Wear It, Bitch: Musings on Beauty Culture and the Femme Feminist

Several years ago, Anne leveled an accusation at me that straight pissed me off. She said I was vain.

Me? Vain? Pshaw. I mean, I was only spending an hour on my daily beauty routine and maybe two hours for a really big night. Perhaps twenty or so hours a week on the stair machine and the weight benches at the YWCA. Vain? For real. There was an art to this package.

But the more I thought about it and shucked the initial repulsion of identifying myself with a culture I despised, the more I realized she was correct. I was spending an unbelievable amount of my time maintaining an image I didn’t value. I took it as a challenge, stopped blow-drying my hair, cut the makeup down to three products, and cut the shower routine down to soap, shampoo, conditioner, and a razor (and most of the time, not even the razor). I also cut back on the time at the gym, partially because the YWCA doubled their rates and I could no longer afford it. I substituted an at-home yoga and pilates routine which soon faded for more lifestyle-exercise activities.

To my genuine surprise, I didn’t look much different.

In fact, I looked healthier and more well-rested.

I never gave up the skirts and heels that I took up during a self-imposed pant boycott, partially because I like them and partially because nearly no one my age wears anything remotely similar except to job interviews. But I’ll tell you this, a skirt is far more comfortable than pants on most days.

I’m late to this article, a response to the lawsuit in which the court found that women can be fired for not wearing enough of, or the right, makeup:

Never again is anyone allowed to give me crap about how women naturally want to adorn themselves with makeup, as if there’s some genetic urge to look fake that’s wended its way here on the sparkly pink path of evolution. This ain’t biology. This is your government, endorsing your corporate lackey’s creepy-ass urge to make me turn my happy, natural face into a twisted parody of comeliness. This is some cosmetics executive getting rich on state-enforced gender norms.

This quote resonated with me as well.

Let’s not get into the question of whether it’s degrading or sexist for women to wear makeup. Sure, it might be for some women – but there are plenty of politically aware girls out there who like to get dolled up. The question here is whether women who are forced to wear makeup when men aren’t can be described as experiencing gender equality. The 9th Circuit’s opinion acknowledged that makeup costs money and takes time, then dismissed this point as “academic.” But if these costs are so insignificant, why not require Harrah’s to pay to keep its female employees looking as if they’d just had a makeover? Maybe the company could even pay these women for the time it takes to keep their faces properly clad.

My defiant nature dictates that anyone who requires me to adhere to a gender-based standard will quickly find me behaving in just the opposite fashion. The pedestal of femininity is not only a high place from which to fall, but I will whip that thing out from under me and hit you with it faster than you can blink. Nothing (nothing!) irritates me more than someone informing me how I or someone like me ought to appear or behave.

The operative term here is “ought.”

The lovely Bitch Ph.D. touches on these points in a completely unrelated post:

Now, by doing all this shit, I recognize that I am being shaped by (and myself contributing to) a system that judges women by how they look, that burdens us temporally and economically with adhereing to a fairly narrow standard…

At the same time, I do speak out about the falsehoods inherent in these systems. Should I walk the walk as well as talk the talk and refuse to play the game at all? Should I refuse to wear stylish clothing, refuse to spend $50 on a haircut, refuse to consider my appearance, eschew vanity? Doing so would, on one level, be consistent with my beliefs. But not entirely, because frankly, I enjoy this shit. I enjoy it when my colleagues whisper, “fantastic purse!” or “we were talking earlier about how great your shoes are!” after a meeting. I take pleasure in compliments, and I like it when people find me attractive. I’m not interested in a revolution where I can’t dance, and I think there is not a goddamn thing wrong with enjoying pleasure and flirting. I also, of course, reserve the right to schlep around and look like crap on a given day, and I’m not going to play the game of running other women down, and frankly I go through periods where I am more or less femmey (right now I’m in a femmey phase), and I’m cool with that too.

Because frankly, even while I can criticize the system, even while I can bitch about the beauty standard and point out the constructedness of gender and all of that, I am also well aware that I do live in that system. We all care about what we look like, even if the look we choose to project is “I don’t care about what I look like” or “fuck your fascist beauty standards” or “combat boots kick ass.” I can pull those looks off, too, and sometimes I do. But it is a fact that, if I stand up and identify myself as a feminist, the fact that I am femmey, the fact that I am married and have a kid, the fact that I have a Ph.D., gives my words a certain kind of weight.

In my unbiased opinion, the words of a femme feminist help, in some unenlightened circles, to defy the stereotypical feminist image. This notion in itself is inherently irritating — while my words are rarely different than, and rarely more poignant than, most feminists, the messenger sometimes makes the difference.

One of my goals here on the blog has been to mix the personal and political to an indefinable mush. We cannot easily divorce our politics from our personal experiences thus this has been my experiment in the opposite. I have found readers who have reluctantly begun to stick around and like what I have to say about feminism because something about the rest of my online persona appealed to them, just as I have had people in my tangible life who have approached me for my looks or femmey personality and been turned onto feminism by virtue of my physical persona.

While this wasn’t a conscious effort on my part, I have noticed over time that for some people, especially young women, the acceptance of the belief system and the feminist label are far more acceptable from someone who appears in every other way to be like them (and for young men, from someone physically unthreatening). Sometimes I want to hold them down and wash them of this silliness, but I usually tell carefully crafted stories about my coming out as a feminist at the same time I came out as an unabashed femme.

This may get me some criticism, but I’m not sure I care. As the doctor paraphrased: “I’m not interested in a revolution where I can’t dance.”

