Those Beliefs Look Good on You

There has been an unmistakable groundswell lately of young women reflecting on and reclaiming feminism, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. Lady Gaga has caused a sensation, not just with her bizarre outfits but her bold embrace of a feminist identity in interviews. Britney Spears may not be calling herself a feminist, but the fact that she insisted on showing an airbrushed photo of herself right beside the real unperfected deal in a new ad has everyone buzzing.

And last month, three young journalists wrote of their shared discovery that their employer, Newsweek, had been sued by its female employees in 1970 for gender discrimination. The young reporters' biggest surprise? How much hasn't changed in the time since 46 brave "dollies" -- as they were called then -- took their outrage to the courts.

It's what Jane O'Reilly would call a "click moment" -- a flash "of recognition, that parenthesis of truth around a little thing that completes the puzzle of reality in women's minds." O'Reilly penned these words in a landmark 1971 Ms. magazine cover story, but they continue to ring true. Particularly in a world filled with what Susan Douglas has called "enlightened sexism" -- the surface illusion of equality in a deeply unequal world -- the click moment has become more critical than ever.

I would like to tell you that what made me a feminist was the moment when my father slipped a signed copy of Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem onto my bookshelf when I was just a little girl. I would like to tell you that I became a feminist while watching documentary films in my living room night after night; my mom co-founded a women's film festival -- now the longest-running in the world -- in the 1980s. I would like to describe the incredible women's studies course I took at Barnard College and say that it was there that I experienced my resounding click.

All of these things would be a little bit true. Certainly having feminist parents and a feminist education contributed to my identity. But my real click moment came about because of fishnet stockings.

Let me explain.

By the time I hit 17-years-old, I was pretty sure that there was something to all of this feminist stuff that my mom had been jabbering on about for years. I certainly wasn't about to admit that to her, but I began creeping into my parents' bedroom and plucking select titles off of their bookshelf. The Company of Women by Mary Gordon. Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I was looking for an answer to a very specific question: Why are all of my friends and I falling apart?

We weren't just falling apart in the good old-fashioned ways -- eating disorders, cutting, sex, and drugs. We were also cracking under our own outlandish expectations. We were the smartest kids in the school, the editors of the newspaper, the valedictorians, the presidents of every club. It was as if, on the surface, all of my mom's feminist dreams had come true. Girls really did think they could do anything, myself included. But underneath it all was an abyss of insecurity, self-destruction, and crippling perfectionism.

Barnard College proved to be a place where just about everyone else was in the same state of confusion I was. We were all whip-smart, quirky, and intense, but none of us wanted to call ourselves feminist. It's comical to think of it now. Here we were, dorms full of spitfire girls who had chosen an all-women's college, and we were still reluctant to don the label. We were the low-hanging fruit, and feminism just hadn't managed to pluck us.

That changed for me the day that Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner showed up on the third floor of Barnard Hall to give a talk on their new book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Amy was plucky and compact, smart without an ounce of pretension, a no-nonsense beauty. Jennifer was her opposite -- long and sinewy, bright blond, and yes, wearing fishnet stockings. They were besties, taking over the world with totally fresh feminist analysis. This wasn't the swishy-skirt feminism that my mom had manifested at her once-a-month women's groups. This was contemporary, witty, brash, even a little sexy. This was who I wanted to be.

I took Manifesta with me when I left for my semester abroad in South Africa shortly thereafter and devoured it on planes, trains, and in my ant-infested bedroom. Honestly, I can't remember much of what was in that book. What I do remember is feeling connected. I needed to feel like my generation had a place in this centuries-old movement that reflected our sensibilities, our challenges, and, silly as it may seem, our aesthetics.

To this day, I ask myself, why did it matter so much? Why did I care so much that feminism look like me, talk like me, walk like me? Why did appearance have anything to do with it? It feels as if, even by acknowledging this, I'm siding with the enemy; responding to Amy and Jen's style rather than their theories is like catcalling my own feminist big sisters. But it's the truth. And for all of its seeming frivolity, I think it's an important one.

I've experienced it myself. After speaking on college campuses, I consistently get e-mails from young women confessing that they had no idea that young feminists even existed, much less "cool" ones like me. I find myself -- otherwise low-maintenance and notoriously uninterested in contemporary fashion -- thinking very deliberately about what I wear to these events. Sometimes the irony astounds me: I don't dress up for business meetings, but I do dress up for 18-year-old girls who might be converted to feminism by my knee-high boots or my trendy dress.

It's not that what I'm saying isn't significant. I know the content of my talks and the subject matter of my books, blog posts, and columns are crucial. Just as Amy and Jennifer made an argument in Manifesta that shaped a whole generation of young women, I try every day to contribute substantive insights and pose challenging questions so feminism can be even more inclusive and incisive. But we simply can't pretend like the cover on the book isn't being judged.

It's understandable that appearance is a sticking point for feminists. So much of our work is about challenging traditionally defined notions or racist ideals of beauty that the last thing we want to do is privilege appearance over substance. But we also have to be real about the ways in which people get brought into political movements. It's rarely because we read up on legislation or resolve to be more active citizens. It's more often because we find a person or group of people who we really like and identify with their politics, too.

Black power had Afros and raised fists. Anti-war movements of the 1960s had bell-bottoms and John Lennon glasses. Hip-hop has bright sneakers and gansta lean. Obama Nation has its Shepard Fairey poster. Movements, whether we like it or not, are visceral experiences. Feminism is no exception. If we want to bring more young women into the fold, especially given how vilified feminism is in the mainstream media, we can't pretend that aesthetics are irrelevant. I'm not saying that we have to conform to traditional beauty standards. But manifesting a personal style -- hairy armpits or fishnets, genderqueer or definitively feminine, hip-hop or hipster -- doesn't hurt the cause.

This piece is adapted from an essay featured in Click: Moments When We Became Feminists (Seal Press).