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