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.
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.
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.