Thursday, June 18, 2009

I Feel Pretty, I Feel...Coerced Into Being Co-Opted By the Patriarchalist Beauty Myth

I wear makeup. Almost everyday. In fact, I'm writing this from a nail salon, where some nice ladies are tackling my feet with a belt sander.

Now, when I say makeup, I mean just any old cosmetic. Most days, it's just some lipstick, and long-wear stuff at that, so I don't have to touch it up during the day; when I have to do a client visit, or am going out on the town, I'll add some blush and eye makeup. The whole deal takes about five minutes.

I wasn't always so minimalist. When I first began to present as female outside of my apartment, I wore a lot of makeup. Some of it was by necessity: beard shadow is tough to hide, so heavy foundation was usually called for. Some of it, of course, was just wanting to wear makeup, because most of the time I didn't allow myself to.

Since those days, I've done various things (like electrolysis) to make my life easier. Yet I still wear makeup, and as I am an introspective feminist, I wonder about what it says about me that I do.

Part of the reason is definitely to avoid any "OMGITSADOOODLOLZ". The last time I went out of the house without wearing lipstick (about a year ago) I got "clocked" (picked out as trans) rather nastily. At six a.m. Before I'd had any coffee.

Such trouble, I don't need.

Another reason is that I actually like to wear makeup, at least some of the time. I like the way it makes me look. I like the way that liking the way I look makes me feel, just as I like how I feel when I think I'm wearing a nice-looking outfit.

This is obviously a bit more problematic.

Because there's no doubt that doing so feeds into negative stereotypes of how a woman is supposed to look, dress, and act. There's little doubt in my mind that most of these are patriarchalist; that many are demeaning to women; that they constitute an ongoing backlash against women who dared be more than adjuncts to male sexuality.

I mean, hey, I've read Naomi Wolfe, I get all that.

But in my case it's even more complicated. Because, you see, I never had a girlhood; I didn't spend my childhood having lessons about what is proper or popular drummed into my head; and because of that, my relationship to fashion and cosmetics is a lot less complicated than most women my age.

I'm a bit like my friend Joanna. (Not that it matters, but she's not trans.) She didn't spend her high school or even early-adult years worrying that much about the latest clothes, the hippest trends. But around the time that I began to become interested in finding clothes I thought made me look good, instead of clothes that just made me look like a woman, she became interested in fashion. And she's now one of the most fashionable people I know, though not trendy or consumed with a passion for the next unattainable fashion accessory.

For both of us, our clothes, our makeup, our appearance is a lot more about the pleasure we get from it than a pressure to fit in. I won't deny that pressure exists--of course it does; but we both feel a lot more comfortable resisting it.

Or like I said before, we dress the way we do because of how it makes us feel, not because of how we feel we have to.

Ariel Levy said something in Female Chauvinist Pigs that I think gets at what I'm saying:

Monitoring her appearance and measuring the response to it have been her focal point. If her looks were a kind of hobby--if dressing and grooming and working out were things she did for pleasure--then the process would be its own reward. But she spoke of her pursuit as a kind of Sisyphean duty, one that many of her friends had charged themselves with as well.
I guess what I'm saying is that I definitely don't feel the Sisyphean duty part of that equation.

But by the same token, I can't help thinking about exactly how much I'm co-opted with the use of standards of beauty to repress women, that I can't help but think that while I may feel good for wearing certain clothes, that's only because the patriarchal culture around me tells me that I should, that these shoes/skirts/jeans make you feel good, and those (comfortable) shoes/(not-tight) skirts/(loose enough to breathe in) jeans won't. It's hard to sort out and the only thing that comforts me is that a lot of other women my age struggle to sort it out too.

But I'm still going to wear lipstick. Because more than one "LOLZURAGUYYYY" is too much. Hell, one was already too much.


  1. "I can't help but think that while I may feel good for wearing certain clothes, that's only because the patriarchal culture around me tells me that I should,"

    it's so damn hard, isn't it? on one hand, make-up makes you feel pretty and "presentable," but on the other hand, it is still oppressive because none of us (western) women have ever really had the choice presented to us neutrally. the patriarchy says, "oh, you don't have to wear make-up. it's your *choice*," while the subtext of that is, "you don't have to wear make-up, but if you don't you won't be pretty and won't have friends/professional opportunities/lovers. but really, you don't *have* to..."