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11 comments for “Wear It, Bitch: Musings on Beauty Culture and the Femme Feminist

  1. January 23, 2005 at 1:15 pm

    Heh, it wasn’t really me that said that about the revolution–I was paraphrasing Emma Goldman ;)

  2. January 23, 2005 at 1:25 pm

    I very rarely wear makeup, not because I have a huge objection to it but mainly because I can’t be bothered to spend half an hour in the morning putting it on which otherwise would be spent in bed. I don’t feel unattractive without it (unless had a heavy night of drinking beforehand) and don’t feel people particularly notice either.

    This is a huge contrast from my teens where I once even warned one (female) friend who was coming round to my house to get ready to go out somewhere that I looked ‘hideous’ without it. She just told me I was strange – and her reaction prompted my realisation that I looked perfectly normal without it.

    I think what you say about getting readers drawn into feminism is interesting. I’ve never been put off by feminism (although I don’t find the most strident particularly interesting or useful) or thought it clashed with being feminine (my teen make-up dramas aside). But then, my mother is a feminist so I guess I’ve had this attitude instilled in me since youth.

    And I love your blog :D

  3. January 23, 2005 at 1:31 pm

    Jeezus. Mother. I need to brush up on my quotations.

  4. January 23, 2005 at 6:27 pm

    I have a feeling, that if appealed, this ruling will be struck down. Wearing clothes is one matter, having to paint on animal and plant based products onto a body so that a person can look like the proper “corporate” image is going way too far. I know a lot of women who wear makeup and they look much better with out it.

    One of the reasons that I stop by your web log is that I do enjoy reading your post, well I ded have nightmares from the David hasselhoff thing, but you seem like a very intelligent human being who will not allow herself to be a pawn in a mans world.

    Thanks you
    I think I will make one of my book characters a little more like you.


  5. JC
    January 23, 2005 at 7:07 pm

    I was going to point out that the “dancing” quote was from Emma Goldman, but I see it’s already been done. I didn’t realize that it was paraphrased though.

  6. mythago
    January 23, 2005 at 7:28 pm

    I don’t care about dancing in your revolution if I only get to follow, never lead, and there’s only one approved dance step.

  7. amy
    January 23, 2005 at 9:19 pm

    “My defiant nature dictates that anyone who requires me to adhere to a gender-based standard will quickly find me behaving in just the opposite fashion.”

    This sounds familiar. I once had a job in the back office of a huge bank, and we would get hit with the paper avalanches when the network handling someone’s ATMs would hiccough. Durring one such avalanche, we were all sitting on the floor sorting out an infinity of adjustment forms: I’d prepared for this activity by wearing a cotton skirt and pumps but no panty hose. My manager took me aside the next day to give me this very stern, concerned talking to about “ettiquite”. It took me forever to figure out what she was talking about. To me, “ettiquite” is saying “pass gas” instead of “fart”. Anyway, she finally made me understand that I am to wear nylons on my legs that work in our little ghetto where we’re never seen by a customer or even an administrator. So I did. I wore white panty-hose and argyle socks with my skirts and pumps, right up until the day I finally quit, grinning ear to ear.

  8. January 23, 2005 at 11:31 pm

    I’ve always felt that if giving up makeup and all things “girly” was the only way to join the feminist club, that would be totally missing “the point”. I used to sit in my women’s studies classes and feel like an oddball — I wore mascara, lipstick, cute shoes — everyone else had, you know, the standard uniform (no cosmetics, no shaving, comfortable shoes, etc.) Like you, I wasn’t going to be TOLD what to look like in order to be included. I understand the complexity of the issue but in the end, I have to be able to be myself — and I do think that any woman, femme or otherwise, should be allowed to identify themselves as feminists … it all depends on what’s on the inside, afterall.

  9. January 24, 2005 at 1:25 am

    Of course I agree that people should be able to look however they choose, whther that choice is to be polished and feminine or frumpy and disheveled, or anywhere in between, but I have to disagree with this statement: “We all care about what we look like, even if the look we choose to project is ‘I don’t care about what I look like.'” I honestly do not care at all about what I look like. I don’t even comb my hair — and it’s not because I’m affecting an “I don’t care” look.

    When I had to work at jobs that required me to be minimally presentable, and by that I mean having washed my hair within the last 3 or 4 days and wearing a shirt that had not been balled up on the floor and stepped on daily for the past week, I found it to be an excruciating burden. I truly hated it.

    That women, even staunch feminists, cannot understand this state of mind means that I have to put up with looks of pity and well-meaning advice from women whose trendy outfits and colored and styled hair I find slightly clownish. I respect their freedom to lok however they want to look, even though I think they look silly, but they don’t respect or understand mine.

  10. January 24, 2005 at 9:47 am

    I like wearing makeup when I go out. I look good with or without it. I have a different take on it than a lot of people because I was a licensed cosmetician and I did make-up for stage, TV, movies, and head shots for actors, models, and other professionals who needed something for their portfolios. I can understand that a company may see it as part of a “uniform,” but I don’t like the idea of forcing women to wear it.

    I went to a women’s college. It was interesting to see the women go without makeup to classes, since there were no guys around, but they piled on the pancake for mixers, dates, and going anywhere where men were present. Sometimes I did their makeup for them because I was much better at it than they were. Yeah, a lot of women wore makeup to be more attractive to men but I knew plenty who wore it because it made them feel good about themselves. I don’t have a problem with it.

    I used to have a very feminine look back in the ’80s (including the big hair), but now I’m more classically tailored on some days and nearly goth on others. I wear a lot of black – a holdover from my stage days. I still have the big hair. My hair is nearly down to my waist, and I play with it all the time.

  11. January 24, 2005 at 7:00 pm

    Great post, Lauren. I linked back and followed up with some thoughts of my own…Cheers!

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