I’m not sure how old I was when this happened – not a young woman, per se, but definitely not a child anymore. We’re at the seaside with some friends. I’m super-stoked about my new bathing suit – a black one piece with leopard print across the chest, that makes me look like a ballerina. I’m loving everything – the beach, the sky, the sea, and I’m constantly spending time with the daughter of my mother’s close friend. She’s a whole year older than me and so, so cool.
Then I’m coming out on shore, and someone in our group tells me that perhaps it’s time for me to shave my legs. I don’t think I’d felt more flustered in front of an adult before. (That was before I had to have a cardioechography done by a male technician.)
Flash forward. Some years later, another vacation. I get a comment about facial hair. No, not my eyebrows. My chin. Apparently, I’m cultivating a “Ho Chi Minh” style beard without noticing.
A few weeks later, I’m dropped off at the beautician’s office to have the hair removed (for some reason, it’s a family affair, even though I’m much older.) The lady makes me lie back, puts a huge magnifying glass over me, and makes worried noises (much exaggerated, in my opinion). She tells me that this wouldn’t happen if I behaved in a more feminine manner.
Flashback. Middle school humiliations. Valentine’s Day is when you and your friends exchange messages and cards, and I’m not expecting a message on an unfamiliar piece of paper. I open to find an unsigned note saying that someone would like to “kiss my fungus lips”.
Flash forward. (Or is it back?) The class slam book contains comments on how I’m a huge bitch, but also that my tits are nice. That’ll sum up my interactions with boys for the next decade or so.
What is beauty? What is attractiveness? I’ve been wrestling with the idea for longer than it deserves, in my honest opinion. Growing up, I knew I was different – the whole leg business made that pretty clear – so I’d accepted early on that I’d be a “smart one”. (I grew up in a country where the beauty-smart divide is pretty radical, even for a “Western” country.) Later, I amended that to being “unconventionally attractive” and someone you have to “get used to” and “grow to like”, and other turns of phrase usually applied to leafy greens and stinky cheese.
I rallied against the conventional standards of beauty while keeping my hair long, layered, and wore no make-up. I then chopped off all my hair and got into make-up tutorials and skincare regimes because I really wanted my acne to go away. I ran. I did Jiu Jitsu, in clubs where women were a pronounced minority, and practiced my “down-with-the-boys” swagger while maintaining a beauty blog and lusting after £30 foundation.
Recently, articles pertaining to “beauty obsessions” keep popping up on my feed. Quizzes that tell me I’m a beauty junkie, even though I don’t own a single eyebrow pencil and would rather die than put hemorrhoid cream on my eyes. Videos explaining why beauty standards are oppressive (as if I already don’t know, so why oh why was I watching?) but patronizingly telling me that I’m still allowed to enjoy feeling beautiful, even if I play into the system while doing it. YA novel after YA novel demonizing girls who wear make-up, while our heroine runs around, bare-faced and completely radiant, and wins at life. It’s more than a little bit grating.
I’m an artist. I love to write, but I also love to draw. Color is my thing, even if I have a lot less control of a paintbrush than I do a pen or even a pencil. I like a mess. No, I love a mess. Writing takes a lot of thought, but painting is truly physical for me. It’s my eyes and my hands working together to bring out a vague feeling or image to paper.
When I take a brush to my face, when I apply make-up, I’m not covering up what other people see as imperfections and barriers to my attractiveness – I’m playing. Sometimes I’m successful, other times I’m not, but I find the act strangely soothing. I feel confident. I feel like I’m connecting with something deep inside of me, something that doesn’t always readily manifest itself at the start of a day. Call it war paint, if you want. I see it as something that brings me pleasure.
The sad belief I’ve held all my life is that all people care about leg hair, and facial hair, and pimples, and how long the locks on my head are, and if I weigh more than 50 kilos. But it doesn’t matter. It never mattered. It doesn’t take much at all for people to sexually objectify you, and as for the rest, if they get close enough to examine the state of my lips, they can also hear what comes out of my mouth, and if that doesn’t please them, they can move right the fuck on. Likewise, it didn’t matter how skinny or sweet I was, or how well I waxed my eyebrows, or how diligently I applied lipstick… if someone didn’t like me back, that was it, and there was nothing I could do to change their minds.
It’s not a pleasant realization to make, especially when I was knee-deep into disordered eating and abusing exercise to cope with an already messy situation. But it is what it is.
I don’t like it when people condescend to me. I don’t think anybody does, not really. I’ll be the first to admit that the beauty industry is skewed and corrupt and messed up. I’m not blind to the many, many faults of the same vloggers and bloggers that I follow on social media. I have, on many an occasion, unfollowed and blocked people I’d previously admired because they would say something that triggered or upset me.
But at the same time, having people look down on me for liking lipstick and high heels and browsing ASOS is just as painful as having someone close to me comment on the fact that I need to shave my legs more. For someone who has been on the outside for so long, who just wants to belong, finding joy in something frivolous for its own sake is a big deal. If I bought a book based off a pretty cover or sports gear with a cute print, nobody would bat an eyelash. How is the stuff I throw on my face any different?