Hiking boots on sand

Makeup, mobility and choice: the things you don’t have to do

Cross-posted from my personal blog, originally titled “The Kind of Feminist I Am”.

I don’t use makeup. I put lotion on my skin and balm on my lips if they feel uncomfortably dry, if you want to call that cosmetic. If someone wants to film me then they’ll have to find some powders or whatever that suit my skin tone, because I don’t have any. I don’t shave my legs. I don’t own “heels.” I think a few of my shoes may have, like, a quarter-inch rise in the heel compared to the toe. I usually keep my hair so short that combs barely affect anything; if bangs start existing, an old headband keeps them out of my eyes. A barber shears my head every few months.

Also: I’m still not on Facebook. That’s right, I’m an online community manager, have been for two years, and I can get along fine without Facebook. I don’t eat red meat, and rarely have sustainable fish or organic free-range poultry. “Vegetarian” is basically right. I don’t imbibe massmedia about the visual appearance of famous people. I didn’t watch most of the Matrix or Lord of the Rings movies, and I don’t read TechCrunch or Gawker or that ycombinator news site.

I post this as part of the project to normalize diversity. If you think “everyone” is on Facebook, well, no, because I’m not. If you think every woman shaves her legs, no, I don’t. I am a successful person who has given influential speeches and mentored others, and I don’t have to do any of these things, so you don’t either. It’s all of a piece.

Caitlin Moran recently wrote a very good feminist book, How To Be a Woman. She discusses some sexist expectations (that women should wear uncomfortable shoes and epilate ourselves all over and so on). It’s unpaid labor and it’s nonsense and I say to hell with it. Some sexist expectations still get in my way. For instance, men interrupt me more often than they interrupt other men. And if I run a meeting efficiently, I’m less likely (compared to a man) to get thought of as a “strong leader,” and more likely to get thought of as a “bitch.” It’s annoying enough to have to spend any thought on avoiding that crap, so I skip all the other, more optional crap as much as possible.

It saves big chunks of time and money to omit “oh but everyone does it” junk. It’s pretty easy for me to just go with my own inertia — I never started wearing makeup, wearing pointy heels, or using Facebook, or smoking pot. I tried out leg-shaving and longish hair and earring-wearing and tens-of-thousands-of-people conferences, and they just don’t deliver ROI for me, so I stopped.

I know not everyone can just say “screw it” and walk away from this crap with no consequences. Intersectionality exists. Thank all goodness that I can dismiss as much of the crap as I can.

Mobility’s one part of that privilege. I move around a lot and have had a bunch of jobs, and sometimes that’s annoying, but a cool thing about it is that I’m not as stuck with one small consistent group of authority figures who might be jerks about my choices or reinventions. I can be blithe about other people disapproving of my choices, because I have a great job, certifications of a good education, a sensible spouse, a lucrative career, reasonably good health, and various convenient privileges. It also helps to be a bit socially oblivious, and specifically to have a tough time making out soft voices in crowds; if anyone’s gossiping about me in whispers, I won’t hear it! It’s great! (For me.)

So this is one reason why I’m in favor of good government-sponsored education and healthcare that levels the playing field for everyone, and reproductive rights, and easy border-crossings, and public transit. I love mobility. I love the means by which people can get away from their old selves and the people who thought they knew them. I love the fact that I get to choose whether I care about my high school classmates. (Make your own Facebook-related joke here!)

Exit, voice, and loyalty. Forking. For adults, the most fundamental freedom is the freedom to leave, to vote with your feet.

But right near that is the freedom to walk around in public without having to slather paint or a smile on your face. If you want to, cool! Performing femininity, like playing the guitar, ought to be a choice.

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About brainwane

Sumana Harihareswara is a geeky woman living in New York City and maintaining open source software, teaching newer coders, reading science fiction, writing technical documentation, and programming. She has managed programmers at an open source consulting firm, led the open source community behind Wikipedia, and co-edited a speculative fiction anthology. She toots and tweets as @brainwane.

21 thoughts on “Makeup, mobility and choice: the things you don’t have to do

    1. brainwane

      It sounds like I missed or read differently some lines or passages in How To Be a Woman, and it also sounds like I have completely not heard about things she has said outside the book. Thanks for bringing the critique to my attention; argh. Overall I had thought her book was pretty good; it especially helped me in thinking about my choices regarding childbearing. Disappointing, as always, to see more of these kinds of problems in people whose writing I’d gotten useful stuff from.

