(WOMENSENEWS)--Young women can be spotted on U.S. campuses today sporting pink-and-black T-shirts that say "This Is What a Feminist Looks Like."
They say their attire stirs up dialogue, discord and even disbelief.
"People have said to me you can't be a feminist, you are too sexy to be a feminist," said Lisa Covington, a senior at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. "The T-shirt is a way to reconcile this. I am a feminist and I do have strong beliefs. I am a feminine feminist."
"We had an intern who wore the shirt, and when she raised her hand you could see her stomach," said Juliana Zuccaro, 23, the manager of the online store at the Feminist Majority Foundation, which produces the T-shirt. "A guy came up to her and said he couldn't believe she was wearing the shirt because in his mind a feminist is someone who hates men, not someone who actively seems to be soliciting male attention."
The Feminist Majority Foundation began formally selling the T-shirts through their store in 2003. Since October 2005, the women's rights advocacy group based in Arlington, Va., says it has sold about 650 different types of shirts that say "This Is What a Feminist Looks Like" at $20 apiece to about 80 campuses. Campus chapters, however, can buy them in bulk at $10 a shirt and can then resell them at fundraisers.
"These T-shirts are our biggest-selling item," Zuccaro said.
But others are not so easily sold. Author and journalist Pamela Paul, whose most recent book "Pornified: How the Culture of Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families" was published last year, calls the T-shirts a form of "defensive feminism."
"I think these T-shirts feed into anti-feminist rhetoric that says that women who stand up for their rights are somehow unattractive, not sexy, humorless and not getting any," Paul told Women's eNews. "It may look like a proactive gesture, but what else should a feminist look like? Why shouldn't a strong woman look good? It's giving legitimacy to the criticism that is so ludicrous that it doesn't merit acknowledgement. I think it's kind of a sad way to represent power."
Echoing the Words of an Icon
The phrase on the T-shirt echoes a famous comment by Gloria Steinem. In the 1970s, a reporter told Steinem on her birthday that she didn't look 40, to which Steinem rejoined, "This is what 40 looks like. We've been lying for so long, who would know?"
That same idea--that preconceived notions about what a feminist looks like might need challenging--also spurred the T-shirt.
"It's reacting to a stifling idea," said Jennifer Baumgardner, co-author of "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future," published in 2000. "It's the idea that there is only one way to be."
Baumgardner launched her own campaign to counter stigma and spark dialogue when she began producing T-shirts for women in 2003 that said "I Had an Abortion." The T-shirt campaign was followed by a documentary of the same name in 2004.
Each of the five young women interviewed for this article said that on their campuses the term feminist was often taken as a byword for either being lesbian, or not shaving underarm or leg hair, or hating men or preferring combat boots to all other forms of footwear.
Discussion of Sex Appeal
A major discussion point that the T-shirts incite is whether wearing them compromises young women's sex appeal and costs them male admirers for the price of asserting women's rights.
"I think sometimes feminists are seen as asexual," said Amy Littlefield, a freshman at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "Our culture makes it difficult to be both a feminist and a sexy woman. I think society is willing to view young women two ways: either we go along with the sexual objectification of women, and wear revealing clothing, or we cover up and object to it."
The T-shirt, Littlefield said, endows women's rights with sex appeal. "The shirts are hot. I think mine looks pretty good," she said. "Maybe the T-shirts can help us send the message that you can be sexy and proud of your appearance and still be a feminist."
In line with Gen-Y fashion tastes, the T-shirt is form-fitting and blurs the line between being a sex object on one hand or an opponent of sexism on the other. "A version of the shirt comes in a more tailored fit," said Zuccaro, of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "The reality is that women in their 20s are seen as sex symbols. And this T-shirt is attracting women who are part of this group . . . Because it's a slogan across my chest, I'm getting checked out."
Some young women object to the T-shirt for the same reasons that some also find it appealing. "The T-shirt is stating that feminists have to fit the mold of what is deemed as sexy and attractive by males," said Mary Debree, a senior at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
What Feminism Means to Them
The women who wore the T-shirts gave a range of answers when asked what feminism means to them.
"I think feminism means recognizing that women as a group have been historically the more disadvantaged sex and there are persistent issues of inequality between the sexes today," said Alison Landrey, a student at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.
"Being a feminist for me is about action on a daily basis," said Debree. "It's about who I choose to have as friends, asserting a basic right to vote in local elections, choices of what corporations and stories I give business to, what jokes I laugh at or do not, and what language and words I use."
"Feminism is not something that can be worn on a T-shirt one day and forgotten about the next," said Covington. "It is something that is important to better the status of men and women of all colors and these T-shirts serve as a daily reminder of this."
Hannah Seligson is a freelance writer based in New York. Her book, "New Girl on the Job," will be published by Citadel Press in 2007.
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Feminist Majority Foundation
"Off-Color Fashions Accessorize Elections":
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