Posts Tagged ‘appearance’

Lately I’ve been feeling like a bad feminist.

It kicked up a gear last month when my feminist book club read Feminism is for Everyone, by bell hooks. I learned a lot from the book, but the entire time I was reading it, I was thinking, “Wow, I feel like I’m really falling short, and I don’t even really understand how.” It talked about raising consciousness, and I’m pretty sure my consciousness is completely NOT raised. Whatever that means.

This month we’re reading Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay, which is making for a nice change of pace. Roxane Gay is smart and insightful and funny, and she also seems like she isn’t perfect, which is reassuring since I am also far from perfect.

For example, I have this fascination with eye makeup. It all started when my friend was visiting this coast from Boston, and the friends he was staying with invited me to stay for dinner. It was a lovely evening of good food and even better company, but I kept being distracted by the woman’s eyelashes. She had AMAZING eyelashes. And I was sitting there at the table, wondering if she glued on fake eyelashes every morning or if she was able to work these wonders with mascara, and if so, why had I never been able to work similar wonders with mascara?

Thus began my fascination. It started with mascara experimentation, but after some months I branched out to an interest in eyeliner and different colors of eye shadow. And a few weeks ago I took a field trip to Sephora and obtained this fat eyeliner pencil that is a modern wonder of cosmetics.

Flawed Feminist

Flawed Feminist

And every time I play with eye makeup, I know I’m probably being a bad feminist. I’m propagating a certain ideal of feminine beauty, and I guess as a feminist I’m supposed to deliberately subvert that ideal, and I don’t. I get almost as annoyed when people imply I shouldn’t wear makeup as I do when people imply I must wear makeup. I want to look the way I want to look, and I want to wear what I want to wear, and I don’t want to care about the messages I’m sending or the subconscious misogynistic ideas I’ve no doubt internalized over the years. And so I wear makeup when I feel like wearing makeup.

Also, when I’m on a date with a guy, I allow him to pay. I’m pretty sure a good feminist would not do this. My rule is never assume, but accept graciously. I cannot pretend that this is motivated by anything but self-interest. I don’t want to get into an argument about who’s paying for dinner (conflict adverse, me?), and also, it’s really nice when someone buys you dinner. The allure of free food and being fed, which to all rights should have died down after college, remains strong. The allure of being treated remains strong. It’s also super unfair, and I know this, and yet. I accept graciously.

Even my language is suspect, and for a writer, this is inexcusable. I like to say and write “you guys.” I like to say, “Man.” I know a good feminist would never say or write these things. And I do try to avoid this gendered language sometimes, especially in tweets. But there aren’t any good alternatives! I’ve tried “you all,” but I’m not from Texas and I’ll never be from Texas. “You people” is horrible. “Friends” sometimes works, but not always. And the best substitutes for “Man” are all profanity. So I have to choose between saying “Man” and swearing a lot.

I imagine if I had my consciousness raised, I wouldn’t do any of these things. I’d effortlessly never say “you guys” and I wouldn’t wear any makeup EVER EVER and I’d insist on going Dutch every single time. So where does this leave me?

I guess it leaves me far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean feminism isn’t important to me. That doesn’t mean being a feminist isn’t part of my identity. I think what it really means is that I’m human and flawed and complicated, and aren’t we all?

You guys, I’m a bad feminist. But even so, I’d rather be a bad feminist grappling with these issues than not be a feminist at all.

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Around my birthday, I received a request to write on the blog about my thoughts on aging. It’s a fabulous topic but oh so loaded, so I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about what to say.

I could spend the next five hundred words dancing around the topic, and we all might be a little more comfortable if that’s what I did (I certainly would), but here’s the truth. My views on aging are inescapably tied to my own present experience, and my own present experience is as a woman of a certain age, and a single woman, no less. And what society and the media tells me about women like me is not palatable. I have to expend a certain amount of energy rejecting the negative messages I’m receiving, and even so, I sometimes internalize them by accident.

This is not pretty, but it is reality.

