Against lingerie feminism

- Sangita Thebe Limbu, Kalpana Jha | 2021-09-24

Sangita Thebe Limbu and Kalpana Jha

Feb 4, 2018-An op-ed titled ‘Lingerie and feminism’ published on January 21 in this paper tried to show positive interlinkages between the lingerie industry, liberated female sexuality and promotion of feminist values. The op-ed writer’s core arguments were that the lingerie industry promotes feminism by sending positive messages of respecting women through the kinds of products they design, and the fashion shows they orchestrate; lingerie is an expression of female sexuality that defines woman “in totality” and thus, it is a “universal symbol of feminism”; and that women have “come out of their closet” and are no longer subjugated when it comes to self-expression through clothes, including lingerie. Overall, we find these arguments problematic, misleading and misinformed. Hijacking feminism

Feminism is not only about women having the rights and capabilities to negotiate and make choices in their everyday lives including education, career, fashion, sexuality, family, parenting, property and marriage. It is also about understanding and challenging the unequal power structures and hierarchical social relationships within which such choices are being made (un)willingly. Yet, in the commerce and consumer-oriented society of today, feminism is increasingly depoliticised as it gets whittled down to women’s ‘right to choose’ focused exclusively on individual ‘empowerment’, as opposed to structural changes and collective action. Businesses including the lingerie industry have played an important role in creating and championing such an individualistic and commercialised conceptualisation of feminism. Such understanding fits neatly within the emerging marketing trend, whereby consumers are increasingly led to believe that their purchasing power is not only about buying and using a product but also a medium for personal growth and societal change. Thus, as the op-ed writer claims, lingerie is no longer just about functionality, utility and comfort, it is a medium of self-expression. But what kind of expression and empowerment does the lingerie industry promote?

The ‘perfect’ body image

The lingerie industry has been partly if not entirely responsible for creating unrealistic ideals of the ‘perfect’ body image as they define and redefine the kind of body size, type and colour that is worth considering ‘beautiful’ and ‘desirable’. A quick Google image search with the term ‘lingerie’ is enough to highlight how the idea of perfect and desirable body image has racial undertones to it and how monolithic ideals of body features are being promoted. Such pervasive and perhaps unhealthy and unattainable imaginaries are more likely to result in body shaming and self- surveillance, as opposed to self-empowerment and growth. Also, based on Google images and the famous Victoria’s Secret annual lingerie fashion shows, it’s difficult to be convinced that lingerie is ever designed with female sexuality in mind. Rather, they seem to cater to the ‘male gaze’ with designs that are less concerned with practicality and comfort for the wearers and more about creating objectified and fantasised images for the observers. Also, if lingerie is about expression of women’s pleasure and sexuality usually in a private, intimate setting then why is there a need for such an elaborated, orchestrated and commercialised public parade of scantily dressed models? And how do those “bold and beautiful” models reconceptualise feminism and sexuality as argued by the op-ed writer?

Complex discourse on sexuality

The reality is that the lingerie industry has co-opted feminism to legitimise its commonly sexist and blatantly commercial marketing and design strategies, which bear little or no resemblance with diverse women’s body types and complex expressions and experiences of sexuality. In fact, understanding sexuality would entail questioning the dominant heteronormative structure that recognises heterosexuality as the only norm, and renders other expressions of sexual orientation invisible and/or pushes them beyond the realm of ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’. It would involve questioning societal obsession with women’s virginity and why women, unlike men, who explore their sexuality outside the sanctity of marriage are considered as outcast, ‘loose women’ and not of ‘marriage potential’ even by their male sexual partners. It would also require delving into the root causes of pervasive culture of rape, sexual violence and harassment. It would involve mapping out how sexuality is conceptualised, tabooed, regulated and under constant surveillance in society. It would entail questioning what would ‘sexual liberation’ mean and look like not just for able-bodied but also for those with disability, and how the patriarchal mindset imbued in boys and men from an early age concerning virility, power and entitlement can be deconstructed. Thus, sexuality is not simply about what we choose to buy, wear and feel, it is a much deeper and complex discourse.

Empowerment beyond clothes

The op-ed writer infers wearing lingerie as a benchmark to assess the level of women’s subjugation. The mindset that is pervasive in the South Asian culture of judging a woman by what she wears surprisingly also becomes the parameters to map her level of advancement. This was also reflected in a recent event at Martin Chautari where a prominent male social activist commenting on the status of women’s empowerment said, “My grandmother did not wear blouse, my mother started wearing a blouse, my sister progressed to wearing kurta-salwaar, today her daughter wears jeans and maybe her daughter will wear a skirt and take a flight to USA.” Such comments illustrate how parameters of women’s progress are mapped in terms of her clothes and public appearance, which are clearly informed by patriarchy and the male-gaze. Women in Nepal and across South Asia are still struggling with the purdah system, for equal right to education and above all—in Nepal—are struggling for equal citizenship rights.

Hence, the question of women’s empowerment and liberation should not be judged by the clothes she wears (inside or outside) but rather by the choices, and the power structures within which she makes those choices, in her everyday life. Equally important is to be aware that understanding feminism and sexuality requires more than wearing a lingerie, whether functional, comfortable or “fierce” in nature.

- Limbu and Jha are both based at Martin Chautari


About the Author

Sangita Thebe Limbu Sangita Thebe Limbu

PhD Candidate, University College London (UCL)

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