Due to a friend currently processing some gender identity issues, I’ve been thinking a bit about my own presentation lately. I can count among my many working privileges the benefits of being cisgendered and more-or-less heterosexual; I’m comfortable in the pre-fab box, so to speak.
I have a lot of luxuries due to this privilege. It doesn’t really matter how I dress; my biological status is fairly unambiguous; I’ll always be read as female. The vast majority of the time, my sole concession to actively presenting female consists of wearing fitted t-shirts over my jeans. I like the way they look; I like that they are comfortable and supportive; and I like that there’s no faffing about with buttons or zips or any of the myriad fastenings and designs that end up being complicated and fidgety and distracting with regard to my figure. I’m vain, don’t get me wrong, but I balance my vanity against effort, and the desire to avoid unnecessary effort and discomfort usually wins in the end. I have things to do. I have to concentrate. And I don’t have a job where my superiors insist on button-down shirts, so I take full advantage of that.
Jeans and t-shirts dominate my wardrobe choices.
As I pondered this issue – the issues of gender identity, conformity, socially constructed femininity, in a nutshell – I remembered an article in some women’s magazine I read in my teens. I don’t remember if it was Dolly or Girlfriend or Cosmo or Cleo. I suspect Cosmo, based on the implied audience for the article, and the fact that I never really read Cleo, even as a teenager.
Let me be clear: I don’t expect good sense from these magazines, although I’m not sure if I did back in my more impressionable adolescence. Even back then, though, I remember getting pretty cross about this article, which was attempting to provide a “male view” of long-term (presumed: heterosexual) relationships (and whose bright idea was this? Because all male views of relationships are identical, so you only bother to ask one guy how he sees things and then say “This is how guys think about relationships”?).
It opened with how it didn’t matter what you looked like (O rly?) as long as you were “taking care of yourself”, i.e. it was upsetting when women (1) gained weight, (2) wore tracksuit pants around the house and (3) didn’t wear makeup.
I’m not even going to touch the weight gain issue. There’s eight or nine blog posts – or perhaps an entire blog – in that alone. As I sat there, my fifteen year old butt clad in jeans and my adolescent face smelling of Panoxyl rather than foundation… what?
No, seriously, what?
In what universe is wearing comfortable pants and not covering your face with gunk a sign that you are not taking care of yourself?
Are we supposed to be dressing up all the time? Did this guy have any idea how much work that was? How uncomfortable it could be? How expensive it could be? Seriously, did he think we had nothing better to do with our time?
As for makeup: how is not wearing makeup “not taking care of yourself”? This reminds me of an episode of Malcolm in the Middle I once saw; the leading woman in the show worked in a supermarket. Customers had complained she looked “slovenly” because she didn’t wear makeup (or enough makeup – I don’t remember it well), despite her being neat and clean. When she finally was wearing enough makeup for her bosses to stop complaining, she was propositioned outside the store by a man who thought she was a prostitute. She then dragged him back inside as evidence to her employer. As problematic as this might be in other areas, the demonstration that one person’s “nice makeup” is normalised to “ridiculous” or from “neat and clean” to “slovenly” depending on a particular individual’s personal preference or expectation of what women should look like at any given time is… pretty funny, because it’s so true that it almost hurts.
Seriously, what’s so wrong with my face? Who am I supposed to be impressing with this thing? The people I need to impress with it are already impressed and are unlikely to backpedal on this issue. Sure, if I have a breakout, I may dig up the foundation, because I feel selfconscious – but feeling selfconscious about one giant cystic pimple dominating your chin is different from feeling selfconscious about your entire face.
The gendered level of pressure regarding this sort of thing is readily apparent. It’s not that men aren’t pressured to conform to certain stereotypes (quite the contrary), but I can hardly convince Husband that it’s normal to use cleanser every day (rather than just when you’re breaking out). Apparently that’s odd. Most males of my acquaintance cleanse with tap water.
So we end up trapped at opposing ends of this rather ridiculous arbitrary continuum where I’m supposed to spend extraordinary amounts of effort on the appearance of my face (I mentioned previously that I like skincare, and that’s true, but come on, there’s a limit) in order to confirm my femininity, and Husband is supposed to spend none at all, except in case of breakouts, and that’s the manly option.
No prizes for noticing that the manly option involves zero effort and expense (although I should probably acknowledge the whole face shaving issue, which is mostly a blackbox to me).
At fifteen, when I read that article, I’d already realised that what seemed to be normalised in pop culture – in magazines and teen romance novels – wasn’t really normal in my world, for me or my friends. It was like the “football players/cheerleaders” trope in American teen movies – it was just not part of our lives in our own high school. Likewise, I couldn’t have been less interested in make-up if I actively tried. The first time I really wore make-up was to my year eleven formal, and I paid someone else to do it, and took it off halfway through the formal. The same thing happened the following year.
Since then, I have had actual fun with makeup. Theatre had a lot to do with that. I spent a few years very much enjoying playing with eyeliner and eyeshadow and foundation and lipstick and so on, and I had a great time. I suspect I overdid it. Well, theatre, you know. Every now and then, I decide I would like to get glammed up. I ditch the jeans and I get a bit femme. It’s fun, but it’s only fun because it’s optional. I have a weakness for pretty dresses, but I’ve had to stop buying them because I almost never wear them – only to big family events and conference dinners, or the very occasional “date” with Husband. For funsies.
All of which comes back to the issue wherein I’m privileged, and I don’t have to tell anyone how to read me, or try to manipulate my appearance to the point where they will read me as I wish to be read. I can dip my toes in the water of culturally-sanctioned femininity when the mood hits me, and the rest of the time I can just run on autopilot. Others like to dress up more, or less, or never, and that’s fine too, but it’s unsettling to know there are people out there who think I am “not taking care of myself” because I like comfortable clothes and almost never wear makeup.
I have known guys who use the phrase “woman in comfortable shoes” as a homophobic slur, which sends up multiple red flags of catastrophic stupid.
I’m not sure where this is going, except for the fact that it always surprises me to find out that there are women who genuinely feel obligated to get femme all the time, regardless of whether they want to or not, and who feel as though it is an absolute social necessity and there’s something radically hardline feminist about not wanting to spend the time and money, or experience the discomfort. And all this leaves me wondering – from the safe comfort of my privilege – about the difficulties transwomen face if they don’t want to get super femme but want to present as women and be read in that way.