What is ‘White Feminism’?: An analysis of Forever 21’s ‘FEMINIST’ crop top

Leah Olasehinde is one of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s regular contributors.

Due to social media and youth empowerment, fashion has become a large platform for expressing feminism. However, there are fundamental flaws with this medium. Each problem with using fashion to empower feminism is revealed after having asking 3 questions:

  • Who would wear it?
  • Who wouldn’t wear it?
  • Who made it?

This blog will answer these questions in relation to Forever 21’s ‘FEMINIST’ crop top and similar clothes, and hopes to identify 3 major difficulties with the modern feminist movement. It will only provide an overview of these main issues, as each is more complex than can be explored in a short blog. Hopefully, though, raising awareness of these barriers will encourage discussion to allow feminists to address such issues.

‘White Feminist’ is not a label for a Caucasian person that is also a feminist. ‘White Feminists’ do not have to be ‘white’ in any way. ‘White Feminism’ demonstrates a diversion from fundamental feminist ideals: ‘it is feminism that fails to properly or fairly represent the concerns and needs of women of colour.’[1] Through this, it excludes women of colour, women and faith, and women from developing countries. Some argue that it would be better named as ‘Western Feminism’ as it stems from an ignorance particular to Western society, rather than being exclusive to Caucasian people. However, to name it ‘Western’ could suggest modernity, and the shock factor of calling someone a ‘White Feminist’ helps to disempower it.

A bold, eye-catching crop-top – who would wear it?

Fashion can be used to feel like part of a group – when you see my FEMINIST logo in capital letters, you know whose political and social views I share. It can also be used to shock and attract attention – with my skin showing, and colours contrasting, you know that my views are unapologetic and empowering.

But this platform is simply not available to all feminists; due to the nature of fashion as an industry.

Fashion as an industry uses division and hierarchisation to appeal to a target audience. Younger, slimmer, taller women with fairer skin (be they Caucasian, mixed-race, or lighter skinned) are seen as the epitome of beauty and are used to create an ideal ‘look’ for girls to aspire to. Women of colour are excluded from the fashion industry – they are scarcely represented, and, when they are, they are often fetishized, or oversexualised.

The standard of beauty in modern fashion is European, and a woman of colour who is less represented in the industry is less likely to engage with it.

A select few of the world’s women have real access to the fashion industry, and only the specific group that the fashion industry targets has real access to a feminist movement expressed by this means.

A tight and revealing cropped t-shirt – who wouldn’t wear it?

Aside from the exclusion of women of colour, ‘White Feminism’ also excludes women of faith. Many Western feminists reject religion, identifying misogyny and gender-based control in its practice. However, wherever religion stands with or against feminism, the two are not mutually exclusive – an idea that ‘White Feminists’ are unwilling to accept.

A conservative Christian or Muslim feminist may follow two belief systems: one based on equality of the sexes and empowerment of women; one of faith expressed through modesty and religious practice. This creates a difficult personal conflict with feminists of faith, as they can be forced to choose one over the other.

But why should a feminist of faith reject one part of her identity to engage with the other? If a feminist of faith values cultural or religious modesty over wearing clothes that make her uncomfortable, does this make her less of a feminist? Why can’t a feminist stand for sexual liberation, economic equality and social justice and still dress modestly?

It must also be said that Muslim feminists are more affected by this conflict than Christian feminists. Coupled with islamophobia, xenophobia and a general societal and political ostracization of Muslims, it is more difficult for Muslim feminists to engage with the movement in a way that also accommodates for their faith. ‘White Feminists’ openly reject Muslim feminists because of their conviction of the religion as misogynist and sexist.

Here, the heirarchisation in the fashion industry is reflected within the feminist movement. It seems that those who follow Western fashion trends are better, or stronger, feminists, and those who don’t are lesser.

This tension draws on conflict from cultural differences, ostracises a large group of feminists, and divides the movement itself.

A cheap, cotton vest – who made it?

One main consequence of this division is the lack of engagement with issues faced by women and girls in developing countries and impoverished communities.

Each of the t-shirts sourced above were ‘Made in China’ – most likely by school-age girls in sweatshops. Even after the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh, and killed 11,000 workers, Forever 21 refused to join the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety or other groups helping improve factory conditions in South East Asia[2]. They still mass produce their products on the back of modern slavery, and face almost no backlash for their exploitation of disempowered women and girls.

However, it is not accurate or fair to say that ‘White Feminists’ do not care about child labour and modern slavery, neither is it fair to say that ‘White Feminists’ do not see combatting these issues as a fundamental feature of feminism. But because of the lack of representation of women of colour or faith within Western feminism, these issues are not put at the forefront of the movement. A ‘White Feminist’ would see the clothes above as a means of self-expression and empowerment – rather than a means of feeding into modern slavery.

Of course, it is difficult to not feed into this industry when these clothes are so cheap and accessible, but if ‘White Feminists’ were more engaged with these issues, they would source their feminist clothes elsewhere:[3]

 

Modern feminism faces various issues stemming from cultural and social differences within the movement. Hopefully, this blog post has identified the key problems with ‘White feminism’, and will help boost discussion to tackle these difficulties.

 

Bibliography:

What Do We Mean by White Feminism and Intersectional Feminism?

http://streamandstoneyeg.com/white-feminism-intersectional/

 

Why Students Aren’t Fighting Forever 21

https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-students-arent-fighting-forever-21

Ethically sourced political fashion

https://greenboxshop.us/

 

[1] http://streamandstoneyeg.com/white-feminism-intersectional/

[2] https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-students-arent-fighting-forever-21

[3] https://greenboxshop.us/

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