If a feminist worries over her worry lines, frets over getting fat, or lusts after lipstick ... but there's no one around to witness it, can she still call herself a feminist?
They're questions we all ponder at one time or another, I suppose. Is buying Spanx buying into an oppressive ideal? Does dabbling in fillers make one a tool of the patriarchy? Does plunking down your VISA at the MAC counter mean you've forfeited your feminist card? Who among us hasn't felt that guilt, that shame, keeping your head down while silently praying no one spots you -- enlightened, intelligent, feminist you -- shelling out way too much money for two ounces of eye cream? Who hasn't wondered: Are vanity and empowerment mutually exclusive?
Sure, maybe we can coast through a couple of decades, smug in our certainty that we'd never stoop so low. And yet. Once we start to age, once it's our forehead that's lined, our jawline that's softened, the tug-of-war becomes urgent. As Anna Holmes, founder of the pop-feminist website Jezebel, wrote in the Washington Post:
'Wow. You're really looking older,' says the voice in my head as I peer into the bathroom mirror. Then another, this one louder and more judgmental: 'Who are you that you care?'
Who am I indeed. The fact that I can be so profoundly unsettled by the appearance of a few wrinkles on my forehead doesn't say much of anything good about my sense of self as a whole. In the same way that I'm sort of horrified at the increasingly unrecognizable face that stares back at me in the mirror, I'm equally unsettled that I'm horrified at all.
Who couldn't relate? Internal debating (and berating) aside, though, the thing I'm left thinking about is how much this sounds like yet another false dichotomy. Virgin/whore, pretty/smart, plastic/natural, young/irrelevant. As though a woman can be either a gray-haired intellectual frump or a Botoxed blond bimbo, as though there were nothing in between. As though any person could be so simply defined. One or the other. If one, then not the other.
While my fear of needles (and, well, poison) precludes me from even considering Botox, I have no problem admitting that some of the hairs on my head have gone rogue (by which I mean gray) -- and that I pay someone good money to make it look otherwise. I happily incur the expense of continued education, and of shoes. I giggle, and I engage in heated intellectual debates. I spend time pondering the meaning of life -- and the size of my pores. I proudly call myself a feminist, and, yes, I shave my legs. What box do I fit into?
Perhaps the goal is not to worry so much over what one decision means for the label we've happily slapped upon ourselves, but to realize that a label is only part of the story. Maybe the goal is to forego the labels altogether, to open our minds, broaden our thinking, be a little more forgiving of ourselves, a little more accepting of each other -- and do something a little more productive with all that reclaimed time and brainspace. Or perhaps the goal is simply to remember to think outside the box.
HuffPost Women sends stories about relationships, politics, sex, work, culture and body image, straight to your inbox three days a week. Learn more