  1. Tim Chevalier

    Separately: wearing makeup or not, or shaving your legs or not, are choices that look very different for cis women and for trans women. A discussion of feminism and choices that leaves out the ways that women who were coercively assigned male at birth have their choices constrained more is, I think, never going to be an accurate discussion.

    1. brainwane

      Yup, 100% agreed. In my particular choices (and in speaking up about my choices) as an upper-class cis woman with my own basket of privileges, I have way different options and consequences than other people. I did not explicitly mention my cis privilege in the original post but it’s one of the several convenient privileges, for sure.

  2. damigiana

    @Tim: if all, or even many women, showed themselves the way they are, I think transgender women would fit in more easily. Because everyone would be more used to women having a unibrow, or a beard, or a hairy chest.
    I think in a longer essay it would be important to discuss how the choices women make relative to their presentation interact with other charteristics (among them not only gender assigned at birth, but also age, race, family status, profession, disability etc). But for a short blog post, I find this pretty awesome.

    1. brainwane

      I’m glad you liked the post.

      I hesitate to agree with you entirely because “the way they are” feels a little reductive, as though people can’t or wouldn’t change their bodies for reasons other than gender conformism, for one thing. But I hear what you’re saying.

    2. Kate N.

      Unlike @Tim’s comment I find yours deeply problematic and cissexist as a trans woman and a feminist. I don’t know if you’re trans or cis and I don’t think it makes any difference here, but you’re using language I’ve only heard from the unfortunately large set of local “allies” who get a little drunk and start complaining about “men in dresses” & picking apart the appearance of individual trans women.

      Your very first sentence is structured around a false dichotomy between “all, or even many women” and transgender women that presumes fitting in is primarily a matter of not matching your list of negative stereotypes. Yes, normalizing a range of traits that are common transphobic tropes would benefit some of us, but deploying them as if trans women’s appearances are artificial, conventionally feminine, and a product of trying to hide signifiers of masculinity perpetuates the cissexism you seem to be arguing against. Thanks, but when just about every documentary or film about us no matter how “sympathetic” has to include a scene of a trans woman putting lots of effort into her appearance to be able to appear female I think Hollywood has it covered…

      I just don’t get why you felt the need for a list of explicit phrases that for many of us have very hurtful associations when we all know what’s being discussed. It’s much like running through a list of specific ablist or racist stereotypes when you don’t intend to discuss theme individually. I do believe there’s a need to normalize a wider range of female bodies, but setting this up as trans women’s problems? Not making things better. I’ve got some body image dysphoria that started long before I had a strong sense of expectations about female bodies and even with a relatively kind puberty my horror wasn’t a matter of socialization or people’s perception of my body.

      > I think in a longer essay it would be important to discuss how the
      > choices women make relative to their presentation interact with
      > other characteristics (among them not only gender assigned at birth,
      > but also age, race, family status, profession, disability etc). But
      > for a short blog post, I find this pretty awesome.

      So what you’re saying is that all the other characteristics you list don’t need to be discussed in the post, but trans history is so much more important that for our sake we have delve into it? Really? Why?

    3. MadGastronomer

      I’ve been sitting and stewing about this one. I pointed it out to my wife, who is trans, and she’s written her own response to it (which seems to be caught in moderation, probably due to length), but I find I have to weigh in: I find this comment really transphobic. Setting it up as “women” and then contrasting that with “transgender woman,” assuming a whole bunch of things about trans women’s bodies, assuming a whole bunch of things about how societal enforcement of gender norms works… Very problematic.

    4. Tim Chevalier

      I think you would benefit from listening to trans women talk about their lived experiences and from empathizing with those experiences.

  3. QoB

    “I tried out leg-shaving and longish hair and earring-wearing… and they just don’t deliver ROI for me”


  4. EROSE

    I can’t get away from presenting a certain degree of femininity. My face and body project it and always have, through a huge range of haircuts, makeup experiments and style choices.
    Tools and symbols like makeup or accessories are about performing me as an individual, a way to get a word in edgewise against whatever perception of “feminine” someone assigns me because of my basic appearance.
    I guess all this is a way of saying that while sure, this piece has some good points, the “conform or break free” dichotomy I see in it, like most dichotomies, erases a lot of reality. It’s a mistake to assume that because two people are performing the same action, they are doing the same thing.

