Do Lipstick Feminists Actually Exist?


I’ve written five beginnings to what I intended to be a mini treatise on “lipstick feminism,” but I keep running into the same problem: It doesn't seem to actually exist. Sure, there’s a handful of Twitter accounts with “lipstick feminist” in the handle or description (some of which seem fab); there’s the odd blog with the same, or the stray essay about Why Lipstick Feminism Is Fine. But we’re talking about single-digit numbers in each medium here, folks. And as for offline lipstick feminists? I have yet to meet a single one. 

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ve met plenty of feminists who wear lipstick. (It will probably not shock you to learn that this blogger indeed is one of them, both literally—lipstick corollary, yo!—and figuratively, as in, duh, look at this blog.) In fact, when I took a quick Twitter survey the other day, that was the number-one response I got: I’m a feminist, and I wear lipstick, but I’m not a lipstick feminist—followed by, I’m not exactly sure what that is.

Lipstick feminism, as I’ve seen it used (in accord with that highly reliable source of all wisdom, Wikipedia), is the idea that conventionally feminine hallmarks—lipstick and other cosmetics, heels, perhaps suggestive dress—can be a source of power for women, not simply a sign of one’s obedience to patriarchal requests. It’s somewhat related to the idea of “erotic capital” in that it seeks to render traditional signals of female sexuality as legitimate routes to authority—but feminism or some semblance of it, not money and other forms of capital, is the goal.

This is an intentionally friendly definition of lipstick feminism—in fact, if this description were what people were actually referring to when they use the term, I might on occasion identify myself by it (even as I’m skeptical of the idea that using one’s sexuality is a legitimate route to authority. It might be effective sometimes, sure, but it’s forever dependent on the mercy of people with actual power). But here’s the thing: Most times I’ve read or heard the words “lipstick feminist,” derision has been the intent. Sometimes it’s feminists explaining why the concept is bollocks; sometimes it’s from people using it to dismiss feminism wholesale. In other words, it’s a word we use to describe other people, not ourselves.

Not that this is restricted to lipstick feminism. Fact is, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard a feminist qualify her feminism with any sort of label, even labels that were established by feminists themselves. Third-wave and second-wave are possible exceptions here, but not “official” schools of thought, even if any individual feminist generally adheres to one. And the reason we don’t tend to sort ourselves out by neat labels is that most of us believe a whole lotta things. I believe that legislative reform can be beneficial to women; I believe that men and women have some essential differences beyond mere biology; I believe gender oppression is linked to capitalism. So am I a liberal feminist, a cultural feminist, or a Marxist feminist—or am I just a feminist with a multifaceted approach to her politics, and indeed her life?

Yet you’ll notice that these various schools of feminist thought—which I’m guessing some women do stick to pretty strictly and would use to define themselves, though again, I can’t think of more than a couple of times that I’ve heard someone identify herself as an “[insert school of thought] feminist”—are named by their organizing approach and systems, not by their specific beliefs. That is, I can’t imagine anyone saying, “I’m a government-subsidized child care feminist” or “I’m a sexual violence feminist,” though both of these things fall under a feminist umbrella.

So enter “lipstick feminism”—hell, enter “pro-sex feminism,” which has always irked me because it implies that there are anti-sex feminists, and you’ve got to get pretty deep into an overly literal interpretation of certain strains of radical feminism before you’re going to find any of those. ("We so horny!") It reduces a concept that in some ways is simple (women = people!) and makes it simplistic, boiling down one of the most influential movements of the 20th century and putting a swivel cap on it. It trivializes feminism—hell, it even trivializes the questions implied by the term itself (can conscious exploitation of one’s own sexuality be a feminist act in some circumstances?). Like “pro-sex feminist,” it implies that there are feminists who are against lipstick, playing into that whole “feminists are ugly hairy-legged lesbians” stereotype that I thought we’d retired eons ago. And speaking of lesbians, isn’t the term “lipstick feminist” linguistically similar to the more established term “lipstick lesbian,” thus sapphically binding the two together in the listener’s mind?

And furthermore! Gah, I went and did what I said I wasn’t going to do: I’ve spent all this energy on what I’m pretty sure is a straw feminist.

But here’s the thing: Above all else, I’ve always believed that feminism—or any kind of social movement—takes all types. We need the Planned Parenthood canvassers I avoid on the street; we need the driven, unswayable voices you might describe as, yes, strident; we need nice-girl feminists who take pride in gently educating others about feminism; we need people whose response to teach me is don’t make me do your work for you. We need men; we need women-only spaces; we need people who reject a gender binary; we need people who use the gender binary to articulate the idea of a female essence and what that might mean. We need the marches and petitions; we need the quiet, life-changing transformations that take place in families over generations. We need the wearers of “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” and we need the “I’m not a feminist buts” too.

Which means we just might need lipstick feminists. So here’s what I’m wondering: Do you describe yourself as a lipstick feminist? If so, do you define it similarly to how I’ve defined it here, or do you have a different interpretation of the term? If you don’t call yourself a lipstick feminist: Do you think the term should be reclaimed? Is the label feminist-bait or is it a handy way of making the point that feminism needn’t be incompatible with beauty work?

(Thanks to Chelsea “Dipstick Feminist” Summers, Elisa “Pole Dancing Feminist” Gabbert, Rosalind Jana, Lacy “Eyeliner Feminist” of ModernSauce, Alyssa Harad, Rachel Hills, Nicole “Doc Martens Feminist” Kristal, Lily “Googling How to Get Red Wine Stain Off My Lips Feminist” Benson, Heli Lähteelä-Tabone, Cassandra Goodwin, and “Underwire Feminist” Bubbles for a set of thought-provoking and oft-hilarious answers to my Twitter inquiry on the matter.)