Well, friends and esteemed readers, I made it through 28 days of feminine presentation. I am now better at wearing heels and lipstick, about the same as before on doing my hair, and not even slightly competent at putting on false eyelashes.
Five seconds before everything went to hell:
Because mine was mostly a performance of femininity, putting on the trappings of outer femininity, it was interesting to see how people reacted to me, differently or not differently, based solely on presentation.
Well, that’s not quite true–when you put on any good costume, you’ll find yourself getting into the skin of the character to some degree. I noticed, for example, that my movements were a bit more dainty than usual when I had painted nails, heels, and a bunch of makeup or effort-intensive hair that I didn’t want to mess up. But other than that, I’ve felt like the same me this whole time, so I think I can safely postulate that most reactions will have come from appearance.
I want to stress that any analysis is subjective, too–while I was focusing so much on appearance, I naturally will have assumed that reactions to me were a part of that appearance and perhaps overly discount that they weren’t due to other factors.
Anyway, what I noticed most was how excited people were for me to do this. I have to admit, it made me a little bit uncomfortable. Again, maybe I’m projecting, but it felt like more people were complimenting me, and more enthusiastically, than when I wasn’t wearing makeup at all for a month. I wondered quite a bit about how much of that was due to the natural tendency of friends to be effusively complimentary when you look put-together (I for one think most people look good in suits, so I would definitely comment if a friend were “suiting up” all the time) and how much of it was internalized reaction to my adhering more closely to what our culture tell us a woman “should look like.” If you, reading, know that you’re someone who was excited about this challenge, I have one for you–just to spend five minutes thinking about why it was that you were excited about it. Maybe it has nothing to do with expectations of how women will look, but I think it is a worthwhile question to ask yourself.
I did not get asked out more often, which was fine with me.
Something that surprised me was that I felt more professional at work. I think it has more to do with not being casual than with looking more specifically feminine, but I definitely noticed that, because I wasn’t too comfortable or too lazily dressed, I felt and acted more like someone who was at a job trying to accomplish things. That was a nice perk.
I have a suspicion that I got away with being the “sweet innocent girl” to a greater degree because of the costume. You know the role: “Oh, I’m so sorry I’m holding up the line for the bus, I’m just so frazzled and I don’t really know what I’m doing!” People in service positions were noticeably friendly and I think that any intimidatory effect I might otherwise have (as an Amazon woman with, perhaps, Bitchy Resting Face) was softened by the feminine appearance, lipstick especially.
At one point a woman I didn’t know shouted, “Girl, how tall ARE you?” after me, and when I told her, she said, “Well, you look GOOD.” That happens…less often when I’m not in heels.
That was most of what I noticed.
Demographic breakdown: One compliment from a middle-class woman of color; many from young white women; several from young white men; several from older, middle-class white adults, both men and women.
I am extremely privileged in that I am able to choose to do “challenges” that alter my appearance in one way or the other. I am privileged to be able to write about these challenges and about feminism. I’d like to mention just a few groups of people for whom a whimsical decision to change their presentation would be more difficult, even more dangerous:
-Trans women and men
Of all groups, trans women are most likely to face discrimination and even violence because of their presentation. Trans men are not far behind. Even the Human Rights Campaign only recently included trans people in their efforts for civil rights. Being out and presenting as the gender they identify with is a daily act of courage, and one I never intend to trivialize.
-Women of color
Women of color have to deal with intersectional discrimination, intertwining expectations based off societal racism as well as sexism. A quick Google search of “black women femininity,” which I did in order to see if there were any blogs I could link to (there are, you should go check them out) yields:
The first two on the left-hand side really get to me. I’m going to spend some time reading up on expectations of femininity in women of color this afternoon; I encourage you to do the same.
The number of gay men I know who dress one way when they’re at home, among friends, and another when they are out renting an apartment or doing errands or going to their jobs is pretty considerable. Even with anti-discrimination laws on the books, gay men often fear for their jobs, their opportunities, even their lives if they aren’t presenting as fully masculine.
If gay women present as feminine, people often assume they’re straight or that they’re just “confused” or “experimenting” because they don’t adhere to cultural expectations of lesbians (although adult movies would beg to differ). If they present as more masculine, they face discrimination, insults, and sexual harrassment, even sexual assault. Actually, all of the groups of people above are at an increased risk for sexual assault.
When I talk about feminism or decide to wear or not wear makeup or dresses or high heels, I do it with little change in my risk level. I’m not going to be fired or insulted for wearing or not wearing makeup. Maybe the risk of sexual harrassment goes up a little bit if I’m wearing skirts and pumps. Overall, though, I can afford to experiment with my appearance without consequences. I’m very privileged to be able to do so.
I promised I’d be thinking about non-visible markers of femininity this week, and I have been. Here’s what comes to mind: softness, gentleness, nurturing, flexibility, communication. I think these are all good things. I also think not all women are soft, gentle, nurturing, flexible, and communicative, and that not all men are hard, rough, un-nurturing, rigid, and uncommunicative. Honestly, I think that if you took a poll of which qualities are more “masculine” and which are more “feminine,” it would be important for any happy, whole human being to contain a balance of qualities from both categories.
So that’s what I got out of this FEMMEbruary. For March, I’m toying with the idea of interviewing male friends about their thoughts on masculinity–not trying to dress or behave in a “masculine” manner, because I think that would turn into a burlesque fairly quickly, but talking to people who have to navigate masculinity on the regular and seeing what they think.
What new ideas are you trying out these days?