This past summer my sister — a bubbly, makeup-wearing, nail polished, perfumed 14-year-old — went on a wilderness trip with a local YMCA summer camp program. For close to two weeks she did a combination of rock climbing, whitewater kayaking and hiking — and she loved it. But there was something she told me in the car on our way home that got to me. One of her counselors on the trip, a crunchy woman in her 20s who had just hiked the Appalachian Trail, proudly touted unshaved legs and armpits on the trip. She hadn’t shaved in months and wasn’t planning on it anytime soon, she told them. When my sister asked her why, she said it was because men didn’t shave their legs or armpits, so she felt that she didn’t need to.

What gave me pause about this comment wasn’t that I disagreed with it. In fact, a couple of years ago I would have felt inclined to agree with her: if men don’t do it, why should women? But simply condemning a practice just because men don’t do it is too simple of an outlook to take on the social roles women and men occupy in our society. In fact, it’s regressive for feminism. Women don’t need to be like men to be worthy of equal value in our society. What a woman wears or whether she shaves her legs or applies makeup doesn’t make her less than any other man or woman. She is different, perhaps. But that difference does not imply inequality of worth.

The idea that women should not shave their legs, wear makeup or give as much thought to their outward appearance simply because men don’t do the same things still hinges too heavily upon the way a woman should look. And because of that it can often implicitly perpetuate the very thing that it seeks to eradicate — a stigmatization of women based on their appearance. While it should by no means be bad not to wear makeup and not to shave your armpits, it should not necessarily be better. The fact that a woman or a girl wears makeup isn’t an implicit indication that she is unsatisfied with her appearance. Though many times, it can be.

It’s true that our society doesn’t give enough value to diverse appearances — our magazines, beauty stores and movies all have eerily familiar faces that have failed to evolve significantly over the past 50 years. Oftentimes, wearing makeup or shaving one’s legs feels less like a personal decision and more like a necessary ritual performed in order to receive recognition from others. We’re not at the point in time where we, as women, can have full autonomy over the way we look — there are implicit (and explicit) standards for what constitutes attractiveness in our society. But that doesn’t mean we ought to condemn those who conform to those standards.

What we need to realize is that condemning that girl, like my sister — who wears makeup or puts on perfume and paints her nails everyday — effectively achieves the same results as the people who tell her she needs those things to feel beautiful. It alienates her from her own control over her appearance. And perhaps more importantly, it still focuses on a notion of a “right” appearance for women, one that excludes a particular subset of females — the ones that wear makeup like my sister.

Instead, in order for women to truly be equal to men, we need a shift away from the importance of female appearance — we need to have a varied and equally valued array of appearances that aren’t stigmatized within or outside of the female community. Equality doesn’t mean adopting the same customs as men. It means demanding the same amount of respect irrespective of whether or not we choose to share those customs.

So to my sister I say: Shave your legs if you want — or don’t. You’re still a feminist, whatever you do.

Phoebe Young is an LSA freshman.

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