Peyton Fulford

On the subject of the female body and lipstick feminism.

Here’s what the real problem is, it’s not the woman, and it’s not her body, it’s men.

Or rather the patriarchy.

In my sophomore year of college I took a course called “The Philosophy of Feminism.”  Many or perhaps nearly all of the texts we read had been written by baby-boom era liberal white feminist philosophers.

I have no inherent problems or objections with reading these texts, however my only argument against this method of teaching is the lack of diversity in both the authors and their ideas.

Many of the ideas we had read by these thinkers preached their notions and opinions of modesty vs. immodesty.  Modesty being well-clad women vs. the immodest bare-backed ladies in tight clothing.

One of the papers we had to write was to agree or refute with an article called “Modesty as a Feminist Sexual Virtue” by Anne Barnhill.  Barnhill writes that the next step women should take in order to ensure a future that is free of gender inequality, is to behave out of sexual modesty as a feminist virtue.  As defined by Barnhill, sexual modesty does not refer to acting in a “prudish” way, but only displaying sexuality in the appropriate circumstances.

Barnhill illustrates sexually modest feminists as different than the radical feminists and the “lipstick feminists,” both of whom she disapproves of.

Wait what? Isn’t lipstick feminism exactly the trend that we’ve been seeing all over social media in the past few years?  

And Anne Barnhill believes that precisely this kind of feminism is what is contributing to the promotion of sexism and not the dissolution of it.

Now there’s something that really caught you…

But aren’t people like say, Beyoncé, trailblazers of this new lipstick-feminist-flawless-lady movement? Sure she is and that’s why Anne Barnhill isn’t a Bey fan.

Barnhill claims that Beyoncé is only a mere sexual figure of modern pop culture because of her use of sexual immodesty in her expressions.  She claims that she is not a figure for any subject that is intellectual, political…etc. but rather just a figure of a purely sexual category.  Therefore the path that Beyoncé is leading women down is a fiery path of self-destruction and sexualization.

Well, that’s a bit extreme and obviously not true.  I accept the fact that Beyoncé, as some might say, dresses the part in a world where sex sells.  But a figure with as much public power as Ms. Knowles possesses today is bringing something different to the table.  And I do not condemn Beyoncé because she’s opening an acceptable discussion on a topic that has been historically ridiculed and shamed in the past.  Beyoncé may be using flashing lights, leotards, and 7-inch heels to get the word of feminism across to millions, but she’s initiating a conversation on something that has been hidden and tarnished from public discussion for years.

And all of the elaborate costumes and methods Ms. Knowles is using as described above is a nightmare to Ms. Barnhill.  Because then the image of feminism will only become associated with the aforementioned dress and attitude that Ms. Knowles and all the lipstick feminists promote. Those young girls being taught to be “flawless,” to wake up in the morning feeling beautiful, and wearing whatever-the-hell they want – those girls are all over tumblr – and it’s become the new wave of feminism circulating all over social media nowadays.

Laura Callaghan

The solution that Barnhill proposes is to therefore advise all women to act in a sexually modest way.  At the same time this advice to cover-up seems analogous to the advice that women are given in order to be safe when walking home at night.  Both include precautionary suggestions to protect women from the harm induced from being sexualized by men.

Cautionary advice given and taught to women, is fueled by the belief that women who are more “sexually appealing” to men have a higher chance of being sexually assaulted or raped.  And those women who are sexually modest propose a higher chance for achieving gender equality since they have less of a chance of being objectified, they will then be taken more seriously.

So here’s my real problem with Anne Barnhill and why I have been thinking of this essay for the past two years:

No one should be telling women they need to cover up and if they don’t, they’re being a bad feminist.

Here’s what the real problem is, it’s not the woman, and it’s not her body, it’s men.

Or rather the patriarchy.

When it comes down to it all, we are all just human beings made up of millions of cells wearing pieces of cloth sewed together.  And every notion of clothing and every view of different body parts is applied and determined culturally.  Yes, that might be a very odd, objective, and anthropological perspective, but bear with me.

Because if we follow the proposed trajectory that Anne Barnhill is suggesting when will the female body be acceptable? If even at all ever?

We should not be telling women to cover up their own bodies for the sake of exposing themselves to being sexualized and not taken seriously.

We should be teaching men not to sexualize the female body.

Women should not be constantly told over time that it is their fault; that their bodies are what is to blame for men not taking them seriously, or being sexualized, and even worse sexually abused.

The problem is men and what society is teaching them. We should not be tip-toeing around the problem anymore at this point in time and saying that yet again it is the woman to blame for her own body.

If the desexualized female body was a cultural norm in our society then this entire thread of conversation would be entirely moot. And if that were the case would Beyoncé still be considered a bad feminist figure?

Because being a “bad feminist” is not being a lipstick feminist.

Being a “bad feminist” is not being a feminist period. And it’s also shaming other women for being themselves when they have their heads in the right ballpark for positive feminist thinking.

