Internalised misogyny, Makeup/Clothing filter
June 16, 2015 7:22 AM   Subscribe

I recently caught up with an old friend who's developed a lot of horrible opinions about women's presentation and I didn't know how to deal with it, please advise!

[posting this on behalf of a friend as I don't need a question this week]

I recently met up with a friend I haven't been in contact with for about 4 years (me - female, 31, her - female , 30) at her house. I was looking forward to it and didn't expect any problems etc, just humdrum catching up. This did happen but during the course of our conversations she aired some opinions regarding women's makeup and clothing I didn't know she held and found insulting, especially as some of them describe me and my mode of dress (and were maybe a passive aggressive dig perhaps? I don't know) The main things I had problems with were:

- Women who wear make up aren't any better looking than [my friend who doesn't wear make up], they look cheap/like clowns/their good looks are 'painted on' and can be taken off with a tissue, they look 'whorey'
- Following fashion is vain and shallow, it is superficial and the people who care about it are mindless easily led ‘sheep-types’. People (like her) who wear what they like and don’t care what other people think are not so pretentious and know what’s really important, they don’t judge on looks
Some fashion looks ‘weird’ and the people who wear it look idiotic
Why do people put so much effort into something so meaningless, that says so little about who we really are as people

I just didn't know how to react to this stuff and just changed the subject mostly. FWIW I wear makeup daily and also dress somewhat fashionably (not like a young devotee of fashion but not completely out of the ball park either). Obviously anyone could look at this and say it’s really problematic (i.e. the ‘whorey’ remark) but I was having trouble rebutting this stuff just because appearance IS totally over-valued for women and I wish women could just wear what they liked and not have anyone care less about it, I know it’s been shown in studies that we have to wear make up to appear professional at work, that we have to make more effort generally and it’s good to push back at that. But the stuff she was saying was making me really uncomfortable and I don’t have a good enough grip of feminist politics around appearance to object to most of it in a coherent way. If someone could point me to any websites/books/resources that could help me get a better grip on it I’d be really grateful. What are the basic replies to these assertions/where can I look for more information on this topic?
posted by abbagoochie to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
My general take is that if your brand of feminism involves telling some group of women how-to or how not-to dress and calling them whores… you’re doing it wrong.

Disapproving of convention shouldn’t be used as an excuse to attack people who happen to conform to it.

I don’t have good online resources but you have my sympathies for your friend being shitty.
posted by French Fry at 7:34 AM on June 16, 2015 [23 favorites]

What is your goal here? Like, do you really want to get into a contentious debate with an acquaintance you're not very invested in? Are you asking for your own education? Or are you just looking for a tactful way to flag your disagreement and move on?

If the latter, I suggest you stick to "I" statements and offer: "Huh. Interesting. I wouldn't be comfortable making value judgements about another woman based solely on her appearance."
posted by DarlingBri at 7:36 AM on June 16, 2015 [21 favorites]

I don't know that there's anything you can have ready as a "reply" at the moment -- these are deep issues.

But in terms of thinking about it more generally, what has helped me reconcile feminism with the makeup/clothing/beauty issue is framing it as a form of self-care and identity management.

I REALLY like the work of Arabelle Sicardi, for example.
posted by pantarei70 at 7:37 AM on June 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Women who wear make up ... look cheap/like clowns/their good looks are 'painted on' and can be taken off with a tissue, they look 'whorey'

but then

People (like her) ... know what’s really important, they don’t judge on looks

Your friend's friend (do I have that right? the person with the internalized misogyny) contradicted herself between point 1 and point 2. She absolutely judges on looks, it's just that hers is a meta-judgment that says "I don't care about looks because I'm a genuine person, but I absolutely judge other people for looking like they care about looks."