    1. brainwane

      Thanks for the note. Sounds like this post wasn’t particularly useful for you; sorry to hear that. You already make thoughtful choices about makeup and accessories; I am glad that I have those choices, and am spreading the word that the choices exist and that there exists at least one person who’s doing something other than what the dominant majority does. I wrote this for people who have misinformed assumptions that you do not have. :)

  5. JG18

    Not sure why this essay seems to have a tone of maverick unconformity – I’m over 50 years old, have never been in the habit of wearing full makeup (only very, very occasionally wear lipstick), and have never worn heels. Contrary to some of the conclusions of this essay, not only have I been in the same job for over 20 years but I’ve also never gotten any negative feedback for not wearing makeup or heels, either directly or indirectly. And I have other female friends who don’t wear makeup or heels regularly either – I have not seen that those choices have affected my life or theirs.

    1. brainwane

      I am glad that you are doing what you want and haven’t gotten negative feedback about it, and I am similarly glad for your friends! There are other people out there who are not aware that they have these options, and I had to and have to argue with various people because of some of my choices mentioned in the essay (for instance, my mother is substantially unhappy about how short my hair is). Sounds like this post wasn’t particularly for you. Hope the next one is!

  6. The Literary Omnivore

    I am also disappointed by the reference to Caitlin Moran as a good feminist, due to her aforementioned anti-intersectional feminism stance. Additionally, I very much dislike the condescending tone of her writing, but that’s subjective.

    I’m trying to articulate my response to this article in as neutral a way as possible, but I’m having difficulty doing that. On the one hand, as you say, it’s important to have people who present the way you do, so that others realize that these behaviors are a choice, and I’m very glad you’re sharing that. It’s important: I know I would have found it extremely useful as an awkward, giant preteen dealing with my mother’s ability to force me into performing aspects of traditional femininity I was uncomfortable with to know that there was nothing wrong with how I wanted to present at that time.

    On the other hand, it’s a little difficult for this article to off-handedly give a casual thumbs-up to femmes in its final paragraph despite having previously called the behaviors it associates with the femme end of the gender spectrum “crap” and only fulfilling sexist expectations, with no other function.

    As EROSE points above, the binary actions of “conform” and “do not conform” erases great swathes of reality, which includes my own—navigating a patriarchal world filled with sexist expectations while also negotiating my own desires to perform this “crap”. As RuPaul says, we’re born naked and the rest is just drag. This saying flattens the fact that there are often other factors involved compromising our ability to present the way we want, but for those lucky enough to have very few of those, I think it highlights the fact that we have a choice. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different, but I think there’s always a way to write about one’s experience that doesn’t generalize the experiences of others or alienates them.

    When feminism is often boiled down to a sound byte, it’s usually something along the lines of “feminism is about making sure women have choices and agency”. The tone of this article, in my reading, seems to make it very clear which choices are “good” and which choices are “bad”, no matter the last paragraph. And that’s what I’m struggling with here and what I wanted to bring to your attention.

    1. brainwane

      Thank you for the comment. I personally think you succeeded in articulating your response neutrally, for what it’s worth, and I thank you for your thoughtfulness and your critique.

      To me and for me a bunch of mainstream behaviors (including certain femininity performances) do not deliver return on investment and so I don’t want to do them. I fully own that I didn’t add enough “my choices/me/for me” in my discussion of that, and that Geek Feminism ought to have posts by people who like performing femininity (and melding it with their geekinesses). But it really does facilitate diversity for more people-who-have-lots-of-choices to publicly avoid doing what the mainstream does, and that is a positive good.

      You may want to see my comment above about Moran. I got a lot out of her book but it sounds like I’ve missed some things both in and out of it.

      I actually don’t think there is always a way to write about one’s experiences that isn’t going to alienate other people, but it sounds like I didn’t do so great this time. I’m sorry.

      I hope my post didn’t make you feel unwelcome at GF.

      1. The Literary Omnivore

        Ah, good! I’m glad it got through that way.

        I completely agree; having this kind of diversity of presentation is hugely important.

        Sorry about the rude awakening about Moran! I’m very glad you got some things out of her book, though.

        Perhaps not always, but I think good faith efforts to be inclusive can be strived for most of the time.

        Oh, I feel quite welcome by your thoughtful reply to my comment!

    2. MadGastronomer

      While I agree with some of these criticisms, I have to disagree with characterizing makeup, shaved legs, high heels, etc, with “femme.” I’m a femme. I don’t wear makeup, don’t shave my legs, and don’t wear heels. I’m still a femme. And people can do those things and not identify as femme.

      1. The Literary Omnivore

        You’re quite right; I should have referenced “traditional femininity” instead or made sure that my usage of femme was more inclusive. I know that my own performance of hard femme includes those things, hence the focus, but that’s no excuse.

        1. MadGastronomer

          It can be really easy to do, thought, can’t it? I feel ya there.

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