Like it or not, we live in a society that places a very high value on youth and on physical appearance. Women in particular receive constant messages from a very young age that their primary value comes from their appearances, appearances that will inevitably, because of our cultural beauty standard, fade with age. Aging, then, forces us to redefine our own value and place in the world. Women are also more likely to be defined in media by their relationships to others. By a certain age, if they’re in the movies at all, they’re most often somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife, and beyond these roles, they aren’t very fleshed out. (Television seems to do a bit better, which is why I adore Gilmore Girls, for example, in which the main character Lorelai, in spite of being a mother, consistently defines herself.)

So there are some obvious problems here, and earlier this year, I began to feel a new uneasiness about my age. I heard a comment about how it’s all downhill for a woman after 30, and I was unable to deflect. So instead I felt anxious and self-conscious about my age, and then I hit a mini-crisis point. A new acquaintance asked me point-blank how old I was, and my knee jerk response was to refuse to answer. That had never been who I was–I’ve never had any problem telling someone how old I am–but in that moment, I saw that it could become who I was, that I had begun to buy into the absurdity of belittling myself because of my age.

I had reached a crossroads, and after some reflection, I realized that no, this was not okay. We have to embrace who we are–ALL of who we are–and our ages are a part of that. There is nothing to be ashamed of there, whatever society may tell us, and if the question is framed in such a way as to create that shame, that’s on the other person. If my answer causes disappointment or judgment, well, that’s not a person who is going to enrich my life in any case.

And I told the acquaintance my age without apology.

When I contemplated which candles to buy for my “Come as You Aren’t” party, I decided to buy 5 and 0 because if I was coming as I wasn’t, I wanted to come older than I am. I wanted to say, my life would be just as awesome the way it is if I were 50. My age does not matter. My life is defined by myself and by the priorities I have carefully chosen. Not by my appearance. Not by my relationships to others. By me.

You know what I'm not thinking here? "Do I look old?" Nah, I'm thinking, lightsabers and tiaras and this is the first time I've worn a tie, oh my!

You know what I’m not thinking here? “Do I look old?” Nah, I’m thinking, lightsabers and tiaras and this is the first time I’ve worn a tie, oh my!

And I like being who I am. I feel more attractive than I did ten years ago, and I feel more comfortable in my own skin. I have such a greater understanding of who I am. When I look in the mirror, I don’t think, “Wow, I look old.” I think, “Hey, I look happy today” or “I’m tired, I need to start going to bed earlier” or “I need to open my mouth more vertically for that belted note” or even “I like the way I look.” Heaven forbid.

We think so much about age as a physical thing, and in particular how it affects the way we look. But part of age is very much an internal thing. Sometimes I feel vastly old, and sometimes I feel bright and new. (This feeling may or may not be correlated to how much sleep I’ve been getting.) Sometimes I have the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, and other times I have the world-weariness of a sixty-five-year-old. I can be as naive as a ten-year-old and as wise as a seventy-year-old. All on the same day!

Much more important to keep in mind, then, is a commitment to openness, to change, to flexibility and resilience. Much more important to cultivate is a sense of humor. Much more important to remember is to see the beautiful parts of the world as well as the painful parts in order to keep some lightness of spirit.

Because in the end what matters is not our age but who we have chosen to be in whatever time we’ve had.

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Please note: This essay is not an invitation to comment on my physical appearance. Any such comments will be deleted, even if they are complimentary, because that is counterproductive to the point I’m trying to make.

When I was a teenager, it was very clear to me that it mattered very much how I looked.

And I looked all wrong. I had an awkward phase that lasted years and years, complemented by having a mother who took no interest in physical presentation. So I didn’t know what clothes to wear that would flatter me. I didn’t know how to take care of my hair, or how the right haircut could make a big difference. I learned everything I knew about makeup from Seventeen and being in the theater. The style of glasses at the time was unfortunately large.

Eventually I figured most of these things out. I got better glasses. I started getting my hair cut and learned of the wonder that is conditioner. A few female friends in college went shopping with me and taught me about non-baggy clothing, and I began to develop my own sense of style.

I recently read Justine Musk’s post about the perception that women tend to be vain, and it struck a real chord with me. She goes on to say: “Even today, in 2014, the culture transmits the message to girls and women that there’s a direct correlation between looking good and being loved – or at least not being openly mocked.”

A few years ago Lisa Bloom wrote about how difficult it can be to refrain from complimenting a little girl on her appearance at the beginning of an interaction. She makes the effort, engaging girls about their interests and thoughts instead, because “teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.”

