Last week, someone said something to me that stuck with me. It was hurtful, but the person meant it as a compliment. The words were not this eloquent, but essentially they told me the same thing my grandma told me back in 2004 when I attended her milestone birthday party:
“You clean up nice.”
When my grandmother said it, it made sense. I was a teenager who usually dressed in ripped up jeans, a hoodie and a beanie. To see me in full business casual was probably a legitimate shock.
But this person last week — I don’t feel like the similar comment was as justified. I’ve been “cleaned up” around this person before, and the way it was worded made me feel like my worth to this person was intricately tied to how much makeup I had on or the amount of jewelry that adorned my collarbone.
Without it, I wasn’t quite enough.
I was aware how much of a show getting girly was at a very young age. When I was a child, I loved playing baseball with the boys, hated brushing my hair and loved hanging out with the people I cared about. Eventually, cultural pressure kicked in and I switched over to the softball team. I started brushing my tangly hair on the regular. I don’t regret the latter.
When I was a teen, I learned to perform femininity to gain social acceptance. I am a cis woman, and I do feel better about myself when I’m all dolled up. Whether that’s because it’s what makes me happy or because it makes society treat me better I still have yet to figure out.
It’s inconvenient. It’s time consuming. And comes with other costs. Back in those days when I shocked the elderly by dressing up for birthday parties, I came across this quote that really struck me:
Femininity is not made for comfort or movement; it is made to accentuate the sexualization of a woman’s body — and that’s why things like holding the door open (so she doesn’t dirty her white gloves or expensive manicure,) pulling her chair out (so she doesn’t have to awkwardly move a bulky piece of furniture and risk getting it caught on her skirt or stockings and ripping something,) or holding her coat (so she doesn’t have to reach around and risk ripping the tight seams in her shoulder or upper back) are necessary to me, as an acknowledgement of how restrictive femininity can be, and of how difficult it is to walk around in these clothes, as a celebration of the beauty of femininity on the body, and with deep respect for the courage to costume and perform femme to begin with.
I’m not saying everything in that quote is morally right. Or that those who spoke the words are infallible human beings. Just that it was a thought that really made me think over the past 17 years.
The Costs of Performing Femme
Performing femme has a lot of economic implications for those who either do or don’t don the costume. If you’re not society’s whitewashed, caked on makeup, impossibly thin version of beauty, you’re less likely to get paid well at work or even secure the position in the first place.
There are those routine costs, too. The cost of makeup. The cost of clothing and unmentionables. Overpriced shoes that kill your feet.
As you’re getting ready for the day, the most feminine look is going to take the longest to apply — at least if we’re assuming femininity is defined by our society rather than us as individuals. When time is money, women are either waking up earlier to get ready for the day or spending time getting “pretty” when they could be working and bringing in an income. I’m aware the latter is a strawman’s argument, but this is a PF blog. Time is money is an important theme in our discourses.
Then there are the more dire costs of performing femininity as society defines it. Body image issues. Self-hatred and the need to address the mental health issues that come along with not being “enough.” Eating disorders. Potential of death if you take things too far.
Abandoning Aspects of Femme
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten far more comfortable in my own skin. I do feel better about myself when I’m dressed to the nines, but I’ve also started actually believing that my value is not tied to how well I perform femininity. Despite what the world may tell me.
I tried to wear heels a couple times after I had kids. I couldn’t wear them when I was pregnant because I’m super klutzy and would have fallen as my center of balance adjusted to my changing body. When I tried to resume the practice, it invariably ended in tears of pain. Eventually, I gave them up. Yes, I’m short. Yes, heels make me look even more bomb than I already am. But they’re not a necessary part of my femininity.
I am more than enough without them.
I’m also a remote worker. That means I don’t have to get dressed up to go into work. It’s beautiful, really. I’m crazy lucky I can work in yoga pants without makeup on while earning a decent income.
Why do I do it without makeup on? Why don’t I put on real clothes while I’m clacking away at the keyboard in my own living room?
Because I am more than enough without it. And yoga pants are freaking comfortable.
Also, my skin looks awesome when I don’t wear makeup for a few days. So there’s that.
I’m leaving on a jet plane.
Yesterday I flew into Boise for a book signing. Usually when I fly, I do the yoga pants or leggings thing. I try not to look trashy, but I’m also not trying to get all made up when I know I’m going to look a hot mess after 12 hours of travel.
But the comments from last week left me feeling insecure. I really respected this person and thought their respect for me was a little deeper than the jewelry I was wearing or the way I did my hair on any given day. Complimenting femininity is great, but when the largest part of your value as a human being is attributed to your external presentation at any given second, it’s more than demoralizing.
So before I hopped on the plane, I got all dolled up. Full makeup. Girly clothes. Later, I even put on a bracelet and necklace.
Did I regret it?
I wasn’t comfortable. My makeup melted throughout the day as I ensured I made flights, tried to catch up on edits on layovers and dragged my two bags throughout the entire airport because I’m too cheap to check.
While I had worked so hard to get “presentable,” the drunk dude sitting next to me and elbowing me throughout the entire flight stank to high hell. Reminding me that the standards for me and this guy were so far away from each other.
I’m going to continue performing femininity. I like the way it makes me feel. I like that people treat me better when I put on the costume. But just like the heels and the yoga pants, I’m not going to bother myself with it when it’s not worth it anymore. The next time I hop on a jet plane, I’m not going to perform anything. I’m just going to be me.
Because with or without makeup and stilettos, I’m plenty enough. Despite the economic realities our society places on us when we don’t conform, you are enough, too. I see you, and your value as a human being doesn’t go up just because you put on a costume.