Power in femininity & the importance of body autonomy – A look at Lipstick Feminism

Being the tenth part in a series on different feminisms. The ninth part was “Lesbian Feminism: Rejecting the Patriarchal Idea of Heterosexuality as the ‘Norm’

Author’s Note: Lipstick Feminism, while a newer school of thought within Third Wave Feminism, is often seen as controversial, partly due to the fact that it usually (especially the closer to mainstream discourse it gets) depends on ideas that there are “ugly” feminists to move away from. It is important to note that ugly vs. beautiful is a social construct and that the socio-political use of Lipstick Feminism by women shouldn’t be seen as an affront to Feminisms or feminists past, but as a natural growth and progression of feminism.

(Trigger Warning: Discussions of rape and rape culture)

Lipstick Feminism is a branch of feminism that came to prominence during the third wave of feminism. The main tenant of Lipstick feminism is an encouragement to embrace traditional concepts of femininity while also holding and espousing feminist ideals. Lipstick feminism stands in contrast to the second wave’s creation of radical and lesbian feminisms. Namely, Lipstick Feminists hope to work against the stereotypes of the “ugly feminist” and the “anti-sex feminist.”

To quote the Twitter @lipstckfeminist: “Lipstick Feminists focuses on current events, pop culture, queer and race issues, and sex. Mostly sex. We smash patriarchy and the gender binary here.”

Which isn’t far from the encyclopedic definition from WiseGeek:

“Lipstick feminism is a school of third wave feminism in which women support the belief that it is possible to be a feminist while also displaying femininity, being sex positive, or engaging in other displays of sexuality which earlier generations of feminists once condemned.”

While Lipstick Feminism may stand in opposition to branches of second wave feminism,  the success of the first two waves of feminism are what made it possible for Lipstick Feminism to reclaim aspects of femininity previously viewed as disempowering.  Lipstick Feminists make an effort to reclaim traditionally feminine aspects such as make-up and stilettos.

One of the more controversial efforts of Lipstick Feminism is trying to reclaim words like “slut” for usage by women. The idea is to make “slut” empowering, as opposed to an insult steeped in double-standards and patriarchal suppression of women’s free sexual expression. One of the ways in which Lipstick Feminists, as well as feminists in general, have gone about doing this through organizing and participating in what are often called SlutWalks.

SlutWalk Toronto, on their webpage, sum up the idea behind SlutWalks:

“Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. ‘Slut’ is being re-appropriated.”

The SlutWalk Toronto is often credited as being the first SlutWalk, inspired when a representative of the Toronto police said, “women not dress like “sluts” in order to avoid sexual assault.”

The first walk had 3,000 people and involved speeches and a march on Toronto police headquarters. The idea is that the way one dresses should not dictate whether or not they are more susceptible to, or guilty of their own, rape. These demonstrators were protesting the mainstream ideas of slut-shaming, wherein a person is blamed and shamed for the things they wear. They were also protesting the idea of victim-blaming, wherein rape apologists accuse rape victims of being at fault for their having been raped due to the way they dressed or acted.

Lipstick Feminism believes, philosophically, that it is empowering for a woman’s psychology, as well as her social and political position, to wear make-up and sexually suggestive clothes, and to practice a sexual allure that appeals to men and women. Similarly, Lipstick Feminists are proponents of the idea that the ability to choose sexual partners, as well as how much sex one has and when, empowers women.

As quoted by an individual on Tumblr (Content Warning for cissexist language):

“Personally I think it’s fear- red lipstick and sheer tights can strike fear into any person’s heart. It’s a new movement- women who are dangerously capable and attractive; scarily self assured and aware of their own beauty. And that’s what I’ve always connected with lipstick feminism; the creation of self awareness of a women’s own body and sexuality, and the celebration of women in all their female glory.”

Often seen as a modern, mainstream, pop culture version of earlier feminisms, Lipstick Feminism carries some of the same goals as any other feminisms. That is, Lipstick Feminism works against the stereotypes that woman are often socialized, or expected to fit, in to. Some of these stereotypes include “The Good Girl” and “The Decent Woman,” among countless others.

Also worth a mention is Stiletto Feminism, which extends the ideas of Lipstick Feminism from the acceptance of makeup to the validity of women taking up occupations that are specifically founded on female physical beauty. Examples include working as a striptease dancer or pole dancer as well as flashing or lesbian (woman-on-woman) exhibitionism.

On the site Sex Work Activists, Allies and You the site founder is quoted as saying:

“I love my job, but my web site is a business, not a dating ad. I can’t stress that enough. Don’t go a strip club if you have no money for tipping, don’t call an escort because you’re looking for a girlfriend, and don’t email porn performers that you’re not ‘some kind of creep’ who buys porn, but would be willing to take us out for dinner instead. The most annoying people I deal with are people who disrespect me by assuming that they are entitled to discounts and freebies because they think they’re ‘too good’ to pay for my services. Treat us like the professionals and small business owners that we are.”

Some critics don’t find Lipstick Feminism practical. Natasha Walters, author of “Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism” quotes a former lapdancer,  “Just look at the lap-dancing club… The men in there are respectable, they are in suits, they have bank accounts, the women are not respectable.” This of course doesn’t observe intersections of class and race, or consider the types of labor potentially exploited by these rich men. The quote also says something interesting about what qualifies as respectable and what does not.