I’ve been taught since I was quite young that a real part of my worth is in my appearance. How many movies have I seen where the awkward nerdy girl gets a makeover that consists of tossing her hair around and pulling off her glasses? And then suddenly she’s worthy of attention and love and respect. The Princess Diaries. She’s All That. My Big Fat Greek Wedding. If the Shoe Fits. Grease, Mean Girls, and The Cinderella Story sans the glasses part of the equation. And let’s not forget The Breakfast Club. If we look at the quintessential Cinderella fairy tale, sure, Cinderella is patient and good and virtuous. But she needs her fairy godmother’s help with a makeover in order to win the heart of a prince. (The class implications of many of these makeover stories are fascinating as well. See Pretty in Pink.) The theme of transformation can be a powerful one, and an outer change can act to highlight an internal change, but the message is still clear: you are judged by your external appearance.

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

At the same time, women are criticized and called vain for caring about their looks. It’s a Catch-22 in which the “right” physical appearance is supposed to come naturally and effortlessly. We are not supposed to care about how we look, and we’re certainly not supposed to be aware of how we look (that would be conceited), but we are taught that our looks are paramount. And thus thinking we don’t look the right way leads to all kinds of psychological problems.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experimenting with personal identity by having a makeover (or several). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expressing who we are through our physical appearances. And how we hold our bodies can affect both how we feel about ourselves and how we are perceived. For better or for worse, the art of personal presentation, or style, if you will, can deeply affect how others see us.

But when we teach that physical beauty is the main path to love and worth as an individual, we are teaching shame. We are teaching people to hate their bodies, to be uncomfortable, that they are in some essential way not good enough. We are creating impossible situations. Would we prefer to be vain or unattractive? Must we fall into the small band that our society deems to be traditionally beautiful in order to receive respect? And what if we can’t?

And so we put on a tightrope act. I think of physical presentation as a kind of game, and I’ve learned enough of the rules and conform to enough of the standards that it’s no longer such a painful one. I usually know what rules I can get away with breaking, and I can get away with it because of the ways in which I already conform and the place where I live. Not everyone has these luxuries. Meanwhile, unplugging entirely from the game can come with its own consequences, not least among them having to live with the general consensus that it’s okay to make negative comments to someone else about their appearance.

For myself, I try not to confuse vanity and conceit with confidence. Having confidence in yourself, which includes your physical body, and becoming comfortable in your own skin is not something that is wrong or shameful. As Theodora Goss says in her post with advice about how to be photogenic: “You must believe you are beautiful.”

Yes. Yes, we must.

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I wrote last spring about clothing as a representation of identity. There’s an interesting dialogue going on now about clothing and other status symbols as they relate to class in the United States, begun by the essay “The Logic of Stupid Poor People” by Tressie McMillan-Cottom. Of course, this is not about exploring identity through appearance and presentation, as I was talking about, and much more about what it means to be able to carry off different signals of class and education through appropriate attire, speech patterns, and the like. This is a world in which whether you wear a cotton tank top or a silk shell under your blouse can mean the difference between being hired and being dismissed as not right for the job, regardless of any other qualifications.

This summer Theodora Goss wrote about the Lady Code:

“So dressing, for a woman, is a complicated affair. When you look into your closet in the morning — and even before that, when you buy your clothes in a store or online — you are making a choice about what you want to communicate. You are speaking in a coded language.”

This is, I think, why I am so interested in clothes, because I do see them as a means of communication. I didn’t learn the lady code or any of this sort of communication at home; my mom was completely not interested in matters of clothing or personal appearance. So I’ve had to learn it gradually as an adult, and I remember how much I still don’t know when I read some of Theodora’s posts. I don’t know the right kind of dress to wear to the ballet. I didn’t know that professional women don’t wear nail polish. For that matter, I didn’t realize the important distinction between a silk shell and a cotton tank top.

I’m fascinated that this coded language exists. Some people are unaware of it; some people don’t care about it (although when that is the case, it is usually because they are in a position in which they don’t have to care). Some people have trouble saying what they’d like to with it, either because they don’t know the language well enough or because they don’t have the financial wherewithal. That’s why historically if you were going to be introduced into society, you’d usually have some kind of sponsor, someone who could teach you all the intricacies you’d need to know to send the right message with your appearance and behavior.