My immediate reaction is to wonder if this woman has recently had her looks criticized in a way that hurt her, like if she just broke up with someone she liked and they told her it was in part because of her looks or fashion sense or whatever. It's absolutely possible that this woman has internalized these beliefs, because they are everywhere in our culture, but to me, this sounds more like it is coming from a place of pain than anything else.
posted by gauche at 7:37 AM on June 16, 2015 [34 favorites]

"Whoa there, Anna Wintour ... I thought you said you DIDN'T judge other people on what they wear and that thinking about it is superficial! It sounds to me like you spend more time thinking about fashion than people who work for Vogue!"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:37 AM on June 16, 2015 [10 favorites]

You don't have to give her a ten minute powerpoint presentation on third wave feminism to talk about this with her. You can try just saying "hey, you know you're describing ME right?"

That said, here is a mefi post that might be of interest. The original article was by a woman who seems more in line with your friend's feelings, and the ensuing debate might be interesting for you to read.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:38 AM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

People (like her) who wear what they like and don’t care what other people think are not so pretentious and know what’s really important, they don’t judge on looks

Well, this is an easy one. Next time she says something like this, tell her "Dude, you're judging other people on their looks right now."

I think the best thing to say is something along the lines of "I agree that women should wear what they want without fear of judgment. That includes clothes that you think are slutty/trashy/weird (mirror whatever word she just used)."

Or a simple "That sounds judgmental and mean. It makes me uncomfortable when you talk about other women that way."

Good luck.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:43 AM on June 16, 2015 [12 favorites]

In fragile situations like this, I think changing the subject is a perfectly valid way of responding. It's really not the place for some feminist rebuttals - you're trying to reestablish contact with an old friend, not enlighten her.

I've sort of been on both sides of this conversation, and it's definitely internalized misogyny, and the bigger picture I've come to settle with (grumpily) is that we're all of us victimized by the patriarchy that we're all attempting to function in. So when I'm with people who make me feel bad for taking active interest in manipulating my appearance, I mostly try to change the subject because I've been on the other end of that inadvertent attack and unless it's the sort of "make me change my mind" discourse that only happens very rarely unless you're in university doing university things, nothing I can come up with on the spot is going to do anything other than make them feel chastised on the good end and furious with me on the bad end.

The one way I've turned things around in situations a little like this is to emphasize that "Well, [specific fashion thing on my body that day] makes me feel good" or "reminds me I am in charge of myself."

I once tried to cut off a conversation about how makeup sucks and is horrible and for sluts only by happily offering to teach that person exactly how to change every part of their face they didn't like - and I pointed them all out individually. By the time I got to the slight asymmetry of their cheekbones they were so cheesed off I didn't ever have to talk to them about anything again. I don't suggest doing this if you want to keep your friend. (Ironically, I was not wearing any makeup during that conversation.)
posted by Mizu at 7:45 AM on June 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

But the stuff she was saying was making me really uncomfortable and I don’t have a good enough grip of feminist politics around appearance to object to most of it in a coherent way.

I think in cases like this it's not really necessary to have a theory/politics to back up your words. It's enough to say "hey, um, this conversation kind of makes me uncomfortable because I feel like you are criticizing me, because I like fashion and I don't like to be made to feel 'wrong' for caring about how I look."

That is a perfectly coherent response. And it has the virtue of going no further than it has to. Who cares what the "correct" politics of the situation is; you didn't get together to talk politics. All that matters is that what she was saying felt rude and upsetting to you.
posted by jayder at 7:55 AM on June 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

I think you tell her that you enjoy developing your own style. Not everyone does. And change the subject or find someone else to hang out with. You're not going to change her mind with data and scholarly arguments. You can tell her that you feel uncomfortable hearing these sorts of statements, but was pretty much her goal in making them.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:59 AM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: the thing is, these statements of hers are not actually about you. They're not even about the other women she thinks she's criticizing. They're about her, and her discomfort with societal standards of beauty and presentation.

It'd be perfectly fair to say "hey you know you're describing me right now, don't you? I'm not a whore." But the truth is she isn't thinking about you when she says this stuff. She is thinking only about herself and her own internal struggles.