Amended – February 2018

I wrote this essay in 2013, five years ago. I still agree with my point that is the female body needs to be desexualized for us to be seen as valid human beings. Because it not only hurts cis-women, but everyone who identifies as a women and all feminine aspects.

The crux of the issue still stands where we are at odds with having liberty to wish to wear whatever we like versus being attacked for being feminine.

I agree still that the patriarchal world should not stop us from having our own bodies or representing femininity in a way we want, we should not feel chained to hiding ourselves from toxic masculinity or sexualization. The problem still lies in educating and deconstructing sexualization and objectification of women and the feminine.

If we had continued to live in a way that Barnhill suggests, radical change would never exist and changes to fashion and what is socially acceptable to wear or act like would never take place. These changes that take place all help in desensitizing the female body and presence. Without them we would only live in fear and stagnation.


6 thoughts on “On the subject of the female body and lipstick feminism.

  1. I hope that they do stop sexualizing the female body, I understand where she is coming from and thus, she is not a “bad” feminist either. How can we possibly teach men to stop sexualizing the female body when we continue to sell ourselves on our sexuality? It is okay for us to do it, it is okay for us to use sex to sell music or whatever, it is okay for us to be porn stars and sell books with our Selfies like Kim Kardashian but by golly when a man does it or profits from it he is wrong? I do think people are using the word feminist to further their own agenda as opposed to increasing the liberty of all. Moreover, they miss the point. We don’t need the permission of men or men to act a certain way to stop feeling shame for our bodies, shame is a choice and THAT is what we need to teach women, young women and girls. It is better to control your own mind, than to put your focus into controlling and shaping the mind of men, you will never find power that way. I am tired of people attempting to shame others in the name of anything, including feminism. I want to cover up, I don’t want to be sexy all the time it, I already went through that false empowerment and it becomes a tedious hassle. I don’t want to have sex with a lot of people with no intimacy “like men” supposedly which some “feminists” suggest is power. I am a survivor of abuse and rape and I want more than that shallow connection or fleeting pleasure. I am not going to accept shame from anyone, no matter what their label. I wish everyone that power. Shame is a choice, survive enough of it and you will see too. Choice is the only way out, choice to say take your shame and shove it. I don’t accept it. I don’t accept Bey as a feminist figure. I see her, I hear her speak of her relationship with her father and husband and I wish her the best in processing her past and present. Money masks a lot of issues and creates illusions. Shame me now for not admiring her will you? I hope not, it would be a waste of your time. It is a thought provoking bold post here, I wish you the best in discouraging others to put down the weapon of shame.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would never shame anyone for their own valid beliefs; especially since I agree with you that she uses feminism as a PR tactic and has now branded it as a money-making fashion trend! This issue is incredibly complex and there are no black and white answers for it. Personally, I am not one of those women who hold Beyonce as their feminist icon, but I considered playing the advocate by using her as a way of sharing my thoughts on these two extremes.


  2. Nice overview and commentary. I agree with your point that we should not too quickly write off other feminists that we disagree with as ‘bad feminists’, because it is important to stand together and jointly develop our societies further! 🙂 Two remarks however:

    Firstly, rather than saying that ‘men’ are the problem, is not the problem ‘patriarchy’? Since not only men objectify women, but other women objectify women as well (for example, women also evaluate other women who look less ‘professional’ as less competent). Surely, patriarchy harms women, but as most feminists nowadays endorse, patriarchy also harms men, so for that reason it is more useful to challenge the values that shape men and women, rather than just directly target men as bad guys.

    Secondly, do you think it is actually possible for human beings to not view others as sexual when they dress or behave a certain way? Surely, I agree that we can learn to be fine with lots of behaviours and appearances. But it seems impossible for certain appearances and behaviours not to influence our judgements and counter-behaviours.
    For example, if a man gives a (say serious, political) lecture wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a t-shirt reading “I love beer”, while shaking his booty, that will probably negatively influence the audience’s appreciation of whatever he is talking about. We can, and I agree that we should, work on becoming less judgemental of appearances and mostly evaluate the content of what is said instead. However, I do think there are limits to this, especially living in a large society with many unknown people closely together. Or do you think people have the capacity to look through all else, and just see the content of what someone does, even while that person is, say, fully naked, dripping candle wax on their belly, while holding the lecture?
    This may seem like a ridiculous exaggeration of course, but it is just to make the point that there will be a line somewhere for what people can deal with and still stay focused on the content, or when they will be distracted by sexual cues (which are surely very deeply embedded in our evolutionary psychology). If there are limits to how sexual we can be in public, where are those limits? Would you argue for there being no limit, so full nudity and sexual activity is possible in public, or certain limits concerning body parts and behaviours (e.g. breasts, booty, belly, legs, face, hair, etc., and booty shaking, other ‘sensual’ moves, other behaviour that references sexual activity, etc.)?


    • I understand your point and agree that it is in fact patriarchy that is the root of the problem however, perceptions of what is sexually appealing is a social construct. What might be sexually appealing to someone may not be arousing to someone else from another culture or if they identify as a different sexuality. It isn’t an innate aspect to every human’s brain, we are all different.


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