    I have a slightly different perspective because I also tend to think of women's issues in terms of the environment.

    lately my struggle has been looking "pretty" vs. refraining from putting all those questionable chemicals on my face (which also happen to be packaged in plastic). hopefully I'll get to writing about that soon.

    good post, though.

  2. Maggie,

    Exactly! Though in some ways it's even worse for trans women, who get hit by the double-bind of being accused of being superficial and only wanting the trappings of femininity if we show an interest in makeup or fashion, and questioned on our gender and why we'd want to transition if we don't.

    And thank you for your kind remarks!

  3. My brain is bubbling from the ideas you've made me think about in this post - nothing coherent yet, so I hope that in place of a contribution of anything thought-provoking, you'll accept my appreciation for what you do.

  4. Do you really not feel the Sisyphean duty to be pretty? I'm just thinking about your comments about being "clocked" - it sounds to me that you feel a duty to wear at least a little makeup to avoid being read as trans. I realize that's a little different from the duty to be pretty you were getting at, though.

    For myself, still in transition, I rarely get clocked as trans. But that is because when I work through the numbers, I put together my height, the fact that I started late and so hormones haven't done much for me, the general lack of dressiness in my job (my coworkers, male and female, pretty much wear jeans and T-shirts) and my own disinclination to dress up, well, I usually just get taken as my original assigned gender. I don't like it, but when "passing" is basically infeasible, it's just less trouble.

  5. @AC: Well, it's complicated, innit?

    I suppose I don't feel *Sisyphean* about it, because by this point I've made the (sometimes surgical) alterations to my body that I don't worry (much) about getting read--that is, there isn't a sense of endless futility, I know what I need to do to not get read and I do it.

    So I don't feel locked into an endless cycle of dissatisfaction with my looks; my clothing style is basically a sort of classically fashionable look which means I'm not an endless trend-follower, and my makeup and hair likewise. It was the kind of constant pressure to keep up with the latest, to never feel satisfied with how you look, that I was talking about being free from.

    But it's really difficult to untangle all this stuff, and *that* might be my Sisyphean duty.

    Good luck on your transition--things do get easier over time, even if you end up writing a blog ;)

  6. The untangling is definitely a Sisyphean duty in my case. On one hand, I definitely cop to feeling pressured to look a certain way. I would totally be one of those hairy hippie chicks with leg and armpit and you know what hair surrounding me like a fine halo, if it wasn't for the social prohibition against it. I hate shaving. I hate the alternatives to shaving. It's expensive and time-consuming and I still do it because I can't stand the looks I get when I don't.

    Clothes and make-up though... Well, there is nothing wrong with any pursuits traditionally coded as feminine. Clothing, hair, makeup are all a language, and therefore one of the most basic forms of creativity, self-expression and communication available to human beings. Looking beautiful, looking well-dressed, looking the way you want to look - those are all good things, fun things, joyful things.

    The trouble begins where you start being coerced into them, or anything else. I would be as upset with unrelenting social pressure to enjoy baseball and football and beer as I am with the unrelenting social pressure to be invested in beauty. I don't want entities out there deciding what I should pay attention to or be interested in, and then shoving that thing down my throat, no matter how intrinsically nice and satisfying that thing might be.

    But when I do dress up and put on makeup, I generally know I am doing it for my pleasure. The reason is that, unlike body hair removal, I CAN be totally at peace with looking like a scary slob. I went through a 15-year-phase of dressing like Juno. It's only in the last couple of years that I realized, I enjoy NOT looking like Juno, and I like what makeup does to my face.

    But I still only bother when I can be bothered, and not a minute sooner.

  7. I really appreciated this post. I too like lipstick. I never wore it when I was really young, but I picked it up in my mid-20s and have hardly gone a day without it since. It's just fun! Plus, a little color keeps people from asking too often whether I'm under the weather.