Choice Feminism and the Bra Wars

To wear a bra, or not to wear a bra – that is the question most don’t bother asking. So, I was rather intrigued by a thread on Mumsnet asking if women really do take their bras off as soon as they get home. It should have been one of those threads which are silly, funny and celebrating the differences amongst us. Instead, literally the second post was a rather dismissive: “surely no one takes their bra off as soon as they get home. If they do, they must be wearing the wrong bra size.” This was followed by a series of equally patronising responses suggesting that women who only wear bras when absolutely necessary must simply be too dim to understand that their bra doesn’t fit properly.

Now, it’s quite possible that many of the women were wearing badly fitting bras; just as likely as those who wear them constantly are wearing ill fitting one. I stopped reading rather quickly but I didn’t see any comments pointing out that getting a bra sized properly costs money. It’s not a service that Primark offers and many women can’t afford to spend £20 on a bra from Marks & Spencers or Debenhams, never mind the more expensive brands. Some women don’t even live anywhere near a store that offers proper fittings. Some women can’t even afford the cost of bus fair to travel to a store which offers proper fittings, never mind find £20 to buy a bra. Obviously, they could measure themselves but that would mean knowing the best places to get advice on bra fittings. Oddly, this isn’t always on women’s to do list. It ignores those cute little issues of disablism which prevent women from accessing service or even systemic racism which results in non-White women being trailed around department stores by security guards racially profiling them as shoplifters (and, around here at least, anyone wearing a track suit).

Granted, in the scheme of feminist thought, bras aren’t always high on anyone’s list of priorities. Certainly, coverage of the prison book ban rarely mentioned women not getting access to clean bras or knickers either. I never actually thought about it until it was pointed out by a friend who works with girls exploited by gangs.

Bras are just one of those silly things that you can spend a few minutes chatting about. At the same time, the discussion of bras on Mumsnet was a pretty basic model of why “choice feminism” is actually an anti-feminist position because it starts from the position that all women are equal and have equal access to resources, eduction and services. It erases the multiple structural barriers that restrict the ‘choices’ women can make. The implication being that women who remove their bras as soon as they walk in the front door must be wearing an ill-fitting bra through a somewhat unfortunate tendency to dimness. It ignores the very basic issues like access to money to buy a bra.

It also ignores the idea that some women don’t want to wear a bra. And, that it’s totally okay to not like wearing bras. It’s not okay to prevented from making the choice to wear or not wear a bra that may or may not fit properly but that it’s totally ok to be a little bit different.

If your first instinct to a discussion on whether or not women wear bras is to suggest that those who don’t are doing it wrong, well, I’d suggest the problem isn’t really with the bra-refuser.


UPDATE: This comment is posted below but it’s a really important critique of my post that I’m including it here so no one misses it (and thank you Kate):

Actually it misses even more than just who can afford a well-fitting bra. It misses can you afford to share your home only with those who you can comfortably walk about bra-less in front of. Or do you have lodgers, etc? It misses are you comfortable without a bra? It misses do you have a schedule that it fixed enough to know you won’t have to up and leave at a moment’s notice. It misses how you’ve been made to feel about your bra-less breasts growing up. Whether you’re embarrassed or ashamed. Whether they get sweaty underneath. Whether your own family might ridicule you for the way they look bra-less. I’m quite large and (1) I hate them out of a bra and feel self conscious if anyone can see the shape of them and (2) find bra’s (even expensive professionally fitted ones) uncomfortable. I compromise with pyjamas with a soft support top in and changing bras regularly. Even just writing this makes me think about them and hate them and feel sad though.

Feminism, Choice and Mummy Bloggers

I wasn’t overly surprised to learn that the panel entitled “Can you be a mummy blogger and still be a feminist?” went badly at the Mumsnet blogfest yesterday. Questions of motherhood and feminism always go badly on Mumsnet. I didn’t attend BlogFest because I don’t feel that my blog fits in with Mumsnet’s ethos anymore. To be honest, I’m not sure my blog ever fit in. And, even if I did want to attend, I couldn’t have afforded to entry price for BlogFest, never mind the hotel or train fare. As with Mumsnet Academy, BlogFest was outside the price range of a lot of Mumsnetters

We live in a capitalist-patriarchy where women are considered not-quite-human. Motherhood is the only role which gives women value, or at least, supposedly gives us value whilst simultaneously making us subhuman. Being a woman in our culture can feel like shit and we attack one another because it’s safer to attack each other than to fundamentally question the structure of our lives.

We all react defensively because we are judged wrong for everything we do: breastfeeding, formula-feeding, working, not working, – the list of things which women are found wanting is endless.

We all do it but we but that does not make it right.

Understanding why women attack each other instead of listening to each other is simple at one level but it still hurts. A lot. And, frankly, booing at women you disagree with is just rude. I can understand women with young children being so caught up in their role as mothers that any deviation from their pattern is viewed with suspicion. I can understand being afraid and hurt. I can’t understand low level booing or insulting a woman who “chose” a different path.

