A week ago I made my first foray into aligning my outward appearance with the gender I identify with, that of a woman. As a person whom has spent 35 years of their life looking only to the men’s section of appearance option, beginning to dive into the feminine side of it proved to be both comforting, and shocking.
My first foray, was my spouse shaping my eyebrows. I had spent much of my life with two big caterpillars sitting above my eyes, so any attempt to move forward in seeing myself closer to how I feel inside, would require these caterpillars to be addressed. Going through the process, a process I could not begin to understand the rules of, enlightened me. And in the end, my wife did an amazing job. But it wasn’t until later, that what I had learned that day really hit.
Many women do this. Maybe the majority of women do this. I don’t know the percentages, but a lot seem to do this. It was looking at the newspaper that night, seeing a group of business woman whom all had shaped eyebrows, that made it really hit me. I could imagine each of them, sitting down every so often, or at some point, to take care of their eyebrows. To pluck. To shape. For each woman there was some number of hours spent, and with the 8 or so in the picture, my brain multiplied that. Imagine, something so common, something they each probably notice of each other, but to most males, it’s a code, a language, that we may notice, but somehow really not notice we are noticing. Much the same way an artist can change the whole feeling of a painting with a few simple strokes, to my brain, indoctrinated in male norms and practice, it was a like a song sung in a language foreign to me; I could appreciate the melody, but I had no clue what the words meant.
When Beth asked if I’d like to write something here, this story above was what popped into my head. And I was very saddened by the ultimate realization of the story. Not because so many women spend time on their eyebrows, but because it was something that many of them spend time on, and I didn’t notice it. Like a friend who spent a lot of time making you a present, and then you assumed they bought it; I felt bad because I wasn’t recognizing the effort. I wasn’t recognizing the message inherent in the final thing. To each of these women, the way they chose to shape their eyebrow, is a communication to the outer world about who they believe they are, and who they want to me. And that is a very deep thing. And as a person who grew up with male norms, on the male side of the fence, my eye just took it for granted.
Growing up, my reaction to make-up, and beauty was generally a bad thing. My mother generally preferred the natural look. I always assumed she never wore make-up , but with the realization about eyebrows a few days ago, I am now thinking she probably put some kind of concealer on, but my ignorance towards make up clouds this. The times she would wear make-up would be for special functions. And when a function was special, it was probably a little stressful, and my dad, taking the perception of the family to be more important than the actual condition of the family, would generally freak out in these instances, and abuse would ensue. The presentable family of ours would arrive to the function; my sister in dress, me with my suit and combed hair, and my Mom, hair teased and with red lipstick, the only time I’d notice her wearing lipstick, but all presentable and all smiling. But behind the combing of my hair, was the screaming that it took by my father to get me to do it. Behind my mom’s teased hair, was a threat I heard yelled at her, echoing in the bathroom in which she was applying it. And behind the smiles was a nervousness, of whether my dad would take his anger out in public and embarrass us, or save it for us when we got home. So the special function was like a limbo. Waiting outside the courtroom to see what the verdict would be. I’d smile and try to enjoy something to eat, any little thing, to make these last few moments worth the trouble that would explode when we got back home, or on the car ride back.
And this was the 80s. Women prompted like peacocks to enter the business world. Like birds fluffing to let aggressors know they have size and weight, and therefore fight, everything in 80s fashion was big. Teased hair to make them bigger. Extremely red lipsticks that escaped the palette of the wearer. And shoulder pads, shoulder pads in everything. I used to wonder, ‘why does my mom’s jacket have padding like a football player?”. ‘To protect her from the shit she has to deal with’, I soon realized. Be that the angry boss whom under pays her and treats her as if her job is just a hobby because she is married, or in defending her kids from that man that will take every expensive grocery bill, every school expense, every need of new clothing or shoes for us kids, out on her, as if she, bearing the news of what the children need, had created the need, in some effort to fuck with him. Shoes that last was an important thing, not for the utilitarian aspect, but because it meant less statements of need to my father, and less opportunities for arguing and abuse.
So, as you can imagine, my view of make-up, of dressing up, of beauty, was a bit tarnished. I saw it as covering up the truth of life. Replacing hurt, with a smile. A lie. And when I got into punk rock and heard Eve Libertine and Crass, songs like “Reality Whitewash’, I found instant identification and ratification of my thoughts on make-up and beauty.
It wasn’t until my late teens, when I met punk women who wore make-up, strong women, one of them being Beth, that I was able to understand make-up as something that could be applied by choice, rather than just appeasement to patriarchy. And it was very confusing at first. But seeing their strength, and then the fun they had, and joy, in applying it, in looking good, I realized that it was not concealment at all. In fact, it may have been closer to a weapon, because in beautifying themselves, selves that were inherently political, they were greasing the mechanics of the mechanisms that had been used to accept oppression, patriarchy, and turn it on it’s head.
When I was talking to Beth the other night, she told me of the power of Ritual in beauty. That for many women, the process of it is very gratifying. It allows a person to feel good about themselves in a rather predictable way, a way that can be counted on. This was fascinating to me and I tried to think of male rituals of similarity, but I could not think of any. And in understanding the empowering, both in outward perception, but really in INWARD perception of the ritual, I came to understand it as not what I had believed it to be.
In the years of seeing my Mom put on make-up for the special occasions, I had never considered what my Mom felt of make-up. Looking back, she forfeited so much of her own personal needs; decent shoes, decent clothes, jewelry other than what was given by my father, to save herself from arguments. Also, with the little money she was afforded from my father, despite her own income, she generally had little to spend after paying for us kids. I noticed though, after she left my dad, and became comfortable on her own, she began wearing nice clothing. Good shoes. And spending time on her appearance in a way that looked like an extension of who she was, rather than something she was trying to be. I remember the first time I saw her in her suit, which she wore to manage the store she worked at, and it blew my mind. And I was so happy for her.
As I still exist in the punk and activist communities, I come across varying views on make-up, some view it as a tool, others as lingering tool of patriarchy to objectify women. And in some critical senses, a view that such a thing is a luxurious example of conspicuous consumption of a capitalist society. But make-up pre-dates Capitalism all together. In the poorest of countries, people wear make-up. Even men wear make-up. In some instances, we can see people who own very little, but the one extravagance they have is the painting, the colors, they apply to their bodies. In these instances they use make-up to express their souls visually, much like the formal artist. I cannot imagine condemning an artist for using colour too freely, as being shallow or consumptive, or politically irresponsible for doing so. And accordingly I think to take a negative approach to make up, denies the experience and will of those whom wear it. Make-up has a duality; to express, and to normatively please, in those dualities comes another duality; in whom both expression and pleasing is aimed towards, society, which in the west is patriarchal, and the wearer, which in the west is generally someone who identifies as a woman. So in condemning the make-up as patriarchal, we also rob women of a form of expression. And if we understand the desire to make ourselves beautiful as something inherent in the human condition, we realize that condemning the wearing of make-up because of it’s use towards pleasing men, disassociates women from the ability to please themselves, to feel good about themselves, by beautification. And that just seems to be another example of a patriarchal society defining the roles that women should be defining for themselves.
Let us be beautiful.