John Scalzi talks about his go-to clothing choices (Levis, polo shirt, casual brown shoes) and how they represent “the basic uniform for a middle-class male.” Where I live, in the Silicon Valley, even a polo shirt for a man represents a certain amount of effort. Some men here tend to deliberately ignore style, which is a code in and of itself. Wearing random ill-fitting blue jeans and a free swag T-shirt from your company of employment? Probably a software engineer. Getting to wear those clothes is one of the perks of that position, at least if you’re a guy. I see that uniform less often on women around here, and even when I do see it, the clothing items tend to have a better fit, but I’m not close enough to the industry to say whether this is true across the board or not. I’ve also seen software engineers have to spruce up their wardrobes when they’re after certain promotions; they need their clothes to say something slightly different at that point. (But not too different. It’s a fine line.)

Look closely to see the little dog in this photo....

Look closely to see the little dog in this photo….

Today I’m wearing a black turtleneck sweater with metallic detailing, a ribbed blue shirt that peeks out from the bottom of the sweater, and stylish blue jeans. I’m wearing sneakers because I was out walking the dog this morning, but I’ll probably change shoes before I go out tonight. I’m not wearing any makeup, and I deliberately have a low maintenance hair cut. No jewelry today, although I’d add a necklace if I wanted to try harder.

All of those facts mean something in the coded language of dress and appearance. What are you wearing today? What messages do you think you’re sending? (And if you’re wearing a Halloween costume, I want to hear about that too, and especially what you think your choice of costume says about you.)


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I have something of a clothing habit.

I was thinking about why this might be the case the other day, because if I could get rid of my clothing habit, it would be better for my space constraints, not to mention my budget. I know I can get quite nostalgic about my clothing, but that’s not all it is because I gave away whole heaping bags of nostalgic clothing a few months ago, and yet my clothing habit still exists.

But I realized that for me, what’s exciting about clothing is its representation of possibilities of identity. There’s a reason there’s a stereotype of teens being obsessed with clothing (and really, appearance in general) right at the same time that they’re exploring and experimenting with who they are. And I have all those possibilities of who I could be hanging in my bedroom to be pulled out at any time.

This is me needing to get a lot done at home.

This is me needing to get a lot done at home.

Of course, appearance and other markers such as vocabulary and accent are used by people to categorize each other. And as much as we might not like that this is true, it is true. How we present ourselves to the world matters. People will treat us differently based on the assumptions they’ve made about us, and some of those assumptions are based on what we’re wearing and how we’re carrying ourselves.

But what’s really interesting to me is how we can use things like clothing and hair style and posture to change ourselves from the outside in. If I’m wearing a cute skirt and blouse and boots, I feel very different from when I’m wearing a fitted T-shirt and jeans, which feels very different from if I’m wearing extremely baggy clothing. So my closet becomes about having access to the choice as to how I want to feel today. Do I want serious practical “I’m taking on the world today and getting stuff done” clothes? Or do I want active sporty “I might actually exercise today” clothes? Do I want “I am elegant and refined and fascinating” clothes? Or “I am sick and just want to hide out at home all day” clothes? If I’m wearing a Disney T-shirt, that says something very different from if I’m wearing a black shift.

Whereas this is me wanting to go out to eat tapas and have conversation about what it is to be an artist.

Whereas this is me wanting to go out to eat tapas and have conversation about what it is to be an artist.

It’s not just clothes either. A few years ago, thinking it would improve my writing, I read The Definitive Book of Body Language, by Barbara and Allan Pease. After reading the discussion on posture, I decided to experiment on myself. I tend to cross my arms in front of me (or do a half-cross like in the above photo), which isn’t a very open posture. So whenever I thought of it at parties or conventions, I would deliberately put my hands behind my back in a more confident posture. Once I got past the initial awkwardness, I began to feel more confident as a result of standing differently. And now I stand that way more often without thinking about it. Pretty neat, huh?

Unfortunately, this train of thought did not lead to me ditching my clothing habit. But it reminded me that sometimes playing with our identities, even if it’s only in small and outward ways, can help us both learn more about ourselves and change ourselves. It’s a way to honor the fact that our identities are often complex and multi-faceted. And it is a way to remind ourselves of how much of life is really making believe and playing pretend, just as it was when we were children.

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