We’ve got the goon squad, and we’re coming to town….
— David Bowie, “Fashion”
When I was 13, I had only the vaguest stirrings of what would eventually make me into a feminist. But I was brutally aware, as only a 13-year-old can be, of the strict social caste system among kids. I was aware that I was not thin or pretty enough to be one of the cool kids, and I was too poor to afford the clothes that signified status. I grew up in a ghetto section of a large California city, part of and surrounded by poverty. If you weren’t from around there, you might think that the poor kids wouldn’t care as much about having the right clothing as the rich kids, but you’d be wrong. Designer clothing was EVERYTHING. To the point where many of our parents sought out cheap designer knockoffs for us at the swap meet in the hopes of helping us fit in. If you showed up at school in a dress from K-Mart, everyone knew it and would mock you mercilessly. They always knew where the cheap clothes came from.
I was the kind of 13-year-old that adults thought seemed so much older than I actually was, because I didn’t giggle and act silly and because I related better to adults than to other kids. I was outwardly obedient but inwardly full of rebellion, and I hated the social caste system with all my heart. I said to myself that I didn’t give a fuck what the other kids thought about me. Their obsession with fashion was stupid. Fashion itself is stupid.
So I spent my 13th year wearing the exact same outfit to school every day: a thin, limp, beige cotton sweater, a floral skirt my mother had made me, and sandals. Oddly, it made little difference in the way the other kids treated me, because I was already an outcast. They could only make fun of the same outfit so many times before they got bored.
But somehow I felt like I was making a statement about our society’s virtual slavery to fashion trends. I never bothered explaining what I was doing to anybody else though. It was enough for me to be different from the rest and take a kind of pride in being different, but it was all directed inward. I’m the one who sees through your shit, society.
Oh, how I wish I’d discovered feminism when I was that age. How different my life would have been.
Had I only known that women had experienced the same thing as I did, and wrote blistering criticisms of it, how that would have gladdened my heart and made me feel less like I was a lone wolf fighting against society. Somehow I instinctively sensed the inherent oppressiveness of beauty and fashion, but I wasn’t able to articulate it at that age. I just knew I didn’t want to be part of it.
(I could have applied some scathing feminist analysis to the literature and history we had to learn about, too. Oh, what teacher-shocking essays could have been.)
We need to get the feminist message out to young girls, particularly the outcasts. I’ll bet there are a lot of them out there feeling like something isn’t right with the system but not being able to express it.
As for how I approach fashion in my adult life, I really have as little as possible to do with it. I clothe my body according to practicality and comfort. I refuse to wear stupid shoes. I refrain as much as possible from judging others according to what they’re wearing.
In a world that shames women for what they wear, even if they attempt to follow fashion, dressing for comfort is a revolutionary act. And that’s why the beauty/fashion industrial complex doesn’t want us to get away with it. They come up with makeover TV shows like What Not To Wear, who pick on women who dress for comfort and “make them over” to be more patriarchy-compliant. (In these shows there’s always a part where the fashion “experts” psychologically batter the woman they are trying to make over. They put her in front of multiple mirrors and harshly criticize every aspect of her appearance. It reminds me of cult-style brainwashing.) They run stories in newspapers and magazines shaming women for what they wear. On the red carpet, female actors are asked about their dresses rather than their acting projects. Men on the street feel entitled to evaluate our appearances according to whether we give them boners. Other women who’ve swallowed the fashion Kool-Aid try to heap their internalized misogyny onto us until we join them. And so on. Fashion is fascist and the pressure to comply never ends.
But as feminists, we’re here to resist, not to comply.
Wear whatever you’re comfortable in, and whoever doesn’t like it can fuck right off.