Navigating feminist choice

// 29 November 2016

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I’ve not always known that I’m a feminist. When I worked for an organisation a few years ago that supports women through strong feminist principles and ethics, I finally realised I was home. I’d found my people. I jumped on my newly acquired ‘feminist’ label with all my might – finally finding a box that I was happy to fit into.

It’s fair to say I am still a relative newbie. I’m an entry level feminist, working out an approach that fits me and all of my beliefs as I go. That’s what fascinates me, I suppose. We all have a shared objective – women and girls to be treated equally in every aspect of life – but with our own understanding of what that entails and how to achieve it.

One thing I have struggled with, and am still debating day by day, are my thoughts about the portrayal of women choosing to present themselves in an overtly sexualised manner. This proves troublesome for me. I do accept that choice is a heavily burdened word. A woman may choose to portray herself in a certain way within a constricted environment that only offers her a handful of choices. Similarly a woman may be coerced into believing she is choosing but in reality her agency is limited. This issue aside (it warrants its own blog entirely) I have some further thoughts.

I want to avoid sounding judgemental, because I really do believe that women should express themselves however they choose, in a way that feels most comfortable to them. Take singer Tove Lo, for example. Earlier this week, the Daily Mail reported her reaction to the comments about her choice of outfit for the recent 2016 ARIA Awards in Sydney. Tove wore a short transparent orange dress with the shape of a uterus and ovaries depicted on the front. The article also outlines (and shows pictures of) one of her previous controversial outfits where she performs topless with what appears to be glittery cannabis leaves stencilled over her nipples and also features shots from her “sexually-charged short film” where she is shown “passionately romping in bed with a woman and a man”. Tove retaliated to the attention her dress received by stating, “I’m from Sweden where we don’t really censor at all… you’ve just got to say what it is… Didn’t Madonna do this 20 years ago?”

The Daily Mail’s choice of language is frivolous, provocative and indulgent, showing several pictures of Tove Lo in her videos and performances wearing very little. Comments on the article question Tove Lo’s reasons for wearing the outfit and speak about her in a fairly derogatory manner. There is a consensus in the comments that she has done something wrong, exploiting the system with her sexuality. But why are so many people reading this article to begin with? People want to look at her body, yet want to shame her into feeling guilty about showing it off. She can’t win.

So I have an affinity with her. She is a woman, in a world which expects her to behave in a certain way, and when she does so that world damns her. Nowhere in the article does it discuss her lyrics, her music career or her capability as an artist.

Then I find myself considering whether she has a responsibility of her own to the next generation of young women. But what a burden to bear; to think that our actions could impact another life. If my twenties were played out in the media I would be depicted in all sorts of derogatory terms, my choices as a young woman were sometimes destructive and unhealthy. I would not be advocating to my 11-year-old niece that she follows in, or even near, my younger self’s footsteps! The woman I have grown into is healthy, considerate and careful about looking after herself. I’m still the same me. So just because Tove Lo is the in the media, just because she is in the public eye, should I really make judgement about her choice of lifestyle, her choice of outfit, her choice of sexualised behaviour just because it doesn’t fit comfortably with my current own? I don’t think I should.

On the other hand I can offer many considerations for why the sexualised focus on women is problematic. When women are overtly sexual in the public eye does this enable us to move forward and move away from our bodies being our means of communication, our bargaining chips and our wealth? Are we just not regurgitating the usual trend of women being seen as sexual objects for the modern day?

To conclude, for me the jury’s still out. I can’t quite get my head around this issue. Yet while I know I have some conflicting views about the issue I also know that predominantly, fundamentally, my heart is with each and every woman making her own informed independent choice.

The photo is by Daniel Åhs Karlsson and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows Tove Lo smiling as she hold s a microphone, performing in Stockholm in 2014.

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