It took me a long time to embrace femininity in the Western cultural sense. In some respects, I still haven’t accepted it. But there is one thing that I do which is both expected and looked down on all at the same time (ah, double standards!) and that is makeup. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and so this post is going to talk about the social norms and standards of body modification (as seen through a “Michelle” filter).
Bias: My mother refrains from makeup because it irritates her skin something skin to an allergic reaction. I mention this only to show that I really didn’t have any emphasis placed on makeup growing up. I lived on a farm, and the chickens, cats, dogs, rabbits and equipment don’t care if you have on eye shadow. That being said, there came a time when the social pressures reached my small town and viola-a standard was created.
I was in fifth grade (so, age 11) and I wore shorts to school. Not the kind that would send teachers into a panic, but the kind that said “these were definitely overalls without the straps”. Two of the girls I saw in the library were looking at me and I went over to say hello. Before I knew it I head “Eww! You’re so hairy!” and my cheeks grew red, tears welled up and I ran home and shaved for the first time. That was also the last time I wore shorts to school. My legs were covered in nicks and cuts the next day, but I could (if I wanted to) roll my pant legs up and show everyone that I was a mature 11 year old with smooth legs.
It was also about that time that I found myself unable to say the word legs-because I was deeply aware of the latent sexuality of the female body. I couldn’t walk out of a room when men were present without being awkward, for fear that my legs were being watched. This had nothing to do with the people who were there, but everything to do with the way my brain took notice of the hypersexualization of my gender.
It was my freshman year in high school when I began to experiment with color combinations and a proto contouring (this was early 2000s, such a thing didn’t exist yet). I remember putting on navy blue lipstick and going to class, being gauked at and made fun of all day by people I didn’t even know. I remember hearing words like “goth girl has to go cut in the bathroom” and “she’s so weird”. I just happened to really like the color. And I never wore it again.
I created a certain “style” that I used each and every day. Black eyeliner, bright colored eye shadow, chap stick (because I thought bright colors on my lips would be a source of more ridicule). I have bright blue eyes (usually) and the colors compensate very nicely. One day though, I wore red eye shadow (something akin to Gerard Way’s look~check out My Chemical Romance). And I was asked multiple times if I was crying-because that’s how my look was interpreted. So out went the red.
Anyway, these stories are important, because they illustrate one very vital point: Makeup is a demand for women in America, up until you actually express yourself. Body modification is acceptable (and expected) up until you decide how to do it (or not).
I spent most of my college career not really wearing makeup. It wasn’t worth the chance of harassment. I mean, honestly, I was trying to learn, not pick up dates. And the more I studied, the more I understood the truth that I’ve been rediscovering for years:
Bodily autonomy is a good and sacred thing. And no, I don’t just mean reproductive rights. I mean choosing what happens to your body because you want it to (or don’t want it to)-not because of or for someone else but for your own self. I’ve been wearing various quantities of makeup for a few months now. I want to figure out my signature look before law school so I have time to perfect it and wear it that way forever. But why?
Because for me, it isn’t a cultural expectation. It’s the way I show my culture that I chose what happens to my own body.
I wear dark eyeliner (and lots of it) because I like it. I wear bright lipstick (of various shades) because it makes me feel awesome. I contour my face because I want to. I modify my body with piercings and (soon) tattoos and shaving (or not) and hair cuts because I choose to do those things for myself. I’m not “looking pretty” for other people. I’m not “getting dolled up” for other people. I’m looking the way I look because I like to look at myself. I like to catch my reflection in the windows of the buildings on campus and know that I am unstoppable.
Are there days when I look at myself and go “ehh, better not”? Sure. I’m not caught up in the way I look as the only facet of my identity that matters. But what I am is convinced that I am beautiful for myself and myself only.
For the record, I tell people that I’m “searching for the right shade of war paint” while I experiment with color combinations. Why? Because that’s how I see it.
I’m not decorating my face with dainty lines to look airbrushed and model-like. I’m looking to make a statement. I guess I am at war. At war with an oppressive culture. At war with those who would see women denied basic rights. At war with a justice system that’s institutionally racist and sexist and anti-religious equality. The first thing you see is my face-and if it doesn’t match how fierce I am on the inside, you won’t know to be afraid of my passion.