This Is What a Feminist Looks Like

Don’t judge a girl by her nail color.

By Javacia Harris Bowser


I started my professional writing career at an alternative weekly in Louisville, Ky., where I served as a features reporter and wrote a biweekly column. In my column I often examined women’s issues, which I will now be tackling each month for B-Metro. In Louisville, I quickly earned the reputation as the paper’s go-to girl for all things feminist.

One day, a young woman from another department came to our office to discuss an idea she had for a women’s empowerment project, and she walked directly to the female reporter who sat in the cubicle next to mine. “I’ve heard you write a lot about feminism, that it’s very important to you,” she said to my colleague. Everyone in the office stared at the young woman in confusion. Then my colleague pointed to me and said, “Javacia writes about women’s issues. Not me.”

The look of shock on the young woman’s face indirectly told me what I had been told explicitly many times before: “You don’t look like a feminist!”

Telling a woman she does or does not look like a feminist is problematic because it implies there is a feminist aesthetic. The purpose of feminism is to strive for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, not to construct an image of the ideal woman.

I’ve been told I don’t look like a feminist because I’m black. “A black woman can’t be a feminist,” I was told via email after I wrote a piece on feminism and natural hair for a popular beauty blog for women of color. “A black woman shouldn’t be a feminist,” I was told by a Louisville resident who couldn’t believe I would associate myself with a movement started by “wealthy, racist white women.”

I suspect, however, that the woman from my old job wasn’t confused by the color of my skin. She was most likely perplexed by the color of my outfit. When this woman came to our office in search of the resident feminist, she didn’t bother asking anyone to point her in the right direction. She went straight to my coworker, who was dressed in only neutral colors, never wore makeup or heels, and chose not to shave her underarms or legs. Meanwhile, I was probably wearing pastel and pumps. I’m sure my eye shadow was perfectly color-coordinated with my outfit, and my cubicle looked like the color pink had thrown up all over it.

There is an assumption that a woman can’t be both feminist and feminine. And all women—even those who don’t identify as feminist—should want to do away with this notion. (I realize that how we define “feminine” is a social construct that needs to be examined, but that’s another column for another month.)

In her article “Feminist or Feminine? Oh Wait, They Aren’t Mutually Exclusive,” Julia Gazdag wrote, “The idea that women cannot express their femininity and be autonomous is really saying that women must emulate men to have a voice.” Women are often made to feel that in order to be taken seriously in the workplace, and even within the feminist community, we must de-emphasize our femaleness.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed this in her TED talk that has achieved newfound fame after being featured on Beyoncé’s latest album. Adichie shared that the first time she taught a college-level writing class she wore a “very manly and very ugly suit” instead of the “girlie skirt” and “shiny lip gloss” she wanted to wear. She made this choice, she says, because she thought her students wouldn’t respect her if she looked too feminine. Adichie wishes she hadn’t worn that ugly suit. She says, “Had I then had the confidence I have now to be myself, my students would have benefited even more from my teaching because I would have been more comfortable and more fully and more truly myself.”

Allow me to pause and acknowledge that women who, like my former colleague, shirk conventional beauty standards face much criticism and judgment and absolutely need support from people who believe women should have a right to dress their bodies however they choose. But just as my fellow feminists would (and should) defend my former colleague’s choice to not shave or sport girlie getup, they should also support my choice to paint my nails seafoam green.

In the women’s movement of the 1970s, some feminists embraced a so-called masculine aesthetic to challenge conventional notions of beauty and femininity. Today, plenty of women continue to follow their example, not necessarily to make a political statement, but simply because these are the clothes in which they are most comfortable.

These are very valid choices, but so is my decision to wear polka dots or pink. I wear sundresses and pencil skirts in the summer for the same reason I wear jeans and blazers when the weather turns cold—because I want to, not because I feel as if I have to in order to be attractive or a real woman. My fashion choices are just that: my choices.

If someone tells me one day that I do look like a feminist, I hope the comment has nothing to do with my couture and everything to do with my confidence.

2 Responses to “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like”

  1. Yvonne Garwood says:

    Ms Bowser, your article was perfectly written. Nail on head! I am a black woman who was at the beginning of the feminist movement. I am well educated, from a loving two parent home, beautiful and have worked since I was 16 yrs old. I’ve dealt with it all. The primary problem for me was…they seemed to hate men and to me…overly aggressive. I have battled racism, sexism and any other isms (lol) my entire life in high heels and beautiful clothes. When necessary…I could turn on a dime. You are correct…you must have brains but you can be cute. I’ve always said…I was born a feminist as was my mother and her mother, etc. I look forward to future articles.

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