“It’s easy for you, when you wake up you don’t have to do your makeup and your hair. You can just walk right out the door.”
“Neither do you.”
“… But I like it.”
I think if you dissect that conversation I had with my father enough, you can establish my entire relationship to the beauty industry. I never once went through a “tomboy” phase. I cried every time my parents tried to put me into pants until I was six or seven (a pre-school peeing-my-pants incident became even more traumatic when all I had to change into were pants. Pants for boys. Boy pants). I devoted serious energy to battling my eyebrows from sixth to twelfth grade. I experienced a kind of euphoria over this past summer when I realized I had finally, finally “figured out” my hair.
Of course at the same time a whole other story was playing out. I looked at boys in middle school and was furious that they could just throw on a T-shirt and look “cool” but all of my clothes fit me wrong or “weren’t me” or were immediately regretted as soon as I got to homeroom. I got round-brushes tangled in my hair when I was a teenager because I was trying to do a “blow-out” and had to run crying to my mother so she could extract it. For years I slept in makeup because I didn’t like how I looked without it.
There was no point when suddenly I became a feminist and re-examined every part of my life I thought was “natural,” it was something that happened gradually. In high school I was horrified that I had once been so obsessed with Barbie as a child or that I’d been so militant about my feminine identity as a child (I was a late-adopter to the word “dude” because it was a “boy word”… what?!) and it was even after that that I’d question why my eyebrow hair was really that important to me. Surely, I reasoned, my time would have been better-spent in other pursuits. Even worse, that maybe these obsessions had been chosen for me, I couldn’t have spent my time any other way even if I’d wanted to. I was a girl so I watched TV shows for girls and saw ads for girl toys and I was taught to compare myself to other girls and maybe all this time everything I thought I liked I didn’t. Maybe insecurities I had, insecurities that society had created for me (“My hair is frizzy, my eyes are small, my nail beds suck”) defined basically everything I liked. Regardless, I still liked makeup and being stereotypically feminine, but not being able to figure out how much of that was actually me and not just programming certainly put a damper on things.
There are, of course, feminist, empowering ways to be feminine. There’s power in controlling your own gender presentation, and in the case of being feminine, in reveling in things that are usually degraded or laughed at. For example, femme lesbians created a an entire subculture that celebrated femininity within a typically more masculine lesbian community to deal with issues of visibility and prejudice. Even though straight women are pushed to be more feminine, there is a similar pressure to hide any overt signs of the work of makeup or hair products, to appear “effortless.”
A lot of men I know will say they prefer women “without makeup” without really understanding how women really use makeup. If you search “no makeup makeup” in YouTube you will come up with hundreds of tutorials, seemingly designed to appeal to these men. When I really wear no makeup, people ask me if I’m sick. If I fill in my eybrows, conceal under my eyes, wear mascara, and a light lip gloss I’ll get “See? You look so much better without all that makeup caked on.” But if makeup is for me, not so people will think I’m naturally, effortlessly beautiful, it can be a whole new way to express myself. (Which is probably hilarious if you aren’t a woman who lights up when she sees a Sephora, but it’s true.) In an effort to appeal to this sensibility, the brand Dermablend (usually very high coverage stuff) released ads about how for women with skin conditions or severe acne, makeup can be used to reveal the true you. And regardless of whether you use a heavy or light foundation, a bright “unnatural” eyeshadow can do the same thing.
Maybe if my parents hadn’t relented on the Barbie issue or I got less positive reinforcement for feminine performance I would have grown up different. Liya wrote an excellent article about what feminism can mean outside of a college campus and in that vein, I can’t help but wonder what that will mean when all of us start to raise our own children. Luckily, the toy industry is beginning to become less divisive about gender. Recently Upworthy helped make the brand GoldieBlox huge in mainstream stores like Toys R Us, a company that incorporates engineering into toys specifically marketed to girls. But this is just one brand for girls that doesn’t play into sexist stereotypes. As Professor Frank pointed out to me as a mother of two young girls, walking the toy aisles in Target is still a horrifying display of gender stereotypes.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to control how society views various gender presentations; it’s only possible to embrace ourselves and support others, whether it be our friends or the next generation. To reconcile femininity and empowerment, examining myself was crucial and led to the major break-through that regardless of the social pressures to be a feminine woman, particularly that being so was the “natural state” for all women—it’s still a gender presentation; something I was in fact in control over, something I choose and can change if I like. This choice doesn’t prohibit me from having frustrations over the ways women are forced to participate in beauty rituals that I enjoy or the manipulative ways products are marketed toward women or the standard of “effortless beauty.” As long as that big picture doesn’t get lost, my femininity can be radical. It can scream just as loudly as another woman’s masculinity that I am in control—that no matter the social pressures to be one way or another, this is what I choose.