My fiancé is a youth literacy and soccer coach for an innovative after-school program that targets kids in urban areas. During the summer, he works as a counselor for two camps affiliated with the program, coaching soccer and teaching poetry writing and performance.
Usually, he works with boys 8- to 11-years-old, but, last school year and this summer, he’s worked with an all-girl group and a co-ed group of kids 12- to 14-years-old. It’s been a struggle for him all around, but he’s complained about the girls way more than the boys.
This has, of course, aggravated my black feminist soul and caused us to have quite a few “discussions” about how offensive I find it that he calls teenage girls “terrible” to teach.
The last discussion we had was on our way to Kennywood a couple of weeks ago. We went with our daughter and his mother to celebrate Baby Girl’s 9th birthday. We drove, and, being the extremely verbal people that we are (he’s an educator, I’m an educator, Grandma is a librarian), we talked the whole way there and back.
At one point in the conversation, he complained, again, about the girls he had to work with at camp–how “mean” they are–and it got me heated.
I told him that he was being unfair to them, labeling them that way, and he was lacking in empathy for what they were going through.
Girls get thrust onto the sexual market, I told him, as soon as they and their male counterparts start to experience puberty. Whether they are emotionally or psychologically ready for it or not, they get forced into competing with other girls to be more attractive, and they get pressured into trying to win that competition, by whatever means available.
So, even if they don’t want to be viewed as sexual beings, in order to not be teased or ostracized, they usually start worrying with their hair and clothes, with make-up and perfume, with the size and shape of their body, so they can fit in or at least they don’t stick out as an “oddity” that doesn’t want or feel the need to be “pretty.”
It’s a lot of pressure–I told my fiancé. Because you don’t have any real control over the facial features you inherit, or how large or small your breasts, hips, or butt become naturally, or the natural texture of your hair, or even how much money your parents can afford to spend on clothes and hair and nail appointments for you. Yet, you’re treated as if the way you look is entirely mutable and within your control.
Failing to fit one of the oppressively small number of beauty ideals–I told him–which the majority of girls do–and especially black girls–will make you angry. It will frustrate you. It will make you lash out. I know firsthand.
You resent the boys that reinforce the idea that you are “ugly.” You resent the adults that don’t seem to understand how hard it is to be viewed as less than other girls. You resent the girls that are “prettier” than you, and you resent the girls that may be struggling with feeling “pretty,” like you, but won’t be honest about it or choose to bully or build up their self-esteem by acting out on you.
He nodded and said he understood. I suspect he just wanted me to calm down and be quiet, but I didn’t push the issue. I let it lie.
I told myself that there is only so much he could understand about being a teenage girl as an adult male, but I crossed my fingers that he had heard and would consider at least some of what I said.
I’ve carried that conversation with me since it happened. Because I realized that when I was talking about the hypothetical teenage girl struggling with her appearance and so-called “value” in the sexual marketplace, I was thinking of myself.
The timeline of the evolution of my feminism gets fuzzier and fuzzier as I get older, but I remember sometime before I got with my first serious boyfriend (at 14!) thinking that I wouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to be “pretty” for men.
I told myself that I would never wear make-up or dress a certain way to seem “sexy.”
I now know that I did that because I was afraid to fail at being “pretty” or seeming “sexy,” but, at the time, I told myself that I was opting out because it was “stupid” to want to be either of those things.
I told myself that I was an intellectual, an artist, and a rebel, and all I needed was for people to see me as those things and validate me for being smart, creative, strong, and unique.
I didn’t need to be “pretty” because there were more important things to be.
Then, I met my first serious boyfriend. I got the opportunity to feel what I secretly feared I would never feel: the thrill of being wanted.
It was so intoxicating after years of being bullied by the other, “prettier” and more popular girls–who I had assumed would always win over me in every arena other than academics–that I threw my nascent feminism to the fucking wind and did everything I could to keep First Boyfriend interested in me.
First Boyfriend told me that I’d look older and sexier with shorter hair, and so I begged and got my first short haircut.
First Boyfriend told me that I had nice legs, and so I started to wear tighter pants and skirts.
Then, First Boyfriend told me that I needed to wear make-up.
I bought my first lipstick–Revlon’s Blackberry–and a compact of pressed powder the very next.
That began it. Me and make-up.
I wore that lipstick and pressed powder every single fucking day of my life, and made careful, continual re-application into a behavioral tic about which my friends and family teased me, until I turned 25, and a friend put me on to MAC.
Then, I wore MAC every single fucking day of my life until my postpartum depression got so deeply entrenched that I couldn’t care anymore about make-up or anything much else outside of caring for my baby and keeping myself from falling totally apart.
I was about 32-years-old before I could make the deliberate decision to leave my house without make-up. Any time I did it before that, from age 15 until 32, I was either sick, in an extreme hurry, or tending to some sort of emergency.
And, if I did leave the house without make-up, I would flatly refuse to go to certain places and go utterly out of my way not to be seen by people that knew me or that I wanted to impress.
I had grown ashamed of my own face without even realizing it.
I had a similar thing going with my hair. I had relaxed, flawlessly coiffed hair. I was obsessive about maintaining it, too.
I wouldn’t work out, swim, or allow myself to get caught in the rain because water was its enemy.
