New 'Feminist Mantra': Consumption Is Not the Locus of Empowerment 


There’s a softly trolling mess of a trend piece in the New York Times today that leads with the news that “a young generation of women is discovering a new brand of sexy in the most unlikely of places,” and then drops the bomb—that place is underwear. So very unlikely, dang!

The headline is “Young Women Say No to Thongs,” a meaningful and noteworthy lifestyle fluctuation evidenced powerfully by a seven percent decrease in thong sales over the last year. “Fuller styles” are up by 17 percent, on the other hand. Writes the Times:

Perhaps motivated by the same kind of contrarianism that helped elevate Birkenstocks and fanny packs, young women are embracing “granny panties” — and not just for laundry day.

Contrarianism—or convenience? It is a bit of low-key devilry to insist that the latter is the former, and the confusion of these two concepts is ubiquitous, mildly insidious and certainly meaningful: it’s like looking at a woman with no makeup and saying, “Woww, so brave.” Calling granny panties “contrarianism” is self-limitation disguised as political gain.

I think this goes without saying for most thoughtful women, but let’s do it all over again because we seemingly have to: If the goal here is really “empowerment”—a word almost exclusively used by people trying to sell you something—the first step is detaching from the standard; the second step, and the deserved reward, is doing so with ease. Constantly denoting norm-breaking takes up a lot of energy that might otherwise go to breaking those norms. It’s a very quick slide from empowerment to constant, self-contained distraction: you can picture the target reader for this trend piece going about her day like, “I’m wearing loose jeans—how rebellious; I’m drinking Bud heavy—good for me!

And that’s exactly the kind of time-wasting that sells underwear, as Kelly Faircloth noted in her piece about the Lane Bryant #ImNoAngel campaign, which aggressively positioned itself as an alternative to Victoria’s Secret while relying on a near-identical bottom line. “Lane Bryant is neither my therapist nor my boyfriend,” Kelly wrote.

But in the body the self-actualization will stay:

“I only wear granny panties,” Julia Baylis, a willowy 22-year-old, declared proudly. Ms. Baylis and her best friend, Mayan Toledano, 27, design the boutique clothing label Me and You. Their best seller is a pair of white cotton underpants with the word “feminist” printed in pink bubble letters across the rear. Since the line’s introduction on April 7, the panties have sold out.

Of course, these cute white cotton underpants with FEMINIST in pink bubble letters across the butt would probably look adorable on you—the Me and You website has gorgeous Petra Collins photos all over it, and does seem like an enjoyably girls-only space. Consequently, and conveniently for some, this cuteness allows for and even hints at—urges toward—the same type of navel-gazing “political” performance that caused hundreds of women to put their cutest selfies on Twitter in April as a stern rejoinder to an almost fully imagined opposition who insisted that “Feminists Are Ugly.” And look, there we go in the Times with it:

Besides sales, the “feminist underwear” has inspired countless Instagram “belfies” (that’s a selfie for the behind) from Me and You customers eager to show off their feminist convictions as well as their pert posteriors.

As I said then, and will again: there’s a reason #FeministsAreUgly wasn’t hashtag Feminists Are Lacking in Opportunities and Motivation to Perform Ideology in Blatantly Self-Interested Ways.

The Times piece is laced with subtle but plain contradictions, as shown in the imprecise meaning of doing something “for you”:

“Most lingerie is designed to appeal to a man,” Ms. Baylis said. “For us, that’s not even a consideration. This is underwear you wear totally for you. Maybe no one will see it, or maybe you’ll put it up on Instagram to share with everyone you know.”

As well as whether the goal is to forget what men find sexy or prioritize it:

And if seducing a man isn’t the goal, it can be a welcome side effect.
“I think there’s a widespread misconception that men are into pearl thong, lace contraptions,” said Ms. Javitch of Ten Undies. “To be honest, men are into girls in T-shirts and white underwear.”

As well as whether “in the end, it is about options,” or perhaps, in the end, you cannot truly decouple feminism from underwear choice if you choose to print underwear marked with FEMINIST on the butt:

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more traditionally sexy and wearing a thong; that doesn’t mean you’re not a feminist,” Ms. Toledano said. “This is a step toward embracing more variety in what’s offered.”

The impulse to differently politicize the body rather than depoliticize it altogether is a fool’s game. Confidence is only political power if it turns into action. Consumption will never be the locus of feminist empowerment; print that on my underwear, and then burn it.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Photo via Me and You

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin