An Open Letter to Charlotte Raven about My Footwear and My Feminism

I contain multitudes.

I contain multitudes.

An Open Letter to Charlotte Raven about My Footwear and My Feminism

By Kirsten Clodfelter

Dear Charlotte,

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

***

Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa ReviewBrevity, 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

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6 Responses to An Open Letter to Charlotte Raven about My Footwear and My Feminism

  1. tinihoward says:

    So here’s a thing: Maybe feminists DO look silly in high heels. Maybe I look silly when I dress myself up in something that is so traditionally feminine and so immobilizing. I feel a little silly in them. But maybe it’s okay for EVERYONE to look a little silly sometimes. Dudes look silly in Ed Hardy, there I said it. They look silly in foam hot dog costumes and face paint and Christmas sweaters. It’s okay to be a person and make choices that are silly because you felt like being a little different today. I think high heels are a little silly (and a little sexy, and I think a lot of sexy things are silly too and that’s a whole ‘nother conversation about sex and how I think it’s pretty silly if we’re real about it, see my whole Sex Criminals thing yesterday, haha.)

    But Charlotte Raven can just STOP with the concern-trolling. “Maimed”? Yeah, people who wear heels every day can eff up their feet. That’s a silly choice. But oh boy wow, the girl who feels like she can’t leave her house without her heels on to the point of PHYSICAL PAIN likely has issues of how she sees herself that telling her she’s ‘silly’ won’t fix. Also “immobilized” I am actually laughing, like, please insert here a video of how I can take my shoes off and am now okay.

    Women who occasionally wear heels and women who feels so beaten down by the patriarchy that they’re wearing heels in tears every day are not the same thing. And if she’s really concerned about the second type of women as her concern-trolling seems to indicate, telling them they’re ‘silly’ is so not cool. And she herself makes the comparison to being in abusive relationships and making the ‘choice’ to do that or not, so I don’t even have to feel like I’m making a logic leap in doing the same. I wouldn’t say ‘well that’s your choice’ to a victim of domestic violence either, but I SURE wouldn’t tell her she was ‘silly.’

  2. kirstensara says:

    You are basically just inside of my mind right now. I forgot about the phrase “concern-trolling,” that is so perfect for what’s happening here. Also, I had to look up Ed Hardy, and now that I’m seeing pictures, I’m dying — DYING — of curiosity to know if this is something that the guys on Jersey Shore wear. (It seems so fitting the way I’m imagining it right now.)

    I do see a difference between wearing things that are a little bit silly (ex: I may or may not, but almost certainly may, have a tiger-ear headband that I like to put on when the Bengals are playing, because you know what makes sports better? Dressing up like a cat.) vs. wearing things that are silly AND also painful for the sake of “beauty” or “fashion” or, I guess worse than those things “to please a man” or whatever, and I’m REALLY trying to check my privilege here and acknowledge that surely there are jerk boyfriends or husbands who truly expect that, no matter the cost, this is what the women they’re with are going to wear, and that’s obviously a HUGE problem. But it isn’t the problem that Raven addresses at all.

    The women she’s talking to, it seems, are the women–like us, as you pointed out–who casually wear high heels the way we also, I don’t know, casually steal our boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s socks/sweatshirts or sometimes straighten our hair (or whatever the things are). And it just infuriates me that she can pull on these second-wave-feminist bossypants and complain that all of us little girls aren’t doing it right over something SO ABSOLUTELY TRIVIAL, and at the same time is saying something SO BIG AND IMPORTANT about how her brand of feminism doesn’t maintain an inclusive vision or make room for everyone who wants to be here.

    I feel so disappointed when I hear celebrities with a legitimate platform for their voices say that they aren’t feminists because, OMG, it’s SO easy to be that thing — who the eff doesn’t believe in equality and mutual betterment?? — but I think a not insignificant part of the problem is people like Raven who elbow other women out before they can even get in the door, because feminism to her is guarded as a type of narrow elitism and NONE OF US are making the cut. This goes against everything the Feminist Times is supposed to believe in, by the way — not that I’m feeling super great about a publication that kind of built its platform around making fun of a cartoon preschooler, but still — and even though I can’t believe I’ve spent this much time today thinking or talking about what’s in my closet, countering voices like Raven’s with our own is the only way to make sure that there IS room for everyone who wants to be here, even if we have to fight to make the space.

    Anyway, thanks for reading this and lending your smart perspective to the discussion. xo.

  3. anna says:

    I wouldn’t bother getting riled up by Raven. She’s not now, nor ever has been, a feminist. All she wants is attention so that her failing website garners more ‘subscribers’ to keep herself afloat financially. Don’t fall for it.

  4. You are awesome!

    I’m very tired of the whole wave of ‘omg, I’m a feminist, can I…..?’ articles that have surfaced recently (Hadley Freeman is a particular culprit of this brand of judgemental, non-inclusive ‘media feminism’).

    I just don’t understand the obsession with attempting to put limitations on anything and everything that feminists might do. *Sigh*

  5. Laura says:

    Feministing in a nerdly fashion– have you read The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett? He explores some of these ideas with one of his characters. I recommend it– even if only for the reason that it’s a fun read 🙂

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