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GRL, Uninterrupted: On The Politics of Getting Dressed and Being A “Guilty Feminist”

To use Deborah Francis-White’s phrasing and pay homage to the iconic podcast: I’m a guilty feminist. 

Never mind the fact that my personal and professional life are happily established in any and all kinds of womxn’s empowerment, there have been a few times recently that I’ve questioned myself. Not for my belief in equality, but my active practice of rejecting the patriarchal standards that seek to limit womxn. 

My current feminist dilemma is about dressing up, not the physical act of it, but why we do. 

As a freelancer who works from home, I can go weeks without putting on a “proper” outfit, and am only now realising just how much this sways me. Whole parts of my life – mood, confidence, productivity, even – feel dictated by it. 

To write this column, I put on shoes and socks. I’m wearing perfume, and hairspray. Right now, like this, I feel… capable. Focussed. Like I mean business. 

There’s plenty of research on exactly how fashion and what we wear impacts our mental wellbeing, but that’s not really what I’m getting at here. Rather, I’m looking to psychologise myself to find out what exactly about wearing make up and nice clothes makes me feel like more. 

My grandmother wouldn’t be seen dead without her lipstick and coiffed hair. Even her “lounging clothes” are fancy by my hoodie and leggings standards, and she insists I phone to pre-warn her that I’m visiting so she can change out of them. 

I’ve always assumed her behaviour was a generational thing, a hangover of the high heels and pencil skirts era she came of age in. But I’m recognising more and more of these behaviours as my own. I, too, change into a more ‘flattering’ outfit when expecting company. I wear make up and co-ordinating colours to work out in.

If she is the product of a time when women had little choice but to be dolled up to the nines, where validation only came from embracing the images of beauty the male gaze imposed on them, how has this happened to me? Liberal, outspoken, flipping-off-cat-callers me. 

And that’s why I’m guilty. 

I feel guilty for (maybe) succumbing to the patriarchy’s expectations of me.

I feel guilty for wanting to present ‘prettiness’ to the world when I know – and every feminist slogan ever has reminded me – I have so much more to offer.

Sometimes, I even feel guilty if I don’t wear make up, like I don’t love myself enough to make an effort.

Perhaps I’m thinking too deep, my writer’s brain desperate for something to analyse and spin into a think-piece. Or perhaps not. 

The politics of beauty and its intersection with feminism has been debated for eons, with the act of not wearing make up being hailed as ‘ a more ‘radical’ statement ‘than burning your bra’. Opposingly, writers have argued that it isn’t political at all, and should seen as a non-issue. 

Either way, I can’t help but question whether I truly want to look nice for myself, or if there’s more to it. If it’s just power dressing – clothing yourself to feel your most empowered, confident, comfortable self – should I be worried that my “best version” is entrenched with patriarchal expectations?

But the thing is –  getting glam doesn’t compromise our intelligence, power, or authority. Look at Dina Asher-Smith, Britain’s fastest woman who smashes sprinting world-records in glitter and a cat-eye flick. Likewise, we are not plain, lazy or insecure if we choose to leave it. 

Whilst I may feel more confident, what I do know is that I am not “more” of a woman, or less of a feminist, for dressing up. There is undoubtable power in any choice womxn make in a society built on keeping that autonomy from us, usually with much more serious consequences. But it’s also important to remember, when talking about how feminism is about choice, that many don’t have the privilege to lengthily contemplate vanity decisions. 

When I posed these worries to the group chat, my friends shared that they mainly viewed dressing up as creative expression and a therapeutic practice. “I choose clothes which I feel best express me, which usually end up being bright colours and funky designs I know aren’t everyone’s cup of tea”, someone shared, emphasising the opportunity for expression that goes hand in hand with fashion. However, they were honest enough to admit that sometimes the desire to look nice still came from a place of insecurity. I was told “I do have insecurities, so I feel more confident with make up on… but I think its a great way to get creative as well – I love playing around with glitter and bright eyeshadows”.

And even though they genuinely wore make up and dressed for themselves, they still felt outside forces – boyfriends, social occasions – impacted their decisions. “On nights out I do tend to take into account what would be ‘sexier’”, one admitted, while another was keen to clarify – “I’m my own person and I would never let anyone dictate to me how I should dress or look!”

It made me wonder if our hyper-consciousness of not just how we dress, but why, is in itself born of a patriarchal repression. Certainly, men never have to question their motives behind how they present themselves.

Overall, my friends agreed that feeling put-together was a shortcut to confidence, and we shouldn’t deny any womxn the right to that, in whatever form it takes.

We are already navigating a harsh and contradictory world in which it often feels like there’s no way to win. Let’s allow ourselves to do so – in our loungewear or dressed to the nines – with less self-judgement, and more conviction. 


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