On Being A Pretty Pretty Princess

Urban camouflage, or drinking the Kool-Aid?

When I got out of the shower this morning, I lathered myself with moisturizer to combat razor burn, tweezed my eyebrows, assaulted any skin imperfections with concealer, applied eyeliner and mascara, blow-dried and styled my hair (which I had given a fresh dye job the night before), and slicked on lipstick. I shimmied my way into a fitted pair of suit pants and a low cut blouse; before leaving, I debated which hat was least likely to give me hat hair but still protect me from the rain.

Good morning, feminism, I’m so glad you could drag yourself out of bed in time to convince me to wear boots instead of pumps. I guess I’ll take what I can get.

Quite fittingly, one of the first things to pop up in my Google Reader this morning was Susan Douglas’ article at Alternet on Enlightened Sexism, captioned with “Enlightened sexism tells women that they gain “true power” through the calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire and sexuality.”

It’s a great article. Douglas writes clearly and eloquently, and she certainly doesn’t hesitate to point out exactly where we’re drinking the Kool-Aid and buying into things just a little too much. She contrasts the images we’re fed by the media, versus the reality of the situation (her excellent citations of the continued wage gap relate beautifully to a very interesting post from last week at Sociological Images, where they observed the difference between starting salaries of college graduates based on gender), and she does a great job of demonstrating what makes us buy into these ideas. Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the article is when she discusses how intelligent women are buying into these stereotypes “ironically,” and how that’s still just as detrimental–just in a different way. Overall, it’s one hell of a read.

As my above outlined morning ritual demonstrates (well, aside from my guzzling of coffee and singing of Le Tigre songs to my cat), I’m probably guilty of buying into it. I don’t like to think of myself as using my appearance to get ahead in life–

–and I’m going to jump into a new paragraph now. As I wrote that sentence, I kept instinctively including a snarky remark about how I really hope I haven’t been using my appearance to get what I’ve got in life, because if being a depressed administrative assistant who lives in a leaky apartment and has a love life that resembles Dresden after the bombing is the best I can do… Well shit, there I go buying into the whole thing. The fact that I even felt the need to qualify that my looks could do better for me indicates how far I have to go. Also, why am I okay with accepting that my hard work and personality haven’t gotten me as far as I think my sexuality could?

I was in middle school when the Spice Girls were a big thing with their “Girl Power” movement and sparkly, revealing gets up (and later, in high school, my girlfriends and I would drive around singing along to our old Spice Girls CDs–ironically, of course). Did I internalize that? Or did I take in the reverse psychology of the branding of feminism by mainstream culture as being ugly, hairy, man-hating women? I’ve always felt a certain sense of satisfaction in my ability to metaphorically “stop traffic” even when wearing a hot pink “this is what a feminist looks like” tee shirt (do they think I’m wearing it ironically?). I like challenging the expectations of how the majority of the population seems feminism. I’m not an unshaven fat woman who doesn’t use deodorant and wears men’s clothing; I’m trim, groomed, perfumed, and have been known to drop $50 at Sephora in a go.

…Wait, having a $50 charge on my credit card for makeup is liberation? Hmm. I call shenanigans.

I always use the excuse of “urban camouflage.” Since I’m not a stereotype, people are taken off guard and are more likely to listen to me. But how much of that is just that men will tolerate pretty women for ulterior motives? How much of that is just that since I conform to norms, how much of a threat could I possibly be perceived to be? It’s true that if you don’t show up on the radar, you can get away with a lot because people won’t look twice at you. What’s the trade-off here, though? What am I giving up? Am I gaining much?

I don’t have answers here, and I’d be lying if I tried to claim that I’m going to stop wearing makeup and not worry about how my pants fit and all that. However, keeping in the forefront of my mind why I’m doing these things and remembering that wearing heels isn’t a feminist victory is at least a start. I wish I had more feminists in my everyday life to open a dialog on this with, but alas, I am left babbling into the void of the intarwebs (Hello-o-o-o! Echo-o-o-o!). It seems like the more I grow up, both as an individual and a feminist, the less anything seems cut and dry anymore. Outside of straightforward issues like rape and domestic violence (pro-tip: they’re bad), I feel like I never have a black and white solution to anything. My everyday life is a constant exercise in compromise and reconciliation.

How does one balance the scales? And more importantly, at what point do we start holding ourselves accountable? How much responsibility do I have to the younger people around me to set an example and not teach “do as I say, not as I do?” As I move ever closer to being a classroom teacher, can I reasonably call myself a role model? What sort of community activism can I engage in that doesn’t leave me feeling like a hypocrite, and how do I work toward not being one?

Douglas’ article is, suffice it to say, an interesting and challenging one. While I don’t feel that she is necessarily breaking enormously new ground–a lot of this is stuff I already knew–she presents her case cogently and powerfully and lays everything out so that one can process it and consider it. I know I’ll be considering and processing for a while.


03/01/2010. Tags: , , , , , . Uncategorized.

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