I wouldn’t leave the house without it being perfectly styled, and I stayed checking myself in mirrors and windows, making sure not one hair was out of place.
I got it done every two weeks religiously. I wouldn’t allow anyone to touch it. I spent at least 45 minutes on it every morning. I spent copious amounts of money on it and countless hours in the salon, getting it done.
I mastered techniques for sleeping without losing my headscarf and messing it up at night; I learned to time my showers so the bathroom didn’t get humid enough to puff it out; I even figured out how to be on the bottom during sex and stop all the movement from messing up the nape of my neck or sweating out my edges; shit was that real.
Then, at 23, I realized that I was a prisoner to my hair. College had brought back my feminism with a vengeance, and I saw that I was being controlled by this idea that my hair had to be “flawless” in order for me to be “pretty.”
I started cutting it very short; that was as “rebellious” as I could stand to be at the time. I got the sides and back tapered, and I kept them ruthlessly low.
Then, I met a woman with a natural cut, and I became infatuated with the idea of cutting off my hair and going natural, too.
I thought she was brave because relaxed hair is a really rigid beauty standard in the black community, and I wanted to be that brave.
I wanted to believe in my beauty, and the power of my personality, enough that I didn’t “need” my relaxed hair.
And I cut it eventually. I went back-and-forth over the next few years between relaxing my hair and chopping it, wearing it straight and wearing it natural, but I didn’t stop grappling with the idea that I could–and should–accept my hair until I finally did.
Make-up has been tougher. Because a natural hair movement cropped up in the 15 years I struggled to accept my hair, but there hasn’t been a movement away from make-up, not of the same magnitude.
Even some of the staunchest feminists I know buy at least somewhat into the idea that women need to have perfect-looking skin, exotic-looking eyes, and full-looking lips.
And, for many of us, having perfect-looking skin or exotic-looking eyes or full-looking lips requires make-up.
With the exception of the lips, it requires me to wear a full face of make-up. That equals one foundation, four concealers, two blushes, a bronzer, three powders, mascara, eye liner, and no less than two lip pencils (I don’t wear lipstick or gloss because they wear off easier than pencil does).
Here’s the thing: I’m amazing at applying make-up. I have a very practiced hand. I learned from an actual MAC artist that taught me a new technique every time I made a $50 purchase.
I also have an impressive collection of high-end cosmetics. I have no problem paying $18 for a lipstick or $40 for a foundation because I believe that these things make me look better when I wear them than when I don’t.
What bothers me is that–the fact that I do believe I look better with make-up–the underlying belief that drives me to very meticulously paint a fake face over my real face any time that I do it.
That underlying belief is that my face, as it is, just isn’t fit for show.
Even as a feminist, and an adult, and a woman that has had boyfriends–an educated and rather evolved person–I believe that when people see me without make-up, they don’t like my face or think that it is attractive or that I am attractive.
This may not be what compels other women to wear their cosmetics, but I know and I can admit that this is what compels me.
I take issue with it, too.
I’m real enough to acknowledge that I cannot love myself really if I can’t embrace the way that I look without any artifice or alterations.
I am also wise enough to know that if I am still being controlled by patriarchal concepts or other people’s concepts of what makes me “pretty,” then I am being controlled by other patriarchal or outside concepts of who or what I should be.
And I don’t want that.
I want to determine for myself who I am and what makes me a worthy human being.
I’m getting married in December, and, even though I’m excited to be joining with my fiancé, on our 15th anniversary, no less, I am deeply, deeply anxious about standing up in a room in front of an audience to say my vows.
I don’t enjoy people looking at me. Not that I must. Not that feeling “pretty” is a right or necessity. But I shouldn’t be afraid of it. Not at this age or stage of my life.
I also shouldn’t need to be wearing a silicone mask in order to be all right with it, either.
So I work at accepting the way I look. Every day. In spite of all the messages I still receive about how badly I need to look differently than I do.
I take selfies. I post them. Some with make-up, some without. I play with filters and shadows. I try to capture moments and moods and not just “looks.” I try to see the art in my bones and muscles devoid of my make-up jobs.
I practice looking at these pics and thinking about what makes them appealing beyond how “pretty” I look in them.
I take pleasure in the fact that my features fit me into a chain of blood belonging to my beautiful mother and gorgeous daughter.
I try to treat wearing make-up as a choice and not a mandate, and I try to regard appreciating my face as a mandate and not a choice.
I started wearing make-up for a man. A wrong reason. And I will only continue to wear it if I can also be without it and still feel like I am decent-looking.
I don’t hate that man or make-up or my history with either, but I will not continue to have my concept of self-worth enmeshed with looking a certain way for another whole decade of my life.
I will be 40 in September, and I’m not blind to what I see in the mirror or naïve about it. Age is happening. Wrinkles are forming.
Those sharp lines are losing their acuity, and those discolorations and rough spots are growing more stubborn and prominent to the eye.
I know that in order to look less my age, I need make-up, but I’m determined not to be afraid to look my age. I’m determined to take pride in looking like a grown-ass woman.
I’m determined not to be afraid to look like me because I am not merely the sum of my face or physicality anyway.
I’m grateful to be able to say with some level of confidence now: I never was.