I'm reminded of certain friends of mine who would constantly talk about their body issues in my presence although I outweighed them by 30 lbs. How fat they were, how many points they'd eaten that day, how much weight they wanted to lose. In addition to being horribly boring, this chatter would get me down at first when I thought it contained implicit criticism of me as a fatty; but I came to realize that they weren't thinking about my body, only their own, and that the mean voice in their head was very cruel to them, and when they started vocalizing it I would just feel pity.

So while you're free to tell this woman that hating on other women for their presentation choices is the opposite of feminism, I think it's orthogonal to the real problem here. This woman struggles with her own pressures and choices, and that is what you're hearing when she opens her mouth.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:21 AM on June 16, 2015 [28 favorites]

There's so much pressure on women to dress a certain way and wear make up everyday, that I think it can be hard for some people who don't want to go along with that. I'd write most of her nasty, judgemental comments off as her being defensive about the fact that she doesn't wear make up or follow fashion*, or possibly that she struggles with some insecurities. Then I'd say, "Hey, I quite like wearing make up and dressing a certain way!" and hope that she realises how harsh her comments come across.

*I assume that's the case, otherwise her comments are even more strange.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 8:24 AM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: FWIW I wear makeup daily and also dress somewhat fashionably

I always get wrapped around the axle when people do this (or I think they are doing this): talking about me by talking about people like me in a negative sort of way. But really I think she was maybe not talking about you at all even though, yeah just being all ARARAR and judgey like that is sort of ... not a great way to make conversation no matter what you think.

I don’t have a good enough grip of feminist politics around appearance to object to most of it in a coherent way.

I think it's okay to just object to stuff like this at face value, either by bringing something personal into it "Hey I wear makeup and I like it for X, Y and Z reasons" or just saying that she sounds really uncomfortable with the way a LOT of women in this society have chosen to present themselves and how does that work for her?

So from a general "What can I read that will help me get a grip on these ideas" perspective, I like both Bitch and Bust magazines in different ways. Readable with a lot of differeing perspectives about "ways to be female" including a lot of genderqueer and trans* topics as well as just the simple "Do I wear makeup or not?" topics. It's really hard sometimes to understand feminism as not having a platform because for some people it really does. You can look at people who have written about the different waves of feminism to get an idea of which generations may have gotten on or off of the feminist bus at various times. That article also points to Feministing as a good modern day look at some feminist topics which I'd suggest combining with the feminism category over at Racialicious because for a lot of people there are some serious mainstream whiteness issues with what a lot of people think of as contemporary feminism and that's an important part of understanding feminism in this century, to me.
posted by jessamyn at 8:32 AM on June 16, 2015 [13 favorites]

This just sounds like your friend is going through something. I don't think there is anything to reply to here. Plus, you agree with her on certain points.

I don't think you should "challenge" your friend on her statements. That's just going to end in an argument and you looking like you are pushing the status quo.

If you yourself are interested in exploring this topic, that's a slightly different question. If you think this person was passively aggressively attacking you.... My personal recomendation is to fade on the connection. You can respond to passive aggressive assholes effectively, but to what end? A friendship that always puts you on guard and with your social shields up??

Often, changing the subject and ignoring IS the best response.

If you are legit interested in the topic, you could have asked your friend more probing questions about her beliefs, since she brought it up! You could have even said directly, "I'm interested in your position on these issues, but it sounds like you are attacking me and the way I choose to look and dress. Am I correct?"

The first thing that pops to mind is the entire story arc of MadMen + the history of the advertising industry and real life people and events they were drawing from (Mary Wells Lawrence is Peggy Olsen, Gloria Steinem famously went undercover as a Playboy Bunny waitress at the Playboy Night Clubs and wrote about it.)

Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Another point on this discussion's continuum is Camille Paglia's 1990 book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.

