Can I straighten my hair and still call myself a feminist?

So today I did something that I do once or twice a year – something that most people probably wouldn’t consider terribly feminist; I went to get a “Japanese straight perm”.


I don’t always get a straight perm, but when I do, I like to match the golden retrievers.

There are several reasons that this wouldn’t be considered all that feminist: it involves spending considerable time (four hours of actual perming, plus driving to and from Queens in a snow storm) and money ($150, plus tip, plus tolls on the GW and RFK bridges) to be slathered with chemicals that probably aren’t that great for the environment or for the women who spend their days applying these chemicals to other women’s heads, and it involves doing all of this for the sake of “beauty”.

Things like hair, makeup, and fashion can be difficult issues to navigate as a feminist.

We all know the stereotype of the unkempt feminist, with her shaggy, gray-streaked hair, makeup-free face, unshaven armpits, and practical but unfashionable combat boots. This stereotype did originate in some feminist beliefs; particularly in the second wave (although it did have roots in the first wave), feminists spoke out against the oppressive nature of fashion and makeup – why should women spend so much more time and money than men on making themselves look attractive (to men)?  Why should we wear tight clothing that restricted our movement and high heels that made it difficult to walk quickly or comfortably? Furthermore, the advertising industry that built up around these products was focused on making women feel bad about themselves, bad about the way that they looked, and bad for not trying harder (or spending more) to look “better”. It’s no surprise that feminists lashed out at these industries.

So why am I buying into this? Personally, I justify my hair-straightening in a few ways. It makes my hair much lower-maintenance; instead of spending 15 minutes trying to get a comb through my curls, spraying on gel and squirting on anti-frizz cream, scrunching the curls, and praying that they stay curled, I spend a minute or two combing out my straight hair. Instead of spending money on gels, mousses, detergent-free high-end shampoos, anti-frizz products, and expensive haircuts, I buy whatever shampoo is on sale and go to the $20 walk-in salon.


Me with curly hair and some happy ketchup.

Those are very real benefits. But when it comes down to it, I simply like how I look with straight hair. When my hair was curly, catching a glimpse of myself in a window or a mirror would make me feel less confident. I didn’t like how I looked in pictures. And while I’m sure that some of the confidence I have now has a lot to do with getting older, I know that a lot of it has to do with my hair.

If I was a better feminist, I often think, I would love how I look naturally. Even better, I wouldn’t HAVE to love how I look; I would be no more concerned about my appearance than I am about any other physical aspect of myself. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t wear makeup. I would let my hair grow in curly, and probably cut it really short to make it easier to care for.

But the thing is, being a feminist doesn’t make you magically exempt from all of the social messages you’ve received your entire life.

So how do we deal with this? If we feel better about ourselves while wearing makeup, but we know that wearing makeup seems to go against the feminist injunction to love ourselves as we are, how do we reconcile those two things?

Well, I don’t have an answer (sorry!). But here’s my perspective; I straighten my hair for me. Not for anybody else. I’ve had plenty of people tell me how much they loved my hair when it was curly. But I didn’t like it, so I changed it. I think my eyes look tired and puffy without eyeliner, even though my mom claims that they look the prettiest that way. So I wear eyeliner. Because I like it. Am I perpetuating a culture where women feel like they have to change their appearance in order to be acceptable? Sadly, yes, I am. And that goes against a lot of what I believe in as a feminist. But if I’m going to be a more confident person while wearing eyeliner and running my fingers through my hair (something I could NEVER do with curls), then I’m going to go with it, and work on being a better feminist in other ways.

What’s your take on hair, fashion, makeup, and feminism? Leave your ideas in the comments!

12 responses to “Can I straighten my hair and still call myself a feminist?

  1. I absolutely agree 100%. So what if what you like on yourself happens to be a cultural norm? Its popular because a lot of people like it, and that’s just the nature of the beast.


  2. What you or I do to our hair or the make up we wear or don’t wear is our choice. Being a feminist doesn’t disallow doing these things. As long as we are doing it for ourselves and not for others it holds with feminist views. IMHO


  3. I’ve thought about this before and loved the article. I feel like if any society (even a feminist one) is trying to force you to look or act according to a certain set of rules, it is better to act the way that will leave you feeling most confident.


  4. I have been a feminist since the womb, and I get a salon blow-out every week to tame my nappy, frizzy, Puerto-Rican curls, and there is absolutely no shame in my game. If anyone questions your feminism because of you straightening your hair or wanting to be confident, you can send them my way, and I will have a nice chat with them. That is just ridiculous!

    To me, feminism is the intent to define, establish, and defend EQUALITY FOR ALL SEXES AND GENDER in terms of political, economical, and social rights. I don’t care if you’re fat, gay, white, male, Muslim, or redheaded because feminism has never been about what you look like, but about what you envision.

    Keep your straight-haired-head up, girl! You’ll be just fine!


  5. Pingback: A post about blogging – so meta! | I was a high-school feminist·

  6. Great article! I think that you’re dancing around something that I have just come to grips with as a new feminist. The beauty of feminism isn’t in the hairy armpits and makeup free faces. What is empowering is the right to choose the way your face, hair, and body looks. Getting a perm doesn’t make you a bad feminist. I think that it makes you a good one. By doing something that makes you happy despite the fact that it might be different from your feminist peers.

    Go you!


  7. Thank you for this post. I keep a fashion and beauty blog in addition to all the other kinds of writing I do and I find myself thinking about this kind of thing a lot. First of all, yes, regardless of what you believe, it’s difficult to adhere to that ideal 100% of the time, and falling short of those rules, whether it’s what makes a good feminist or the diet restrictions of a vegan, doesn’t make you a terrible person. I feel like I use makeup and nail polish and other forms of body modification both for myself and to adhere to a certain societal standard and I think that’s OK. I wear eyeliner because sometimes I want to change up my appearance and I wear concealer because I have terrible dark circles. I suppose if I were a better feminist I wouldn’t care about my appearance but I think when we start reprimanding each other for the things that make us happy and that for the most part, don’t hurt other people (the conversation about the environmental factors should be left for another day) we’re doing more harm than good.

    Of course, I’m biased but I can’t help thinking this issue is more complex than “if you wear makeup, you’re giving into patriarchal pressures.” I think this is something that women have been grappling with for a long time. You only have to look at Shakespeare and Pope to see men who are uncomfortable with women modifying their bodies with makeup and corsets and perfume because it makes them “fake.” There are many stories from female writers about their confusion over the question of makeup and body modification. I can dig up some other names if you’d like but the one that always stands out to me is Behind a Mask by Louisa May Alcott. Like a lot of these kinds of stories, the author seems to admire the woman who is capable of playing into certain stereotypes to access the kind of mobility and fluid identity that is often denied to women while at the same time she’s horrified at the falsehood and the woman behind the mask.


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