An Open Letter to Charlotte Raven about My Footwear and My Feminism
By Kirsten Clodfelter
I appreciate that you have words of wisdom to share with the next generation of “hip” young feminists as we get dressed each morning, but the truth is, I don’t want you in my closet any more than I want Republican legislators in my vagina.
Admittedly, I am not exactly the poster girl for “girly.” Aside from the two days a week that I’m on campus to teach, I write from home, where I hang out with an awesome but not quite fashion-adept toddler. (Yes, you read that right. I have a Master’s degree and did not seek full-time employment in order to stay at home with my kid—BY CHOICE!) Most of the time, I live in yoga pants, rarely brush my hair, and sometimes go three entire days without showering—like, in a row. But I do own a pair or four of high heels, and occasionally I even wear them.
As someone who didn’t win the genetic lottery as far as grace and poise are concerned, it is true, as you argue, that I sometimes look silly when I put on said high heels. But no part of that silliness is due to the fact that while wearing them I also identify as a feminist.
I imagine many other women might agree, like, I don’t know, Hillary Clinton. Or Betty Friedan. Or Eve Ensler. Or Anita Hill. If Wendy Davis had rocked pink peep-toed Christian Louboutinis instead of her iconic pink sneaks during that heroic filibuster, she would be no less of a champion for women’s reproductive freedom. And though it might only be the very highest stripper heels causing the self-harm you mention, it seems that the bigger concern is the idea that women wear heels because female sexiness is interpreted—by men and women alike—predominately through an oppressive male gaze.
And I get that. I do. But I also wonder if in many ways that male gaze isn’t already broken by the act of acknowledging it, by a feminist—or anyone—stopping to practice genuine self-awareness when considering what’s attractive or interesting or fulfilling outside of the boundaries established by those patriarchal norms.
In this space, we might find that kick ass, grrl power Doc Martens are sexy or awesome or strong, but so too are pleather high heels. Or crocs. Or whatever. (For the record, Dr. Marten was a nazi before he staked his claim in the footwear market, so I’m just going to stick to my Rocketdogs.)
If you can’t believe this inclusive view of feminism is possible, then I’m curious to know what other behaviors I engage in that would draw criticism or ridicule. The Belle Jar has already come up with a pretty decent list, but I’m still looking for a handbook or something to clarify the following: Is it anti-feminist to tweeze my eyebrows? Wear my hair in a high, tight ponytail? Don pantyhose and pointy-toed flats? Gorge on holiday cookies? Birth a child? Go to the dentist? These intentional actions could be considered forms of self-harm too—they’re at times uncomfortable, restrictive, or bad for our bodies, and some are done solely for aesthetic value. But do you know what seems much sillier than a feminist wearing heels? One who says that other women are less feminist because of how they dress.
I agree, whole-heartedly, that in the context of feminist discourse, asking if a feminist can wear high heels is a tired, trivial question. But rather than dismiss it in the moment with a witty one-liner or, better yet, just ignore it completely in favor of talking about something more meaningful, you dedicated an entire column to parsing what a feminist looks like—to you. Fortunately, many of us already know that feminists can look like a lot of different things.
But what about the people who don’t? By anointing yourself Dress Code Monitor of the entire movement, you give permission to non-feminists to continue to objectify women and to make value judgments based on a person’s attire. These ideas perpetuate the terrible myth that a woman can’t be intelligent or taken seriously (by either gender) if men find her attractive, that the way a woman dresses or behaves makes her responsible for her sexual assault, that we need not look farther than a woman’s ankles to determine her worth. This is irresponsible and dangerous, and it definitely isn’t feminism.
As far as respecting the human body is concerned, there is a pretty significant leap between, say, wearing heels and female genital mutilation (SFW, no photos)—a type of self-harm on which our attention and concern might be better spent. And as someone who was previously married to a verbally and emotionally abusive spouse, let me be very clear in assuring you that there is absolutely no—as in fucking zero—similarity between putting on high heels and regularly being devalued, manipulated, or intimidated by someone who claims to love you.
The most troubling part of your piece, though, comes in the moment that you narrow your definition so that “[f]eminism emphatically isn’t about making women feel comfortable about bad or harmful decisions or choices.” But what you’ve missed is that feminism is emphatically about no longer universally dictating what constitutes a “bad” or “harmful” decision for another woman.
In her book, Gender Communication Theories and Analyses, Charlotte Krolokke elaborates:
Third-wave feminism manifests itself in “grrl” rhetoric, which seeks to overcome the theoretical question of equity or difference and the political question of evolution or revolution, while it challenges the notion of “universal womanhood” and embraces ambiguity, diversity, and multiplicity in its transversal theory and politics.
This is the reason that it isn’t acceptable to revoke Alisa Valdes’ feminist card because it took her awhile to recognize her abusive relationship, why it isn’t acceptable to slut-shame Miley Cyrus or Danica Patrick because of what they are or aren’t wearing, why it isn’t acceptable to make a blanket statement positing that wearing heels is a stupid decision, to offer a battle rally that “fear of seeming judgmental” shouldn’t stand in the way of others being, well, super judgmental about a person’s wardrobe.
Here’s the cool and actually not at all annoying thing about feminism that your piece left out: Women get to practice it wearing whatever the fuck we want. I can identify as a feminist while wearing a flannel button-down or stilettos. I can call myself a feminist with glittered curls or a purple mohawk, while listening to Tori Amos or Taylor Swift or Ke$ha. I can be a feminist with a baby on my hip or while getting cozy in the kitchen baking cupcakes for my feminist boyfriend, and I can do it without narrow, divisive views like yours boxing me in with the static vision of what a “real” feminist looks like.
Love ya like a sister, maybe,
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com, @MommaofMimo