emily ratajkowski is right, hair is a fundamental part of femininity
The model famous for taking “empowering” topless selfies with Kim Kardashian has been slammed for her comments about women’s hair, but it’s really the construct of “femininity” we should cancel.
Image via Instagram
Scandal seems to nip disproportionately at the pumiced and well-moisturised heels of some of our latter-day supermodels-slash-Insta-celebrities. Take Kendall Jenner, whose T-shirt range with sister Kylie, which superimposed their faces over dead hip-hop icons, is only usurped in the offence-stakes by the Pepsi advert she starred in that appeared to erase the Black Lives Matter movement.
American model and Victoria’s Secret ‘Angel’ Emily Ratajkowski is a similarly scandal-adjacent super. EmRata (her online alias) was the woman grinding up against Robin Thicke -- naked but for a tiny thong -- in the much maligned Blurred Lines video; the lyrics of the song being widely denounced as sexist and, well, a bit rapey. It was also Emily (alongside Kim Kardashian) who provoked the ire of liberation feminists everywhere, when she proclaimed that posting a topless selfies was “empowering”, and therefore feminist.
Emily’s latest faux pas has seen her branded “disrespectful” and “insensitive” following comments she made as the new face of French hair care brand Kérastase. Promoting the role on Instagram, Emily posted a picture of herself with long, improbably voluminous hair, and commented that, “Hair is a fundamental part of beauty, femininity, and identity.” Quickly, hundreds of women with shaved heads, short hair, alopecia, and hair loss due to cancer treatment commented to correct her, noting that not all women have hair, and asserting that they are no less beautiful or feminine for it, with many criticising her statement as shallow and exclusionary.
“This is a bad take, plain and simple,” wrote one commenter, adding that, “Hair is neither fundamental to one's beauty, nor is it indicative of a certain standard of femininity.” Another shared their personal experience of the issue: “Yeah thanks. I lost my hair when I was a baby. I never had the privilege of doing my hair for dance recitals, homecoming, prom, I won't have the chance to do my hair on my wedding day,” they wrote.
"Femininity is a concept rooted in exclusion. Women are judged against an illusive feminine ‘ideal’ every day, and are oppressed to the extent that they don’t measure up."
Clearly, Emily Ratajkowski had not thought through the implications of what she was saying in her comment (which she later edited); and it probably ought to have been obvious that it would cause offence. But in a sense, she’s absolutely right: long, silky hair really is fundamental to the concept of femininity. That’s why the second commenter describes doing your hair as a “privilege” that she has not had access to; and, as another commenter notes, “Yes, hair is a fundamental part of femininity. That’s why post-cancer patients wear wig[s].”
Femininity is a concept rooted in exclusion. Women are judged against an illusive feminine ‘ideal’ every day, and are oppressed to the extent that they don’t measure up. An inherently discriminatory concept, femininity privileges those who are young, slim, Caucasian, healthy, wealthy, and able-bodied, with long hair and little to no body hair. It is a sexist, heteronormative, racist, ageist, sizeist and ableist concept, based on how ‘fuckable’ women are judged to be by a society and culture that foregrounds the desires of men, and white men in particular. Those judged less fuckable, less ‘feminine’ -- because they are old, fat, differently-abled, ill, poor, LGBTQ, or black (as this Tinder analysis shows) -- are often discriminated against, and even dehumanised, as the horrendous rate of violence faced by transgender women, and trans women of colour in particular, shows.
Having, or cultivating, the arbitrarily privileged characteristics defined by femininity (and showing them off, perhaps in a topless selfie) can make women feel empowered because they are succeeding within the very narrow parameters enforced by patriarchy. But this interpretation of feminism just throws women who can’t or won’t cultivate those prized characteristics under a bus. For many women, failing at femininity has meant death. Whether they were attacked for being trans, PoC, a member of a subculture, or for speaking up and resisting, pretending that they too were included in this ‘empowering’ concept is disingenuous, or oblivious to the reality of gendered oppression and violence at best. The work of a feminist is not to feel personally empowered, but to dismantle patriarchy so that all women are freed from the oppressive scales of femininity, heteronormativity and white supremacy. For that to happen, we need the relative winners under patriarchy to use their privilege for the liberation of all women, not dish out the glib placation that everyone’s a winner already. Demonstrably they are not.
"The work of a feminist is not to feel personally empowered, but to dismantle patriarchy so that all women are freed from the oppressive scales of femininity, heteronormativity and white supremacy."
In her famous 1949 book The Second Sex, the French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote that, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” More recently, American gender theorist Judith Butler has gone further, asking, "Does one become a woman, or is it an endless becoming?" For Butler, gender is performative -- not a performance per se, but a constant, unconscious repetition of body language, mannerisms and temperament, as well as grooming and styling, that meet the social and cultural expectations of our assigned gender. Femininity is how we perform the female gender. We all fail in this "endless becoming" because there is no perfect example of femininity, or masculinity, to reach. They are both subjective concepts, not objective realities, so any and all attempts towards those binaries will never be enough.
Rather than accept that we exist on a sliding scale of failure between femininity and masculinity -- always falling short by social and cultural standards (especially the impossibly high standards of photoshopped advertising, fashion and beauty imagery) -- we need to reject the scale as a measure of a person’s worth altogether. Trying to accommodate all woman inside the oppressive construct of ‘femininity’ is to avoid the issue of gendered oppression, and ignore the voices of proudly androgynous or ‘masculine’ women. Instead, we must ask why we place so much value on ‘being feminine’.
Fat activists can teach us a lot about successfully rejecting the parameters of oppressive social and cultural values, having radically reclaimed their bodies from well-meaning but ultimately othering euphemisms like “curvy”, “full-figured” and “plus size”. By stating simply that they are fat -- rather than using supposedly polite not-thin euphemisms -- fat activists have illuminated the embarrassment we feel about fat, and the disproportionate value we place on thinness, forcing people to really interrogate why they find fat so embarrassing or offensive.
Rather than arguing that all women are feminine, we should instead stare down the reality of oppression under patriarchy, and ask instead why we require women to be ‘feminine’ at all. Understanding that it is a ridiculous, arbitrary requirement, we should reject it wholeheartedly. And perhaps stop buying into the marketing of oppressively gendered products. If beauty truly comes from within, then let us throw the beauty industry’s binary bullshit out for good.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.