A Flapper Daughter Responds.

In her latest column “Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters,” Katha Pollitt* admits that she sometimes finds young feminists irritating:

I’m tired of their constant use of teeny-bopper words like “amazing” and “awesome,” the lazy use of obscenities and the way they refer to themselves as “girls” and “chicks.” What’s wrong with “woman?” Is “woman” too fat for them? I don’t get their obsession with ads and women’s magazines and pop culture and celebrities — to me, feminism is about getting that stuff out of your head, not coming up with yet more reasons to object to it while remaining in its thrall. I’m tired of “body issues” getting so much more emphasis than economic and political ones, and the endless fetishizing of “choice” where anything a woman wants to do is sacrosanct, including stripping, prostition and porn, which are simultaneously obscurely troubling and perfectly OK!

Pollitt goes on to defend young feminists (against Susan Faludi who accuses us of ritual matricide) giving us credit for volunteering, mentoring teens, organizing conferences, writing books and blogging. Which I appreciate. So I’m hoping she won’t mind me taking a minute to look more closely at her objections to us.

We’ll just have to chalk the language barrier up to generational differences. Because we do say “amazing” and “awesome,” or my preferred abstract noun versions of these words: “Amazingness” and “awesomeness,” with perhaps a vulgar frequency. Speaking of vulgar, I also swear (sparingly…ish) in my writing, though I also enjoy an appropriately placed asterix and faux swears, like “frick.” Come on— that word is just funny. It’s because I spend most of my life writing for other publications, where I can’t play with abstract nouns and curse words because I’m busy writing in The Magazine’s Voice and being Consistent With Their Style. So it’s f*cking awesome to get to play around with that kind of thing here.

As for “girl” and “chick,” these are words that have become entirely context-dependent: It drove me nuts that we were always “girls” at Beauty U, even though many of us were in our 30s and 40s. But when I describe myself I might well use one of those words, maybe tongue in cheek, maybe like I’ve reclaimed it, maybe just because I’m young(er). “Woman” is not too fat, but sometimes it is too earnest, too formal, too grown-up. (For the record, I feel the same way about Man if I’m talking about a guy my own age. Also Husband and Wife, even though I have one and I am one. Egads.)


Because Pollitt also doesn’t understand why we spend so much time getting worked up about Levi’s Curve ID jeans ads and snack foods that want us to be thinner: Feminism is about getting that stuff out of your head. But if that’s the case, feminism has been a big, fat failure for around 90 percent of women. That stuff is in our heads, and it’s in our little sisters’ heads and our daughters’ heads at a frighteningly young age. You can’t keep on ignoring the beauty myth, hoping it will go away. Because it didn’t.

She argues that we object to Big Beauty and yet remain in its thrall, one explanation of why women today reserve the right to blowout our hair and demand equal pay. But I think what we’re trying to do is much more nuanced and more difficult than that. We’re figuring out how to engage with beauty on our terms, not because it continues to hypnotize us, but because again, it didn’t go anywhere when feminists tried the wholesale rejection approach. So we have to negotiate it, to pick our battles more carefully, and to allow that “choice” does mean women can have different interpretations of what works for them here, and still work together on other issues.

To body issues getting more play than economic and political ones, I say: Ha! Good one. One reason I started this blog is because most of the 40+ publications I write for didn’t want me writing about this stuff for them. Women’s magazines push pretty hard, but they can only criticize the beauty industry as much as their advertisers will let them. Other publications dismiss body issues as a Fluffy Girl Topic that they don’t have time to cover because they write about Important Things like war and elections. And they think it’s not their problem anyway, because aren’t women’s magazines all over it, seeing as that’s where Fluffy Girl Topics (and Girl Writers) belong?

Young feminists are blogging and writing books because we have to create our own space to discuss these issues, just like older feminists had to create places like Ms to force a national conversation about  abortion and equal pay. (Though I will make a happy exception for Newsweek‘s recent Beauty Advantage package — especially because I’m about to quote some stats from it — which is giving me great hope for a sea change on this.)

What Pollitt, and much of the non-women’s-mag media, forget is that body issues are economic issues, when consumers spend over $200 billion per year on beauty products and services — more than we spend on new cars, over-the-counter drugs, or our cell phone service.

And when skinny women earn $15K more than average-sized women and almost $30K more than heavier women, when beautiful people will earn $250,000 more over the course of their careers, and when the average American woman will spend $450,000 on beauty products and services during her lifetime — more than she’ll spend raising her first kid to age 18.

Sure, there are other economic feminist issues that are equally and sometimes more pressing. But when a single mom has to add “not hot enough” to the list of reasons she can’t find work at a retail clothing chain or a fast food restaurant, Houston, we have a problem. When Hilary Clinton (and, okay, fine, Sarah Palin and any other woman running for office) has to dye her grays while every male politican gets to play silver fox, we have a political problem, too. And the politics become even more problematic when we start to talk about how unregulated the beauty industry is, in terms of the products it puts on store shelves and the protections afforded to its underpaid, 90 percent female workforce.

So maybe, if we deal with all of “that stuff” head on — instead of mentally holing up in some off the grid, no-beauty-standards-allowed feminist clubhouse — we’ll be able to make some progress, get past the language barrier, and hey, get some More Important sh*t done too.

*Who, full disclosure, I think is a completely awesome person/writer/feminist.



Filed under beauty standards, Career Opportunities, Government Watch

16 responses to “A Flapper Daughter Responds.

  1. Hi Virginia, this is so smart. Best critique of my column I’ve seen. Keep up the great work!

  2. Nicely done, Virginia.

    As a feminist of the generation in between yours and Ms. Pollitt’s (Wave 2.5, as my friend Mimi calls us and her feminist zine), I really appreciate the synthesis here.

  3. This is probably my favorite post on your site so far. Seriously: pure amazingness.

  4. Marian Sole

    As a passionate feminist from the 1970s who has spent her career in private big business, I can say that the female relationship with the beauty industry is in the middle of every pay raise negotiation, promotion or hiring question. It is simply not possible in private business to have grey hair and be female. It is also not possible to be overweight and get promoted. It actually is not possible to admit to being older than your co-workers unless you are the CEO and male. Thank heavens as Gail Collins pointed out in When Everything Changed, the gap between male and female pay is now much narrower in your 20s and 30s. It will be interesting to see if this continues as this group of feminists ages. Thanks however to both Virginia and Katha for their contributions to feminism in both forms.

  5. Dan

    Home run, this was an extremely thoughtful analysis.

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  7. Denise

    That was a great article, so well written and right on. Full of amazingness!! Thank you.

  8. GG

    Virginia, have you heard of Filament magazine, produced in the UK but stocked worldwide? It’s tagline is ‘The Thinking Woman’s Crumpet.’ I think you might enjoy reading/writing for them as they’d probably be really happy to receive the kinds of things you want to write about.

    Warning: link may be nsfw as the magazine contains male nudity (regularly!) http://www.filamentmagazine.com/

  9. Joel Mielke

    “You can’t keep on ignoring the beauty myth, hoping it will go away.”

    You could try.

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  16. midnightsky

    You didn’t comment on the “endless fetishizing of choice,” which I think is spot-on. People seem to think that feminists have to also endorse porn, prostitution, stripping, and so on. I certainly don’t, and I think that’s a very valid choice.

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