I'm Tired of Apologizing for Liking Girl Stuff (i.e. FEMME SKILLS)

Every time I post about my nail polish, I feel this frisson of "You are such a silly girl" - as though that's a bad thing to be, not what a "real writer" ought to be writing about. But that's just culturally-ingrained shame talking.

Feb 27, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

Saturday morning I got a text message from a friend of mine: "This nail polish shit is hard!"

I had to laugh, in part because it's so out of the usual for this friend (who prefers not to be named on ye olde internets) to paint her nails. In fact, I'm not sure she's ever painted her nails before in her life, and she's in her early 40s.

Talking about makeup is really fun, to me - as is playing with makeup, shopping for makeup, and reading about makeup. There's a lot going on with makeup, in a lot of different ways; makeup tells us about gender roles and expression, class markers, and racism. Makeup tells us about aesthetics, sure, but it also speaks to us about semiotics and the ways in which we signal different things to those who would view us.

Makeup is pretty heavy stuff.

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That's why it kind of cracks me up but mostly annoys the piss out of me when people dismiss makeup as frivolous. And while I appreciate many of the accomplishments of Second Wave Feminists, I'm also willing to go to the mat to defend my use of and interest in makeup (feminism doesn't get to limit the ways in which people can be women, no thanks).

There are, of course, challenges associated with every mode of presentation. If you're a woman who dresses butch, you're going to get people assuming a lot of things about you, things that might not be true. If you're a woman who blends elements of "masculine" and "feminine" styles, you're going to take crap from both sides saying you're doing it wrong.

And if you present as femme, people aren't going to take you seriously. From the ever-pervasive jokes about lipstick lesbians to theories that teenaged girls do worse in school because they are thinking about makeup, the commonly accepted idea seems to be that femme skills are worse than worthless. Useless. Empty-headed. And that's not even going into the abuse that gets heaped on men who enjoy femme presentation.

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It's a catch-22 - if women are into makeup, they're airheads, but if they completely ignore the practice of femme skills, they get called unwomanly and cast out (metaphorically speaking) as valueless just the same. Mainstream perception is harsh, y'all. There is no such thing as acceptable.

One year at Wiscon (a feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin), my friend Julia and I threw a makeup party. We called it, creatively enough, Makeup Makeup Party Party. We emphasized that it was open to all genders and levels of experience. We had masses of samples, mirrors, and we both did people's makeup if they asked us to. It was meant to be an environment where people could feel comfortable and just play.

Overwhelmingly, what we heard from people was that they had never worn makeup, never played with it because they had never been taught how and were afraid.

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Some of the attendees talked about the "rules" of makeup and how they felt like they could never wear makeup the "right" way. Some of the attendees talked about wanting to play with makeup but not wanting to have their gender expression questioned because they liked eye liner. Some of the attendees weren't sure they could wear certain colors because of the color of their skin.

Attendees of all genders (and racial identities) expressed anxiety about "doing makeup wrong."

Just sit with that for a minute with me, y'all. People are so anxious about doing makeup wrong that they actively avoid something they would otherwise like to try.

That's huge.

That's why I reject so many of the "rules" of makeup. That's why I talk about my manicures and practice putting on eyeshadow when I have an otherwise free evening to relax.

Femme skills are skills - they have to be learned and practiced. As with any other skill, someone new to femme skills has to start somewhere.

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My friend with the nail polish took about an hour and a half to paint her nails. We've had a couple of conversations about it since - and it seemed really reassuring to her that people who have been doing their nails for years still sometimes make a mess. I've painted my nails since I was seven - and I was still pretty pants at that splatter manicure, you know?

She's frustrated with herself for not being instantly perfect at nail polishing.

The mainstream resources for learning femme skills are narrow. They are, by and large, achingly white, middle class, and heteronormative. That means any person who deviates from the expected "norm" has to develop femme skills in kind of a mainstream cultural vacuum. Mainstream beauty mags write about white girl beauty with only occasional special features for everyone else. Mainstream makeup companies don't even make makeup for darker skin tones on a reliable basis. Affordable products are the exception - and then they get snapped up by avid beauty devotees.

Femme skills are devalued even as they are deemed necessary. And if you deviate from the mainstream "norm" in any way, not only will your resources be limited, you'll probably be told "you're doing it wrong" either way.

Thus functions an oppressive patriarchy. Isn't it utterly repulsive?

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Here is what my Femme Skills 101 Intro Class Summary would look like, if I got to teach a class in that sort of thing: You don't have to practice femme skills. Conversely, anyone can practice femme skills. Yes, that means you, even if you've been told you are too *fill in the adjective here* all your life. If you want to learn to paint your nails, you can learn it. Let's do this - and enjoy it.

I gave my friend a few nail polishing tips, and reminded her that practice makes perfect. We talked about products and why base coat was a good idea (protects against staining, provides a base for the color to grab, extends wear). And hopefully she feels like nail polishing is a little more accessible if she really wants to get into painting her nails every now and then.

Presentation is not a frivolous subject - it's actually deadly serious for some folks. But even when we're just casual consumers of beauty products, we are constructing ourselves. I want to use every tool I can to speak to you in a visual language about how I see myself, how I want you to see me.

And I want other people to have the same opportunity. That means sharing knowledge and understanding that limiting the chances for people to learn femme skills is just another way of limiting people's identities.

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Every time I post about my nail polish, I feel this frisson of "you are such a silly girl" - as though that's a bad thing to be, not what a "real writer" (whatever a "real writer" is in the first place) ought to be writing about. But that's just culturally-ingrained shame talking.

Because these femme skills are real and important - important for all sorts of reasons, for all sorts of people. I take this stuff seriously because it is serious business, even as I think it's a good time. Serious business can be fun business as well, am I right?