Monday, September 30, 2013

Unworthy, and unbeautiful: How I navigate feminism and femininity

 By Anči

As a feminist well versed in the oppressive lies of ‘the beauty myth,’ it’s a challenge to reconcile my hostility toward this particularly damaging social construct, with my enthusiastic participation in its many rituals. Yes it’s true:  I’m a feminist  who performs beauty.

And that’s what beauty is: a performance.  More than that, though it’s an investment… which in my case, means shelling out big bucks on skin products, laser hair removal treatments, (my nickname in 8th grade was “unibrow,”) and of course makeup!

For the most part, I enjoy the process—  It feels gratifying and even luxurious to spend time painting and  adorning myself . I like the way mascara makes my eyes pop; and for special events, I might also bring out the eyeliner,  or some  blush. (Because how else would everyone know how seriously I take their Office Christmas Party? )

Putting myself together always brings on that familiar, satisfied relief that accompanies any patriarchy-approved transformation.  Every woman is familiar with the affirmation that ensues the moment we snap our makeup mirrors shut.  It says ‘Now I am presentable. Now I am deserving of respect.’

This is obviously a deeply problematic assessment to make—one that equates worth and humanity with looks. It’s also an attitude we’ve been taught since childhood. I recall being told many times as girl, that putting effort into my appearance is what  tells the world that I respect myself.  (Up until then, I hadn’t realized that my sacred self-respect boiled down to whether or not I had plucked my eyebrows that day.)

Of course, attempting to gauge the opinion a person has of herself, based on how polished she looks, is ridiculous. (And petty. And judgemental. ) After all, I am at my most confident when  I’m  writing , and believe me when I tell you I am neither plucked, nor matching right now.

So how can I keep  participating  in the global deception that is “beauty,” when I am so painfully aware of its effects on women?

The answer is complicated.

 For  many women, complying with beauty standards is a question of social survival.  In a world where being ‘unattractive ‘ translates into being invisible, beauty performance  can serve as a weapon against the isolation, dismissal and contempt reserved for the unbeautiful. If you don’t believe me, consider this: In July, when I got a flat tire, and emerged from my car in heels and a dress, I was instantly surrounded by concerned, helpful men, eager to change my tire, and give me rides. Then consider the number of times you’ve walked past a homeless person, in even graver need of assistance.  The difference is simple: In the first case, my appearance conveyed enough status to warrant care, and  attention, while in  the homeless man’s case, his appearance undermined him, rendering him invisible, and undeserving of empathy.

Beauty  performance is more often an act of survival,  than it is an indicator of selfishness. Often times, it is simply a gesture of appeasement--  a way to placate the male gaze, and reassure a male dominated society of peaceful compliance.  ‘See? We’re playing along. Your precious power structure is still intact.’

Of course, nobody applies makeup with the conscious intent of exhibiting status, or placating patriarchy.  Most of the time makeup feels like girly fun— for me it’s a tool for self expression,  a way to be creative!  I’m certainly not  trying to imply that women who perform beauty are weak, pitiful creatures.  We are complex, human beings, reacting to, and evolving with our environment.

I want to make it clear that the intent of this post was never to shame feminine women , but rather to deconstruct the significance of their actions.  If feminism has taught us anything, it’s that the personal is political, and that whether or not we mean to be sending a message, every single one of our actions reflects and establishes our norms and values.

What does beauty mean to you?

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Ana. Beauty is something I struggle with--when I was young I loved playing dress-up, but as I got older I rejected fashion and make-up as being "too girly". I never wanted to seem frivolous or "high-mainenance" and thought people would take me more seriously if I didn't seem to care about my appearance. I even looked down on women who spent a lot of time talking about/being interesting in their appearance. I was so judgmental. As I've gotten older I've realized the same thing you have--if a woman doesn't fit into a certain standard of grooming she's seen as having low self-esteem. We'll get judged, either way. Now I'm slowly allowing myself to enjoy "beauty as a performance" as a form of self-expression, and trying not to write off women who have an interest in fashion and beauty.