I’ve been reading some of the blogs written by women who attended BlogFest and I’m just shocked at how women have interpreted each other’s words. The following are a selection of blogs by those who attended BlogFest:

I will keep adding links to blogs as I come across them. I do think it’s important to read every woman’s understanding about what happened, even those who clearly have taken offence at statements neither made nor implied.
Even though I wasn’t at BlogFest, I’d like to weigh in on a few issues.
Firstly, a panel on “Mummy bloggers” and feminism is important. We absolutely need to be having this conversation and I’m glad it was there. Discussions on feminism and motherhood are always fraught with tensions and it was a brave decision to include it.
I understand why “celebrities” were invited too. Mumsnet needs to make a profit in order to pay their, mostly female, staff. Having Jo Brand sold tickets. I wasn’t overly thrilled with Liz Jones attending last year but she sold tickets and made media headlines. It may not have been an overly feminist choice to invite Jones but it was a practical one. And, I cannot state enough how much it pains me to say that. Financial considerations are paramount; without money the Mumsnet talk boards would not exist. Without them, my PND would have never been diagnosed. I may be anti-capitalist but women need to eat and that means using celebrities to fund talk boards.
This panel was absolutely necessary but it was also always going to end badly. This isn’t the fault of the organisers. We expect women to be all kinds of sweetness to one another and we forget too easily how common it is for women to lash out at other women. As a feminist, I’m acutely aware of how much we ignore women’s poor treatment of other women. I’m aware of my own guilt in replicating this behaviour but, sometimes, when we are hurting or afraid we lash out at the very people who are being kind to us.
I am also aware that part of my reaction to what happened yesterday is because Sarah Ditum and Glosswitch were both on the panel and I have tremendous respect for them. The thought of them being booed on stage makes me so very sad. They have been nothing but kind and generous to me and I don’t like the thought of them being attacked. I didn’t write this blogpost last night because I knew it wouldn’t be kind or helpful. I would have ranted. Ranting is important sometimes but this isn’t one of them.
My feelings on the panel going wrong are because of the name “Mummy bloggers”. I hate the term “Mummy Bloggers”. I find it patronising, rude and dismissive. It’s the equivalent to “yummy mummy” and “MILF”. It’s about the denigration of women rather than an acknowledgment of the realities of women’s lives.  Equally, I find the vitriol directed at “Mummy Bloggers” patronising, rude and dismissive. It’s the exact same vitriol directed at every single thing women do: it’s patriarchal bullshit at it’s most dangerous. Forcing women into taking “sides” instead of supporting each other.

I am still rather cross about this piece in the Huffington Post Canada written by a member of the women’s blog Purple Figs but it encapsulates all of the problems with the concept of “Mummy Blogging”: that women are shit no matter what we do. What the debate over “Mummy bloggers” does demonstrate is the misunderstandings of “choice” rhetoric.

Every “choice” a woman makes is not a feminist choice just because a woman made it. It just doesn’t work that way. All of our choices are constrained by the culture we live in. Having money makes a huge difference to individual women’s “choices”. Having access to a good education  makes a huge difference to individual women’s “choices”. Having a supportive family  makes a huge difference to individual women’s “choices”. Unfortunately, the list of things which constrain our “choices” is much larger.

Too many women simply don’t understand how much poverty constrains women’s choices. The women at the Mumsnet BlogFest had the ability to pay to attend. A huge swathe of Mumsnet would not; nor can they afford the Mumsnet Academy. Many are raising children with little to no help. Being able to afford to attend does not make one a bad woman; it just means they have privilege at that exact moment. There will be a million other ways in which those women have no privilege starting with the fact that they are women. But, equally, class, sexuality, trauma, race, disability, all change women’s abilities to make “choices”.

I don’t allow advertising on this blog. That is a feminist choice I made. It’s a choice made easier by how relatively small my readership is. If I were getting 50 000 hits a day, would I be so cavalier about advertising revenue? Probably not. Choosing to take advertising revenue at that point wouldn’t be a feminist choice but one of survival. That doesn’t make it a bad choice or a wrong choice but one necessitated by living in a patriarchy.

Making jam and homemade baby food because it is something that you enjoy and something that brings you pleasure is a good thing but that doesn’t necessarily make it a feminist choice. This doesn’t mean there is something inherently wrong with making jam or wearing high heels but these are “choices” that are made within patriarchal constraints. Women who behave as a “good mother” get more rewards than women who do not and the definition of who is and is not a “good mother” changes drastically from literally one minute to the next.

Feminism isn’t just about equality. If it were, there would be no pay gap between men and women as that is entrenched in law. The pay gap exists because equality in law in a culture which classes you as subhuman will never work. Feminism is about liberating women. It is about recognising women’s basic humanity. It is about recognising that all our “choices” are seriously constrained and denied in our culture. It is about recognising that most women are just trying to survive the best they can. A woman who makes a different “choice” from you isn’t inherently wrong, but insulting that woman for her “choice” will always be wrong.*

This said, those who attended BlogFest and were rude need to apologise to the panel members.

*And, if people did attack Sarah Ditum for having the unmitigated gaul to continue uni whilst pregnant, you can add me to the list of “bad mothers” too. I did it as a single parent of a toddler whilst barely a teenager. Judge us all you want but don’t be surprised if we defend ourselves.

UPDATE: Here are links to a video recording of the panel. The disconnect between what was said by the panel and what the audience heard is quite astounding. It’s also clear from the commentary on the video that the woman recording had already entered the session with a fixed idea about feminism and members of the panel.

This post by Lynn Schreiber is an excellent analysis of the difference between feminist theory and individual choices as understood by the panel and the audience.