'Girl Crush': Why the Lesbian and Queer Women Community Is Fashion's Major Blind Spot

Is "girl crush" just as bad as "no homo"?
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Tyler McCall
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Is "girl crush" just as bad as "no homo"?
"No, you're MY girl crush Cara!" Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty

"No, you're MY girl crush Cara!" Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty

The term "girl crush" has wormed its way firmly into our lexicon: defined on Urban Dictionary as "feelings of admiration and adoration which a girl has for another girl, without wanting to shag said girl," the term has become a go-to for the English-speaking world, especially the fashion industry, to describe women we admire.

On Fashionista alone, a search for the term pulls up stories about subjects as varied as Jenna Lyons, Alexa Chung, Charlotte Gainsbourg, the Haim sisters and Maude Apatow. It spawns headlines ("Cheryl Cole And Khloe Kardashian Reveal Their Girl Crushes") and its own hashtag -- #WomenCrushWednesday, or #WCW.

But what if there were a negative undertone to the term? Fashion writer Nicolette Mason -- who is openly gay -- argues that there is, comparing "girl crush" to the term beloved by frat boys everywhere: "No homo."

"It's the same way no homo is used by men to say, 'Oh man, this football player is amazing, but I’m not attracted to him, I can acknowledge that another man is good at something without wanting his dick in my mouth,'” Mason says. "I don’t think that girl crush is any different from that -- wanting to show appreciation for somebody and the bottom line being that you don’t want to be mistaken as actually being interested in that person."

And Mason isn't the only one in the industry who feels that way. Lizz Rubin, who serves fashion editor for Autostraddle.com, wonders why it's important to use a term which "reassures the reader that you're straight." "What would be the inherent problem with the reader believing you'd had some sort of same-sex attraction?" she poses. "Even if the woman using it doesn't mean it a 'but I'm not gay' kind of way, it still carries that connotation. It is inescapable."

One has to wonder if it's because there are so few high-profile women in the industry who identify as queer. If asked to name a high-profile, openly gay man in the fashion industry, you'd lose count before you reached the end of the list; if asked to do the same with openly gay women, could you even name one? There's rumors, certainly -- think of Cara Delevingne, for one -- but one alleged relationship with a woman does not a lesbian make.

"In my experience, the fashion community is open to lesbians and queer women, as long as they are more femme or androgynous," says Rubin. "Jenna Lyons is one of the most beloved designers and trend makers in the fashion community; however, this is in part because she conforms to the standard of beauty we hold of women models: tall, thin and white."

Lady pals Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss planning another epic road trip. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty

Lady pals Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss planning another epic road trip. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty

So why aren't there more openly queer women in the fashion industry? After all, of all the fields of work, it has the reputation of being one of the most gay-friendly. "I’ve had a lot of conversations about how the fashion industry can feel like a very safe space for straight women because they don’t have the threat of working amongst straight men," Mason argues. Gay men in the fashion industry, then, are treated as straight women -- that is to say, non-threatening. "Throw a gay woman into the mix and [she's] already on the defensive, where she doesn’t want you to feel like she’s attracted to you as a gay women," Mason says.

This silence, and the dearth of high-profile queer women, adds to an overall lack of awareness towards those who do work in the fashion industry. "I just hate that assumption, that everyone is assumed to be straight until proven otherwise, and that's just something you deal with," says fashion writer Arabelle Sicardi. "There's a lot riding on these assumptions, and it's insufferable and annoying."

Sicardi refers to it as a "revolving door" of coming out: Because the assumption is that a woman present -- say, at a fashion show or product launch -- is straight, gay women feel compelled to constantly "come out" to those with whome they're interacting. "It’s something I wish I didn’t have to deal with on a multiple-times-a-week basis, but it’s very much the reality of being openly gay woman in the fashion industry," Mason says.

Beyond an awareness and sensitivity, this assumption extends through to products and how they're targeted at potential customers. "A lot of the advertising that goes into lingerie and basic undergarments always relates back to the dude and his boner, which is really boring," Sicardi tells us. "Honestly, the number one obsessives of lingerie and the people who are the most knowledgable about it that I'm friends with are lesbians."

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As a result, Mason also points out that lesbianism is still very much fetishized, recalling the 2012 "Lesbian Chic" trendpiece from Style.com. "It was treated as a trend story and not as a legitimate orientation or identity," she says.

It's this narrow definition of lesbianism that is acceptable to the fashion community (and, arguably, the world at large). "When women such as Lyons play with elements of masculinity without identifying as butch, it plays right into the fashion world's current love affair with androgyny," Rubin tells us. "With that in mind, I don't think that the fashion industry is as respectful or responsive to more butch women."

Which means that broad swaths of women are being left out of the fashion conversation. Rubin says that when she tells people that she's the fashion editor of a lesbian website, the comments she receives are oftentimes snide or bemused (jokes about Birkenstocks and flannel abound).

Worse still is the apparently quite common assumption -- or cruel joke -- that all lesbians are fat (no, seriously). "Nothing is quite as big of a sin in the fashion industry as not being skinny, and that's often what fashion folks tend to make the rudest remarks about," Rubin says.

Gay men, Rubin adds, are not immune to making these kinds of cutting remarks. "There seems to be a belief that because we're both gay, they're allowed to say whatever they want about lesbians, even if it's hurtful," she tells us.

So what, then, is the solution? It certainly isn't as simple as eliminating "girl crush" from our vocabularies -- it's important to understand is that the term itself is not the problem. "It’s not offensive because I don’t think it’s ever mal-intended," Mason explains. "I don’t think it’s ever said in a way that is not meant to be taken lightheartedly."

"What is harmful and damaging about the term 'girl crush,'" she continues, "is that it's kind of an insidious way of perpetuating negative stereotype and negative attitudes associated with being gay."

An awareness of word choice would be a strong step forward. Though not as punchy as "girl crush," there are alternatives to expressing admiration for other women. "I've often also wondered why women seem to be scared of just saying 'I have a lot of respect for this woman,' or 'I think this woman is great,'" Rubin muses. "Why must we frame our likes and dislikes and respect in terms of 'crushes?'"

Ultimately, it comes down to making the fashion industry a place that is welcoming to all types of women -- straight, queer, transgender -- which starts with personal responsibility. "People aren’t aware of the impact that their privilege makes on other people, unless they’re forced to think about it, because that’s the way systems of privilege work," Mason says.