Those are really mainstream (now) old school examples, I'm sure there are HEAPS of interesting thinkers, authors, and researchers talking about women's issues, especially in relation to culture and society both in the past and today. But it's interesting to read and see these social issues addressed in different eras and different mediums that remind us how society worked pre-Internet.
posted by jbenben at 8:32 AM on June 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Honestly, I'd probably just brush it off. Not let it go or anything, but just PSSSHT her when she says things like that. She lacks a fundamental self-awareness with her explicity, directly, and internally contradictory views.

However, if it's a big deal and [you, generically] want to goad someone, challenge them to wear a housecoat and Crocs and a big utilitarian sunhat in the summer. That would be very comfortable and practical. Leggings and yoga pants are practical and comfortable, too, as are pajamas. If that is their real goal, that should be the sort of thing they would be wearing. But it is not. They're not the super-rational actors they convince themselves they are. They're plenty superficial. They have all kinds of rules that they've internalized to the point that they aren't even conscious of them.

The disconnect, as I've seen it happen, is that people who adopt more conservative, mainstream, kind of middle class aesthetics tend to be totally oblivious simply because their chosen aesthetic is so overrepresented. They just sort of thoughtlessly assume that their semiotic markers are neutral, universal defaults, rather than the cultural markers they are. In fact, it seems that people who embrace those types of dress tend to be some of the strictest and most prescriptive about what they'll wear. They'll only wear a certain type of polo shirt, in certain colors, and they never but ever pop the collar despite the collar serving no other useful function but to keep the sun off your neck. They may not be super brand conscious, but watch them run if they see a comfortable, utilitarian piece of clothing that's not in a safe, approved 'neutral' color. Buy them a pair of orange pants and see if they'll wear them out and about. Or some kind of stylish, asymmetrical structured dress or something. Will she wear that as long as it's comfortable, practical, and free?
posted by ernielundquist at 9:17 AM on June 16, 2015 [15 favorites]

There may be nothing more here than her pointing out that your values are so totally out of line with hers that there's no longer enough is common to make it a friendship worth pursuing. It's possible she believes that in the time you've been apart, you've changed in a material way, and she was trying to reach the person she thought you once were.

It's also unlikely - unless she specifically stated that her disapproval of "follower" behavior was due to feministic beliefs - that it has anything to do with that whatsoever. It tends to have more to do with what she considers valuable - independence, self-confidence, ability to think for oneself, appropriate ways to use time and money. She may even feel sorry for you, believing it's much more difficult to find happiness and peace with your lifestyle.

If you're happy with your chosen lifestyle, then move on and file this in the past.
posted by stormyteal at 9:24 AM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: the way a LOT of women in this society have chosen to present themselves

I tend to see this as less of a choice and more of a mandate from the economy. One can choose to buck the economic realities, but as this recent NYT opinion piece, 'The Dowdy Patient,' points out, individual people don't get to set the values imposed by the larger economy.

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf might be worth a read. In some ways, it sounds like your friend is grappling with the broad outlines of fundamental work that could still be done to reconfigure the economy so things like make up are a true choice and not a calculated economic decision. It sounds like your friend is recoiling from an ugly system more than anything else.

From my view, feminism as an academic theory and as a movement can help elevate the conversation from women fighting other women for limited economic opportunities (e.g. judging other women who wear make up) into a broader fight against the economic systems that foster oppressive standards of beauty and value judgements. It hasn't even been 100 years since women won the right to vote in the United States, and your friend's reaction seems like a good indication of how much work remains to be done. For more background on the legal systems that support and have supported the present economic system, I suggest No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies, by Linda Kerber.
posted by Little Dawn at 9:33 AM on June 16, 2015 [10 favorites]

It does sound like your friend is going through something, whether it be a sense of insecurity about her own looks, jealousy of you (the other party in the conversation) or whatever. Odds are it's not personal.

I have a few acquaintances who sometimes make comments like that. If I feel like responding, I say something along the lines of "Really? Personally, I find makeup and fashion fun, and nobody tells me what to do with my own body." If they persist, I just smile sweetly and say "clearly, you and I are going to have to agree to disagree on this, because I don't see it that way at all."
posted by rpfields at 9:35 AM on June 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

How about:

"Well, on what basis _should_ we judge other people?"

