"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A collection of thoughts from a frustrated feminist

When I tell people that I graduated last spring from a women's college or that I'm thinking about joining the feminist society at my new school, I get enough puzzled looks to make me feel a little self-conscious about it. I even met a couple of guys who responded by saying they were in favor of equality, not feminism. Really, did they think I meant that I hated men or wanted to institute some tyrannical matriarchy?

The other day I went to a talk given by a prominent UK radio host. He was funny and interesting and I really enjoyed his talk, but at the end he told an amusing anecdote about a school where students relabeled bathrooms as "bathroom with urinal" and "bathroom without urinal" instead of men's room and women's room. The punchline was something along the lines of, 'if transgender students can't even figure out which bathroom to use, why are they going to university?'

This is very frustrating because I come from just such a school, and I've been lucky enough to talk to people who've given me a real perspective on arbitrary divisions like the one we draw between bathrooms with urinals and without. But so far I have always been on the receiving end of the education in society/gender awareness. And it's hard to start the conversation when I'm the one who's going to have to explain why that division is arbitrary and why that joke reflected an uninformed opinion from someone who clearly has never read Judith Butler.

Earlier in the week, I was walking home from the university pub with friends after a night out. All the people we passed were undergraduate students heading to a party with the theme of middle school, so they were all decked out in variations on a classic school uniform. Except that almost all of the girls we passed would probably get detention for wearing their skirts too short. I don't want to generalize about a country I just moved to, but young women in England seem to wear their skirts and trousers shorter than even the girls in southern California. What's bizarre is that in California, people wear short shorts because anything else might be unbearably hot. But here, people wear even shorter shorts despite the fact that it's absolutely freezing.

I think it's actually the temperature issue, silly though it may seem, that makes me troubled with this fashion trend. When I see a girl wearing a short, flouncy sundress on a hot day, it makes me happy to see her enjoying her body and not compromising her physical comfort to someone else's standard of modesty. But when I see a girl walking down the street at 11pm in cold weather wearing a tank top and a skirt that barely covers her underpants, it makes me sad to see her torturing herself in order to conform to the norm.

I realize this is a flawed logic. Maybe the girl in California doesn't actually like wearing sundresses and only does it to fit in with her friends. And maybe the girl in England just loves the feeling of the cold wind on her bare legs. And maybe if I saw a guy on the same street in England walking around without his shirt on, I wouldn't think he was being stupid and shallow - it might even cross my mind to admire his fortitude and endurance against the cold. Which would be a total double standard.

Basically, this has been bothering and puzzling me. I really don't want to cramp or judge anyone's style, but there's just something about the spectacle of a hundred young women all dressed in skirts the same, very short, length that makes me cringe. Or at least furrow my brow as I try to figure out how I would like to respond to that.

So, I may go ahead and join the feminist society. But in the meantime, if any of you have thoughts on these issues, please share them in the comments! I would love to make this a conversation instead of just mulling it over myself.

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