Femme Feminist

by Kate Epstein <scribk8@yahoo.com>

My mania for girlie clothes disgusted my feminist mother when I was little. A baby-boomer, she didn't have a choice when she was in school, since actual rules restricted girls to skirts and dresses. We '70s children were to remake the world, modeling ourselves after brave princesses, like Atalanta on Marlo Thomas's record, "Free to Be...You and Me," who could run as fast as the wind. One could take it for granted Atalanta wasn't running in clumsy girlie clothes. As '80s professional women adopted corporate drag, my girlie clothes seemed inappropriate for the daughter of a brave new feminist world.

I'm a professional woman myself now, but I still love my girlie clothes. Dresses feel wonderful, especially thin summer ones. They're soft and sensual, at least the ones I buy: thin cottons, rayons, the occasional silk. I like the feeling of my legs moving freely under copious fabric. I like my stomach, which is where I store my weight, unencumbered by the confines of pants. From my breasts on down dresses don't weigh on me. They waft gently, letting me feel the breeze.

It's hard to find less girlie clothes that look good on my large breasts and hips. Even when masculine clothes are cut for women, they seem to show their roots, because they're rarely cut right for me. When a suit jacket flops around awkwardly on my curvy body and my short torso, I feel like my body's the problem. Suddenly I'm competing with-and losing to--a clothes hanger, a plastic triangle with a hook. My dresses flatter me, and I'd rather pay for flattery than insults. I can get insults for the price of a fashion magazine.

Feeling good about myself seems feminist to me. Dresses are as much a choice as pants. I deserve equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal respect. I'm feminine, and I'm intelligent, and I'm not going to try to grow a beard to earn what I deserve. Just as curvy-cut clothes fit my wide breasts and hips, femininity fits my personality. Whether it's socialized or innate, I tend to be interested in emotions, to approach people empathetically, to avoid (but not run from) conflict. I don't want to change; it feels right. It's not weak or silly to act like a woman. That's sexism talking.

But my dresses are not all political defiance. They're expedience, too. Authority figures, especially male bosses, seem to find my intelligence--even if it's superior to theirs--less threatening if I wear dresses. I'm working the system--my dresses promise that I'm no threat while I get what I want. Looking feminine makes my life easier by charming both men and women.

Working the system doesn't mean I believe in it. If I shouldn't have to act like a man to get what I deserve, I shouldn't have to be girlie, either. And neither should anyone else. But there's no point in abdicating the privileges that come from conforming to society's ideas about women. I don't want to increase the suffering the system causes me. I want to change the system.

Another item on my feminist to-do list is to recruit others by example--to help other women to move beyond "I'm not a feminist, but...." I try to telegraph: femme goes well with feminist. We don't need to become androgynous, or to give up men. We do need the right to do both if we want to, but the right to be feminine and/or heterosexual is precious, too.

I certainly haven't given up men for feminism. I married one, in fact. And in quite a girlie wedding gown. And I still enjoy the occasional flirtation between equals. It's flattering, and I'd miss it if it went away, which it might if I started dressing androgynously.

I'd miss my husband's attraction to me even more. Buoyed by love as deep as any I've ever known, that attraction's certainly resilient. Androgynous clothes wouldn't affect him, but unshaved legs would, he admits. Probably that's because of the sexism he's absorbed from our society, along with other pollutants.

But it's also because of love. Ethan loves the femininity of my body and my personality. He couldn't love me without loving that, because it's a part of me. Like every other reason I'm a femme feminist, preserving Ethan's attraction to me is a mixed bag. Part the result of living in a sexist world, and part wonderful feeling.

Twenty years later, Mom's OK with my dresses, too. She wears dresses herself. "You wanted to feel firm about your basic gender identification," she says of my early embrace of girlie clothes. It's not a bad explanation. I'm firmly feminine and firmly feminist. Why not?

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