Try to imagine possible 'good' answers to this question.
posted by amtho at 10:06 AM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is kind of how I might respond to that, in that kind of conversation: Well sure, feminine presentation's compulsory in sometimes uncomfortable ways, and those who don't conform pay a price. Life is easier when you comply. I've chosen to make my life easy in those ways; it's hard enough in others, and there are other battles that matter more to me. We're a mess of contradictions; so what? We all need to get by somehow. I'd prefer a completely egalitarian society, but that's not what we've got.

Also, fashion and self-presentation can indeed be fun, if you embrace it as a mode of communication and self-expression, which it always is, conscious or not, like it or not. We're not born in a cultural vacuum; our pleasures are formed by and through the things that constrain us (cf Foucault [I think? Half-remembering this]).

Re the purity angle - idealizing some state of nature is ignoring the fact that that state of nature doesn't exist and never has. Again, no one's born in a vacuum. And that way of thinking privileges those with "natural" beauty - not everyone has cheekbones like cut glass. Beauty has been important in every culture. The idea that our self-presentation and others' responses to it don't have an impact on our self-concept and the ways we interact with others is a little naive. And there's not some sharp distinction between inner and outer selves (also a naive idea) - they form each other in complicated ways.

Finally, judging other women for their choices is crappy. Don't be crappy.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:15 AM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

I can guarantee this wasn't about you, it was about her low self-esteem. I think in my mis-spent youth I probably uttered all of her statements, thinking I was being feminist to suggest women all be free of fashion and make-up. Maybe even to a friend like you, and if asked about her, I would've just said, "she's pretty" - not even Thinking about the fact that you wear makeup and dress fashionably.

Definitely read some of the resources above - they'll give you more confidence to talk about clothes and fashion as feminist issues. If you stay positive and stick with statements like "I wear makeup and don't think I look whore-ish", and "every woman should get to choose her clothes and make-up or lack thereof without judgement"? She should pick up on the impact of some of her statements pretty quickly.

And know that there is hope. I'm sitting here in a dress (???) and make-up (???) now, and am equally happy bare-faced in overalls -- and have cut Way back on the self-loathing and misogyny, partially thanks to empathetic friends like yourself.
posted by ldthomps at 10:42 AM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

they look 'whorey'

"Hey yeah, people did think that women with makeup were whores back in the Middle Ages! So glad we're past that now."
posted by corb at 11:47 AM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

"Hey, everyone's got their own cup of tea, and I'm not interested in saying nasty things about other people's tea."
posted by bunji at 1:36 PM on June 16, 2015

She's angry about something and it's unlikely to be you. This may not be about feminism. Has she recently been wrestling with adopting a fundamentalist religious point of view?
posted by cleroy at 5:06 PM on June 16, 2015

'dude; rude!'
posted by Sebmojo at 5:15 PM on June 16, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you to everyone who replied. I hear your advice about not getting into it with her and totally agree! I was looking for discussions/opinions on appearance and presentation, just to sort the validity of some of her assertions out in my own head. I have some reading around to do now, thank you to everyone who suggested resources. Metafilter is brilliant!
posted by abbagoochie at 7:20 PM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

oh, I see. Well, I second the recommendation of the Beauty Myth that someone made above. That book was a real life changer for me. Enjoy!
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:47 PM on June 16, 2015

"I support CHOICES for all women, even if I would not personally make that choice. Women definitely don't need people telling them how to think, sound, act, look, do sex, eat, work, clean, care, talk, feel etc. If a bunch of women want to wear gladiator sandlas and crop tops and things with pictures of pizza on them, I support thier choice to wear that and also their choice to feel that what they wear is not a buy in (or opt out) of some $Evil $oppression."
posted by WeekendJen at 12:39 PM on June 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

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