And maybe, I speculate, that’s something that Lipstick Feminism is working towards, changing the way society views men and women, on a deeper level – asking them to look at the agency of people who sell sex (in whatever form).  Lipstick Feminists aim to change the societal ideas of what is respectable.

Mary McMahon puts Lipstick Feminism into an interesting perspective:

“Some women (within the Lipstick Feminist ideology), for example, find sexuality empowering and they believe that being positive about sexuality, pornography, and sexual deviance is an important part of the feminist movement. Others would not go that far, but they would say that they do not see a conflict between wearing makeup or dressing up and holding feminist values which include a desire for equality between the sexes.”

Sexual deviance, in a sociological way, means deviating from the norm. To the layperson, however, deviance carries a negative connotation, and that the source of this quote, WiseGeek, is accessible to the layperson as much as it is to the academic or the intellectual. Therein lies a problem, the problem of language, as “promiscuous”, “deviance” and earlier, “slut” all carry negative connotations to the layperson living within a patriarchal society.

What critics of Lipstick Feminism ultimately try to do is ignore the necessity to make and acknowledge a distinction between a woman who chooses to sexualize her body, and the patriarchal, systematic, sexualization of all women’s bodies. Or, these critics claim that any women who choose to sexualize their bodies does so because of patriarchal socialization or hierarchical role fulfillment.

As Lindsey Horvath, VP of Communication at Nationbuilder, said in her piece This Is Not My Feminism:

“While we strive for equality, we recognize that focusing on sexuality as a means to empowerment misses the mark entirely, reducing women to our body parts instead of embracing our personhood. We realize that it is a patriarchal culture that encourages women to seek empowerment and independence through sexual appeal in service to men.”

Still, some argue that women have claimed agency, even in the face of oppression, further back than is commonly societally imagined. Author Teresa Riordan, who spent an extensive amount of time studying patents, claims that it is far too simplistic to suggest that products such as eye-lash curlers and hoop skirts were thought up specifically to oppress women. Of course, intent and result are two completely different things, and recognizing the thin line between active intent and passive consequence is important. Within the context (the time and the culture) of the items Riordan was looking at (ie. Hoop skirts and eye-lash curlers) it is known that the patriarchal hierarchy was absolute, and still it was around this same time that the Western (or the United States?) feminist movement was coming onto a new wave by the pen of Betty Friedan. What we now know of as high heels originated as far back as Ancient Egypt and were used for various purposes both practical, and for the purpose of showing power, so there is evidence to suggest that the idea that certain items were created simply to oppress women’s body is questionable.

Riordan continued, in an interview she gave to TheAge.com, “It is pejorative to say [women are] just the victims and not the agents to some degree in our own destiny.” While Riordan is not blind or ignorant to the patriarchy’s suppressional affect on women, she thinks there is a necessity to re-examine the way history is looked at, believing that women, within the boundaries of the constraints of the patriarchy, did “carve out their own realms of power.”

It is necessary, as critics of Lipstick Feminists point out, to have a discourse around class privilege. It is necessary to look first world feminists’ ability to discuss Lipstick Feminism, to critique their (our) ability to have a discourse around fashion while our economy perpetuates third-world sweatshop slave labor. Still, this critique assumes that Lipstick Feminism is more about fashion than about creating a discourse around body autonomy and body ownership. When having the discourse on how first world feminism affects or ignores third-world women and children, it is important to have a conversation about intent and results. For example, one must consider whether the intent of protesting sweatshop and slave labor is more likely to affect workers negatively than it is to affect managers/CEOs/corporations.

It is empowering, within the realms of the first world privilege of Lipstick Feminism to claim, own, and have fashion. It is important to have fashion, to act as a creative outlet in which to reject the ideas that fashion is for the patriarchal or the sexual gaze. I think that is part of the larger goal of Lipstick Feminism.


wiseGEEK: “What is Lipstick Feminism?” by Mary McHahon – http://m.wisegeek.com/what-is-lipstick-feminism.htm
Lipstick helped feminism – http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/10/15/1097784041812.html


SlutWalk Toronto. “Why” http://www.slutwalktoronto.com/about/why

“Why Did Men Stop Wearing High Heels”. William Kremer. BBC. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21151350

Categories: feminism, Jessica Fisher | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Power in femininity & the importance of body autonomy – A look at Lipstick Feminism

  1. mscherhorowitz

    Before reading this article I never knew there was a specific branch of feminism called “Lipstick Feminism,” but I have to say this most closely aligns with my own ideals about feminism. It’s so interesting how even within feminism which is supposed to bring people together towards women’s equality there are so many different ideologies that go along with it.

  2. I recently did a post on the meaning of The Miss World Competition – you can check it out here – http://mcmacaulay.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/what-exactly-does-miss-world-represent/

  3. Reblogged this on Kimari's Blog.

  4. Pingback: Is It Possible to Use Makeup to Lipstick It to the Man? | Ladyclever

  5. Pingback: TILT: Girls Rock! | Devel Men & Women | devel men & women

  6. Pingback: A True Confession of a Makeup Addict; Feminism and Autonomy

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