No matter how much we would like to use feminism to justify our choices, feminism cannot be interpreted to encompass any risky, self-hating, violent thing a woman does to herself, or takes money for doing, or pays someone to do to her. Feminism does not value women’s subordination and women’s pain. It doesn’t value healthy women’s lifetime dependence on the medical system for nutritional supplements or hormones–inevitable outcomes of weight-loss surgery or transsexualism. Feminism doesn’t value a standard of beauty for women comprised of extreme thinness, regular Caucasian features, smooth hair, young-looking skin without wrinkles or blemishes, and lack of visible body hair. Feminists know this standard purposely excludes most women and is designed to keep us feeling anxious about our appearance and dependent on surgeons and cosmetic companies for expensive reassurance.

Feminism values women as the subjects of our own lives, not objects to attract and hold another’s gaze. It values cooperation between women, not the competition and comparison fostered by presenting us with image after image of women we’ll never look like–women who, in fact, don’t exist, given the extensive and now-infamous use of airbrushing and retouching in fashion photography. Fat women have been very damaged by the beauty standard under which we’re the ugliest of the ugly–but the feminist response to that is not to dress our fat selves up in lingerie and pose for the NOLOSE newsletter or Dimensions magazine. Feminism does not value expanding the categories of women available for male sexual exploitation; it values ending the sexual exploitation of all women.

Feminists understand that physical ability can change with age, accident or illness; valuing ourselves based on physical ability denies self-esteem and body love to women who are aging, ill, or disabled. Feminism values the diversity of women; it recognizes that we don’t all look the same and says that there is beauty in each of us. Feminism seeks to foster self-esteem and confidence in women, not to encourage us to shore ourselves up through positive attention from others for our appearance. Feminists know that insults like “fat cow” or “dog” are attempts to manipulate us into conformity in the same way that accusations of “dyke” or “slut” serve to break our bonds with other women and direct our sexual attentions toward men.

Feminists know that our separation from our bodies mirrors patriarchy’s attempt to separate human society from the natural world; as multinational corporations view the earth as an inert source of raw materials, so we are taught to view our bodies as matter that we can shape and change at will. But our bodies have a beauty and an integrity all their own, regardless of how poorly they conform to patriarchal aesthetic standards. They have their own balance that is intimately connected to the balance of nature, neither of which patriarchal science comes close to understanding. In the last few decades we’ve become increasingly aware of the devastating effects humans are having on the natural world through our attempts to interfere with processes we don’t comprehend. In the same way that, for example, building a jetty can change the profile of an entire coastline and affect everything that lives there, altering our healthy bodies by smearing chemicals on our skin, ingesting hormones, or fundamentally altering the progress of food through our digestive systems cannot fail to impact every level of our being.

This is not new age romanticism; the biological processes of our bodies are the physical basis for life on this planet, and feminists would do well to remember what Western culture has made it our business to forget–that our bodies are ourselves. We are our bodies, and our bodies are not wrong, they are not ugly, they are not dirty, they are not too fat or too hairy or too tall or too masculine. Our consciousness doesn’t hover somewhere a foot above our heads; it’s embedded in every cell. We can’t damage our bodies without damaging ourselves; we can’t love ourselves and other women if we don’t love our own women’s bodies. And we can’t be honest in our feminism if we pretend that making choices to harm our bodies and conform to the dictates of a system that hates us is liberating and empowering. We collude with woman-hating when we etch it into or carve it out of our flesh, when we starve ourselves to look the way the media says we should, when we refuse to give heart to the resistance of the women around us by proudly living in our bodies as they are.

Though our survival may at times depend on this collusion, we can never forget that these “choices” are made in a context in which we fear the consequences of not conforming to the appearance standards set for women, or we’re weary of the consequences we’ve already suffered–and that context, those consequences, have inevitable effects on our decisions. Deciding to collude may be necessary, but it is not feminist; resistance is the ultimate feminist choice.


Freedman, Rita. Bodylove. Harper & Row, 1989.

Ward, Joan M.“Therapism and the Taming of the Lesbian Community” in Sinister Wisdom 36: Winter 1988/89.