Exploring Women's Bodies in Online Spaces
I think that fashion often gets a bad rap, and is often not considered as important in relation to how we make sense of bodies, specifically gendered constructions of bodies. Women’s relationships with fashion is a complex one, which draws on intersecting constructs of personal identity, taste, class, consumerism, and femininities. Dominant Western ideals of femininity entrench a class-based idea that doing womanliness ‘right’ involves a performance of middle-class femininity. The fashion choices that women make are one key aspect of that performance.
The engagement that women have with fashion is located within neoliberal discourse of consumerism, which focuses on women making ‘good’ fashion choices (and ultimately, says something about them as being a ‘good’ woman). The interesting thing about consumerism in relation to women’s fashion is the notion of ‘choice’ – that women have a ‘choice’ to think about how they want to dress, what performance they want to give, as narrated through their clothing. Placed within a neoliberal context, we cannot ignore that this ‘choice’ for clothing is already constrained - there are certain styles, looks, trends, and items that indicate ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
We know this – we understand there are certain ways of dressing that are considered better than others – show the ideal femininity, or ideal luxury class-based representation of a woman. We talk about our fashion choices (there seems to be an interesting way of addressed compliments we get in our clothing by proclaiming how cheap it actually was and where it was from), and I find how we talk about these fashions and the spaces within which we do so to be quite powerful.
Borrowing from some research I conducted a few years ago, I’ve looked to re-examine how young women talk about their fashion choices, and resistance against and/or conformity to constructions of ideal femininity in online spaces. With these spaces (focusing on Facebook specifically), the women talked about their own thoughts on these fashions, alongside other young women, which clearly operated within social discourses for how to make sense of these fashions.
There were a few many themes that resonated within the online discussion spaces, set within the neoliberal discourse of being ‘good women’. They reflected in the need to look effortlessly stylish (though, they all agreed that this required a lot of work, a lot of background effort – preening, washing, waxing, polishing) – there was a sharing and collective understanding that related to their need to make an effort, though this effort should not be outwardly visible to others. In addition to this, the young women talked about their fashion choices as way of looking after themselves – very much fitting with the trending notion of wellbeing and self-care – as expressed through care in their appearance. This lends itself to the neoliberal construct of the good woman through taking care of the self, showing the self to be a ‘good citizen’. They talked about not just following fashion, but how making themselves look attractive (for themselves and for others) made them feel good about themselves.
In this research, the online discussion space gave the women an opportunity to talk freely about their feelings and thoughts about fashion, which turned into a space of collective understanding, more so than a place for disagreement and contest. There was almost a collective sigh of relief felt in how the women realised they were all making an effort, all struggling to do so (and feeling begrudged that they should do so). They understood the pressures collectively – not from each other, but the societal pressures placed on women to be ‘good’. The online space became a physical marker of things they knew but didn’t necessarily say out loud, or have written down. These spaces are powerful in providing space to talk about issues that are not often considered important, but clearly are when considered in the wider context.