From Feminine Apologetic to Feminist Apologetic

In high school, I (Melanie) began taking Accutane, a very strong acne medication known for both its high rate of success and its sometimes severe side effects. I did my research and was comfortable with my decision. My acne was my greatest insecurity to the point that it was seeping into many other aspects of my everyday life. I thought I found a solution in Accutane, and I had few hang-ups about trying it. It was only when I began talking to others that I felt like I was doing some sort of a disservice to myself and my feminism. When one of my closest friends asked if my acne caused me physical pain, I answered yes (even though I knew that wasn’t the reason I was taking the medication) and only then did she accept my decision. To this day, when I talk to people about Accutane, they respond with shock and judgment. Why would I put myself through that just for cosmetic purposes?

Since the onset of feminist ideology, women have struggled to find a balance between altering their appearance and dress to fit the needs of society while still trying to fight for social equality. In the 80s, in response to women’s adopting men’s style of dress in the workforce, sociologist Jan Felshin observed a phenomenon called “the feminine apologetic” (Pham). strong suits.jpgIn order to establish one’s place in the work field, women dedicated a portion of herself to the hegemonic structure of a patriarchal society by wearing a man’s suit, yet at the same time, women “apologized” for being too masculine by adding feminine pieces like ruffles and jewelry.

Generally speaking, a woman’s concern with her appearance “is part of an ongoing skirmish at the margins of gendered structures of hierarchy and difference” (Davis, 36).  Pham acknowledges this tug-of-war between the “feminine apologetic” and “not being feminist enough” in her piece as well as her interview with Dr. Ford. She comments that “culturally commanding women must walk a razor’s edge between looking powerful while still appearing “appropriately feminine.” When women cross this line, often by appearing too powerful or too controversial, they are judged for it. Similarly, Ford discusses how wardrobe is used by women of color to “redefine notions of “professional” attire in their own terms,” an idea she coins as a “power wardrobe.”

The use of beauty products, medications, and other modes of altering appearances has become a controversial decision in today’s context. Only when one alters their appearance in order to relieve pain or are “abnormally ugly” to the point where it “can no longer be endured” (Davis 37) will women deem the decision acceptable. While in the past women apologized for being too masculine, nowadays women appear to apologize for being too feminine, or for caring too much about their appearance. As Davis points out, “her aguish [with her body] as well as her decision [to alter her body] would be cited as evidence of her oppression” (21-22).

When Emma Watson’s photo in Vanity Fair was published, people called her “unfeminist” for showing her breasts and called her out for criticizing Beyonce years before for being too sexual. Will it ever be okay for women to wear and do what they want with their bodies without judgement from men or 636011950932438849-87085312_feminism1-1024x670women? In order to move forward as feminists, we need to be patient with people and support their decisions regarding their own bodies even if we do not personally agree with them or think they are “feminist” enough. Only then will we be able to determine whether we truly are making these decisions for ourselves or for society.


Published by: melaniekane, cynthichang, kmiles16, rmcelroy12, and marapugh

Bordo, Susan. “Introduction: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.” Introduction. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: U of California, 1993. N. pag. Print.

Davis, Kathy (1991). Remaking the She-Devil: A Critical Look at Feminist Approaches to Beauty. Hypatia 6 (2):21 – 43.

Nguyen, Mimi Thi. “INTERVIEW: Tanisha C. Ford, Haute Couture Intellectual.” Threadbared. WordPress, 29 Aug. 2012. Web. 02 Apr. 2017 <;.

Pham, Minh-Ha T. “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion.” Ms. Magazine Blog. Ms., 17 Jan. 2012. Web. 02 Apr. 2017. <

Wughalter, Emily. “Ruffles and Flounces: The Apologetic in Women’s Sports.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 3.1 (1978): 11. Web.



6 thoughts on “From Feminine Apologetic to Feminist Apologetic

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  1. Thank you guys for writing this post- I connected with it in a very real and substantial way. I myself have also been through that medication and had not yet allowed myself to view the pain I went through within this feminist context. Many people in my life still do not know I was on such an intense medication. I feared their judgement. It is so important that we share these experiences so that others like me can know that our suffering is not an isolated incidence. We should feel no shame in taking our lives and bodies into our own hands and deciding our suffering must end, like Davis says. Thank you again!


  2. The part at which your group discusses styling for the workplace is one that raises other points of interest for me. Particularly the point at which you use Ford to articulate the way women of color strategically use their wardrobe to redefine ideas of power. This past term I studied abroad in India, and as a gesture of respect, we wore traditional Indian clothing, salwar kameez for women, and kurta pajama for men. Before making the decision to wear India clothing we had a talk with our professor, who is originally from the Punjab region of India. She made the point that in the West, professional clothing women is western, going on to push us to question why Indian clothing is not an acceptable option for professional, Indian, women in the United States. I think that we should do the same and look at how ideas of professionalism are articulated in the workforce and how the work to marginalize those of different contexts.


  3. This was a great article! But can you explain why Emma Watson was the focus point of the article even though she criticized other feminists for doing the same thing she was doing?


    1. Ya, so that was the idea – nowadays women are often criticizing other women for not being “feminist” enough (like the cartoon shows pretty nicely) so, arguably, the trend has gone from women apologizing for being too masculine (feminine apologetic) to women apologizing for not being feminist enough (feminist apologetic).


  4. I really appreciated your commentary on the new, but just as limiting and substantial, lines women have to balance on in our current era of “mainstream feminism.” To draw a connecting line between your post and some of the others, and our shared experience of being students at Carleton, I think that this line becomes especially tricky at our school because of the particular aesthetic Carleton culture promotes. Wearing makeup or using any other kind of appearance-altering tool at Carleton not only brings up questions, like you note, of whether the wearer is “feminist” enough, but also does not fit with the aesthetic “trying to look like you didn’t try” that, I would argue, is predominant here. At Carleton, wearing makeup, or too much makeup, not only condemns the values of the wearer but also causes others to reflect on whether the wearer is really beautiful in the first place, if they had to work so hard for it. A value on “authenticity” seems to be central to this; women are asked to be “authentically” feminist and to be “authentically” beautiful, all the while perhaps never being their authentic selves.


  5. I find your post very interesting, as it highlights many of the questions that I am faced with when deciding what to wear every morning. I want to “look good” and feel comfortable within my own skin, but deciding what to wear quickly becomes a difficult task. I often question why am I choosing this particular outfit? Something that I am interested in that your post hinted at, was the concept of dressing for the purpose of making a statement or fighting against established oppressive structures. For me it raises the question of when I dress for the purpose of making a statement, where does my agency lie within that movement? And how are these notions further complicated by race or class?


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