First impressions

Feminists are caricatured as ugly and fat by society. Assuming a recruitment drive for swim-suit models is off the table, Samara Ginsberg considers what we can do to fight back

Samara Ginsberg, 2 June 2007

this is what a feminist looks like t-shirt

What does a feminist look like? Ask most people that question and, whether or not they admit to it out loud, they will conjure up a mental image of a fat ugly lesbian with armpit hair down to her ankles, puce with rage, stoking a bonfire of supportive undergarments. There is a perpetuating stereotype of feminists as ugly man-haters who never wash and like to dance around naked in bizarre fertility ceremonies, saggy tits wobbling around everywhere, downing pints of their own menstrual blood. Feminists are not considered normal members of society. Feminism is not associated with mental stability and it is most certainly not associated with physical attractiveness.

I have no doubt that feminists like this exist, but they must surely be in even more of an extreme minority than the worst male chauvinists who think that female brains aren't capable of coping with tasks more complex than cooking and cleaning, and who enjoy nothing more than a bit of gang rape of an evening. So why do people still think that feminists are dungaree-wearing, man-hating maniacs with armpit hair you could knit a jumper out of? Why has this stereotype been perpetuated? Why is it that this is what we think of when we hear the word "feminist"?

This unappealing feminist stereotype is and always has been used in two major ways to silence women; firstly by discouraging women from becoming feminists in the first place, and secondly by legitimising the dismissal of feminism. It is frighteningly effective on both counts.

Society tells women that their appearance is their most important trait, so the quickest way to silence a woman is to tell her that she is ugly

Few women particularly want to be associated with the hairy-legged, bra-burning brigade and so perpetuating that stereotype is a way of ensuring that few women wish to identify themselves as feminists. Most women - myself included - enjoy taking a little care over their appearance and certainly would not want to cast off their brassieres. It maddens me to hear women, particularly young women, say, "I'm not a feminist, but.." before expressing what is clearly a feminist viewpoint. They refuse to identify themselves as feminists because they cannot reconcile their desire for gender equality with their physical attractiveness and heterosexuality. They believe that one cannot be a feminist without wearing clumpy boots and no make-up, growing their body hair to neanderthal proportions and spurning their male friends. They fear the scorn of others. They fear being regarded as sexually unattractive and mentally unsound.

More worryingly, the feminist stereotype is also used as an excuse to dismiss feminism. The comments of "trent" in response to K* Harknett's review of men's magazines in the November issue of this hallowed periodical demonstrate this phenomenon quite nicely.

"you are all lez and fat, also you have never had a man in your pathetic so called life, feminism is a load of shit i have seen better in my loo, stop slaggin' off good looking, fine and just damn right sexy women like lucy pinder u fuckin' ulgy slags"

Setting aside the fact that if "trent" had actually read the article properly he (for I assume that it is a he) might have noticed that Harknett is actually a bloke, his message is clear: the views of an unattractive, overweight or homosexual woman are not regarded as important. It is considered risible that any woman who doesn't conform to rigid standards of attractiveness and grooming might deserve our attention, or that she should be respected and listened to rather than abused.

Quite apart from assumptions that have no evidence to support them, why shouldn't a "fuckin' ugly slag" be entitled to comment on gender issues? Why are the views of an attractive, heterosexual woman considered more worthy? Why is she listened to when her 300 lb peer is not? It could certainly be argued that precisely because of the pressure on women in our society to be physically attractive, women at extremes of the attractiveness spectrum are more affected than most by gender issues, so why not give the fat ugly birds a fair hearing? Why are we so offended by the idea that they might have something of value to contribute?

Bikini-clad East-European models could pout suggestively at the camera as they aired theories on abortion, glass ceilings and hardcore pornography, demonstrating the glam side of modern feminism

Even when expressing feminist opinions, a woman's appearance is of paramount importance. If she is unattractive, she will be dismissed as bitter towards men owing to a history of rejection. This supposed bitterness will be used as an easy explanation for her "man-hating" theories and an elegant excuse as to why she should just shut up and crawl back under her rock. If she is not unattractive however, this will not stop people from telling her otherwise.

Women are preoccupied with their appearance because society tells them that their appearance is their most important trait. Because women are so preoccupied with their appearance, the quickest way to silence a woman is to tell her that she is ugly. In pointedly telling a feminist that she is "lez and fat" one hopes either to shut her up by puncturing her self-esteem, or to generate a furious response, thus allowing her to demonstrate that she is even fatter and lezzier than one initially stated.

In a culture where a woman's appearance is her most important trait, an unattractive woman ceases to be of any importance whatsoever in the eyes of the masses. She does not deserve to exist. In associating the desire for gender equality with physical unattractiveness, we remove the issue of gender equality from public interest. We make feminism an unappealing prospect for women, and should a woman slip through the net and become a feminist we give people - male and female - license at best to ignore her and at worst to abuse her.

We need pictures of diverse people, all proud to call themselves feminists, on billboards everywhere

Sadly, the only short-term solution to this problem would involve lots of very attractive women expressing feminist opinions in order to disprove the theory that feminists are ugly. Bikini-clad East-European models would have to pout suggestively at the camera as they aired theories on abortion, glass ceilings and hardcore pornography, demonstrating the glam side of modern feminism whilst millions of teenage boys simply turned the sound down and masturbated furiously over their political totty. Having physically attractive role models would certainly go some way to improving the image of feminism and getting more young women interested in it, but, of course, to implement such a strategy would undermine the very nature of what feminism is about. It is grossly unfair to deny an unattractive woman a platform for her views, or to value the opinions of an attractive woman to a greater degree solely based on her appearance. There is little sense in banging on about the objectification of women whilst objectifying ourselves.

The Fawcett Society's This is What a Feminist Looks Like campaign has made a valiant attempt to address the marginalisation of feminism, by photographing a diverse range of celebrities and politicians in t-shirts proclaiming their feminist status. Unfortunately, this brilliantly executed campaign has not been sufficiently publicised to make a real difference. In order to see the photographs and quotes from the various people involved, one has to search for it on the internet - not something I can see either the "anti-feminist" post-feminists or the Neanderthal louts who would most benefit from the campaign doing. What the Fawcett Society needs is for an extremely rich feminist to donate enough money for them to buy advertising space. We need those pictures of diverse people, all proud to call themselves feminists, on billboards everywhere.

In the meantime, whilst we're waiting for our benefactor to step up to the mark, what can we do? We must be proud to be feminists. We must prove that feminism is relevant to all women, not just hairy lesbians. We must fight to be respected. We must respect men and yet be unafraid of criticising them. We must refuse to let our attractiveness or our sexual orientation be commented or speculated on. Essentially, there is nothing we can do other than to keep doing what we're doing and wait for the rest of the world to become more enlightened.

You may be wondering by now where I fall on the attractiveness spectrum. I could be a fat bird in sensible shoes, or a perfectly waxed Scandinavian swim-wear model. I refuse to comment because wherever on the spectrum I fall, it's completely irrelevant. I have the right to express my viewpoints whether I am fuckable or not and I will do so without feeling the need to "legitimise" my argument with a disclaimer saying that I could get a man if I wanted. Everybody should have the right to comment on gender issues, or for that matter any issue at all.

About the author

Samara Ginsberg

Samara Ginsberg is neither a fat bird in sensible shoes nor a perfectly waxed Scandinavian swimwear model.

Author's Articles

  • The F-Word Feeds
  • #
  • #