Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.

In my late 20s, early 30s, I lived and worked in Essex. One bored lunchtime, wandering around Harlow, I found a t-shirt in Burton’s that was block-printed with the legend “Essex Boy”.

It tickled me (not literally), so I bought it. Explaining the mismatch between garment and accent was a great way to, er, “meet new people”, as they say. Many of those new people seemed to reason thus: Essex boys are sexy, and uninhibited; so, too, must be this guy wearing an Essex boy’s t-shirt – attributing more faith about my character to eight letters printed on my chest, than to the shedloads of available, physical evidence to the contrary (I am a dull, Scottish statistician, and will be so until I breathe my last.) The truth – the person that I was – was less of an influence than the badge I chose to wear.

That t-shirt, long since machine-washed to death, resurrected itself in my mind’s wardrobe during the ridiculous fuss about those “feminist” t-shirts, and the inferences that were freely made by otherwise intelligent people, concerning the political motives of those politicians who did and did not choose to wear one. I’m not thinking about the intrinsic worth of the campaign, but to the rationale for the campaign in the first place, and its modus operandum.

The “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts exist, as I learned that Harlow summer, because fashion – or at least, the application (the appliqué?) of a label – works. We already knew that fashion labels qua labels work. People – not all of us, but enough to make the sector viable – pay a premium for a garment with one or other designer’s label on it. More fool them.

But even more of a fool is anyone prepared to tolerate the assertion that donning a garment is by itself a substantive contribution to politics, or that words which assert an individual’s politics are not only sufficient proof of the authenticity by which their bearer claims that position, but also – and this is staggering, if you pause just to think it through – that the absence of a badge with (for example) the words “This is what a feminist looks like” is evidence that the non-wearer holds views which are antithetical to feminism.

There is no doubt, by the way, that the assertion is made: “Why is David Cameron so afraid to call himself a feminist?” asks Elle magazine, whose website contains a link at the bottom about how their publisher, Hearst, is “empowering women.” Elle wants “to inspire readers to celebrate their individuality and create their own style.”

By bullying everyone into wearing the same t-shirt. Otherwise you’re not on Elle’s side.

Since “fashion” is spectacularly pointless where it is not being actively harmful, I’d be quite glad not to be on its side. But my disgust at the self-obsession of a ridiculous magazine is one thing: I worry more about the power of these words and their impact on our politics.

Words are powerful, and sometimes they can be frightening. We appear to have reached the (end)point by which a refusal to say “I am X” is proof that one is, in fact, in opposition to X. This is too much power for a sentence to bear, and since we can’t blame the mechanical words, we should blame the intent of their authors.

I don’t – and I’d prefer our politicians to be sufficiently self-aware to be able to assert clearly that they don’t, either – require a fashion magazine to lecture me about feminism in any case. For this industry, in terms of female empowerment, is nothing short of grotesque. Industry norms – all those disturbingly skinny models – must surely play a role in creating the culture which makes some women feel like depersonalised objects.

I’d argue that the malign influence of “fashion” isn’t even just a feminist issue. The last time I spent with my nieces and nephews I was astonished at how many of them and their (early teenage) friends are obsessed with “working out.” Thirteen year olds at a gym? It feels…wrong; not the exercise, but its motivation. It’s fashionable for young children to lift weights, and I listened in horror to their tales of what regimes would lead to most muscle. Now where did they get the idea of the perfect body image? From David Cameron? Physician/fashion magazine: heal thyself.

Teenagers should swim or do athletics or even (shudder) football: but weight training, with its unavoidable element of narcissism? (I might be wrong about this; I’m certainly a hypocrite since I love “doing” the gym. But I’m 44: I’m not secretly hoping for a ripped torso.)

That teenage obsession isn’t all “fashion”’s fault, but the industry doesn’t exactly go out on a limb with the much more worthwhile message for young people, of either gender: “Within very broad limits, it doesn’t matter what you look like; and again, beyond pathological cases, it never matters what clothes you wear. People who think otherwise are at best irrelevant: ignore them and their preaching, wear what you want, and you will be nothing but happier for it.”

Now there’s a message that Elle might like to stick on one of their sweat-shopped t-shirts. I don’t think they will. Should we apply their own “logic”, and judge them accordingly?

14 comments for: Graeme Archer: Can a non-existent “Essex boy” ever be a feminist?

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