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Is Fashion Feminist?

Objectifying women and girls can be incredibly detrimental to self-esteem. If a girl is not respected as a person, how can she believe she has the potential to follow her dreams and make her mark on the world? Body image is one of the most talked about issues in terms of low confidence, and as we wear clothes every day, fashion is closely linked with body image. We often use the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but that isn’t necessarily true. I agree that identity is more than just appearance, but appearance can also be a powerful way of expressing identity and communicating.

It is undeniable that fashion contributes to the culture of defining a girl by her looks. Often times advertising focuses on stereotypes and a “correct” way of looking. In my opinion, the modelling industry is elitist and has a history of shunning anyone who is not exceptionally thin or Anglo-Saxon. Celebrities and influencers post flawless, often edited pictures in expensive clothes that look effortless. Schools ban clothing articles they find “too revealing, too suggestive and too distracting.” It is too easy for girls to internalize the unrealistic expectations of body image when they are constantly bombarded by these messages from many aspects of fashion. Since these messages begin at such a young age, they are like an old habit that is difficult to outgrow. It is hard to begin to accept yourself when you feel rejected by the all- powerful society. Furthermore, many top brands in the industry do not treat their female workers equally. In the infamous fast fashion industry, 80 percent of garment workers are women who are given low wages, unsafe hours, and treated unethically.

However, although fashion has the potential to limit and degrade women, there is also a movement for women’s empowerment that uses fashion as its vehicle for change. More important than criticizing and stressing over those who use fashion as a weapon towards women is promoting and supporting the use of fashion to take risks and celebrate individuality. Fashion can be restrictive, but it also can also be liberating.

First of all, I would like to give a shout out to a few celebrities who I think are changing the conversation about body image, especially through social media. Recently, Bebe Rexha made headlines after posting an un-retouched bikini photo on Instagram. Unfortunately, we are at the point where this is so uncommon it is newsworthy, but her actions are important nonetheless. This is not the only time Bebe Rexha has spoken up about Hollywood’s restrictive expectations of women. After multiple designers refused to dress her for the Grammys, she responded with these words of wisdom for designers: “Don’t say you can’t dress someone that isn’t a runway size. Empower women to love their bodies instead of making girls and women feel less then by their size. We are beautiful any size! Small or large!”

Demi Lovato is a celeb who supported Bebe after this incident. Demi is vocal about her struggle with bulimia and now hopes to be open and encouraging to help out others feeling similarly. “Sometimes when I'm having bad body image issue days, I remind myself that I'd rather live in freedom from my eating disorder than worry about what people think about my body. I am more than a number and a jean size.” Thanks for those inspiring words Demi! We applaud you for your strength and courage!

Another singer using fashion to make a difference is Rihanna. Fenty Beauty started a revolution in makeup centered on foundation for all. With over 40 shades of foundation, Fenty Beauty expanded access for many women who previously felt slighted and excluded from the makeup industry. Furthermore, she is always unapologetically flaunting her curves and even created a line of lingerie, Savage X Fenty, that has a wide variety of sizes. I think this allows every woman to feel as confident as she does. However, just because Rihanna makes make up more available to all does not mean girls are pressured to use it. Alicia Keys is at the forefront of the natural beauty movement and often rocks “no makeup” looks. Together, these two powerhouses teach girls that no matter whether they love makeup or hate makeup, they can follow their desires and still be confident and happy.

As important as these women are to making fashion more empowering, there are also many businesses and companies with inspiring advertisements and ethical practices that are impacting women and girls around the world. Aerie has started the #AerieReal movement for “Girl Power, Body Positivity, No Retouching”. Instead of traditional modelling practices, Aerie has casted “role models” to advertise their clothes and maximized the potential of social media. To be an Aerie Real role model, you don’t need to look a certain way. You can be an athlete, actress, artist, activist or just an average girl as long as you wear Aerie clothes proudly. Furthermore, Aerie is making fashion more accessible through great sales, donations to charity, extended sizes and more nude shades. Aerie wants its customers to know fashion is not a privilege only available to certain girls. They advertise that everybody is a bikini body, but if you don’t want to wear a bikini that is also okay. It is a freedom and a choice, not an expectation. Every girl has the right to wear what she wants.

Athleta is another company leading fashion in the right direction. Although Athleta is more expensive than Aerie, the added price is a result of commitment to sustainability and quality. Athleta’s hashtag is #PowerOfShe and their five core values are movement matters, performance empowers, design for life, sisterhood elevates, and sustainability sustains us. They have extended sizes, a line for girls full of empowering and positive messages, and value the input of women athletes to design clothes for women athletes. Athleta is a certified B Corp, meaning they have met the highest economic, environmental, and social standards. The B Corps website looks for brands committed to “reducing inequality, lower levels of poverty, a healthier environment, stronger communities, and the creation of more high quality jobs with dignity and purpose.” Furthermore, Athleta is certified Fair Trade and its practices promote income sustainability, empowerment, and community and environmental well-being. Having met the rigorous qualifications of both these certifications is clearly evidence towards Athleta’s desire to make the world a better place for women, since they support their workers, their customers and the planet of even the women who don’t wear their clothes.

Other popular* companies forwarding fashion towards a more feminist future include Target, Nike**, Oiselle, ASOS, Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, TOMS and All Birds. In my opinion, these brands use sustainable practices to support the environment, ethical practices to support workers, and inclusivity in style and sizes to support customers.

Every girl should feel empowered to wear the clothes that make her feel good. Every girl deserves respect and encouragement in whatever style of clothes supports her lifestyle and makes her happy. We are more than what we wear, but that doesn’t mean fashion has no value. Fashion can be a powerful outlet for girls if we continue breaking down its barriers and restrictions. Whether it is to feel brave, beautiful, comfortable, or share a message, fashion can be an important part of a girl’s unique identity. We should not let fashion’s troubled history stop its future of creativity and empowerment.

*For lesser known feminist BCorp and Fair Trade Brands, check out the following links:

**I included Nike because I love their series of empowering commercial about equality and strong women, but they also are reported to have sweatshops and unethical treatment of workers in Vietnam and China.

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