How Riot Grrrls Shaped My Beauty Philosophy

I’m not trying to be beautiful because that’s what someone decided girls are supposed to do.
Publish date:
March 13, 2014

When I was just a wee bairn, my understanding of feminism was very
limited. I thought of my folk-music-loving mother, her liberal arts college
classmates from the 1960s, maybe someone who looked like Judy Collins on the
cover of Hard Times for Lovers,
bra burners, the entertainingly hairy women in The Joy of Sex (yes, I found my dad’s copy), and the women on the
cover of Our Bodies, Ourselves. In
short, I thought feminism was something that had occurred in the past, and I learned
about it solely while snooping through my parents’ things.

By 1989, I was right at the edge of puberty and had moved to a new city,
which is just a horrible combination of events for a girl aged 12. I felt
unsure of myself and all the gangly, zitty things that were happening to me.

At the
same time, a perfect storm of pop culture and personal experience began to
accumulate. My older brother started college and began sending home cassettes
full of alternative and college rock. Motley Crüe and Tesla gave
way to Fugazi and The Stone Roses. I read Sassy religiously and learned about
‘zines. I finally convinced my father to buy me a pair of Doc Martens from
Wilson’s Leather at the mall because that’s the only place I could find them.

By eighth grade, I saw myself as “eccentric” and “not
popular with boys.” Just the same, I had a few friends and managed to keep my
head above water. My ugly middle school memories could have been so much worse,
and I appreciate that. However, one defining moment sticks out to me.

climbing the stairs to our next class, a boy grabbed at the back of my friend’s
jeans. As I watched him grope her, I could see the shame on her face. “Hey, I
don’t think she asked you to do that!” I yelled at him. He said something to
me, I can’t remember what exactly. The basic message was, “You have a big
lesbian crush on your friend because you can’t get boys to like you,” or some such.
Rolling my eyes, I turned to my friend, ready to ditch the guy, and her
expression said it all: “You’re embarrassing me.”

I can’t remember the exact order of events. I just know that
somewhere in my 14th year, things came together in my head: my friend
saying with her eyes that she’d rather be handled by boys than raise a fuss and
appear unattractive, my picture of Kurt Cobain (a proud feminist, not female
nor folk singer) smiling out from my locker, a boy calling me “alternative” in
the same tone of voice you’d use to tell someone they have a turd stuck to the
back of their pants, my dad telling me that boys like blonde hair and why would
I ruin it with Kool Aid, Kathleen Hanna singing about standing up for her
girlfriends and not staying quiet like a good girl. I
embraced the idea (as much as a teenager could) that I would not dress to
please or appease others. Imagine a tamer, more eloquent, “It’s my body, I do
what I want!”

For those who may not be familiar, the Riot Grrrl movement
was born in the early ‘90s as an underground, punk rock music scene and
activist subculture. Bikini Kill, fronted by Kathleen Hanna, and other bands
such as Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy confronted issues such as domestic
abuse, reproductive choice, sexuality, racism, and the patriarchy. Within the
scene, women produced their own fanzines and art as a way to create a voice
that had been ignored in punk culture.

As I read more, listened to more music, and talked to other
kids, I learned more about myself and what kind of person I wanted to be. I
might have been spending my after school hours playing field hockey rather than
making my own ‘zine, but that Riot Grrrl ideology stuck with me. Even when I
was listening to the Carpenters or Prince, I was a Riot Grrrl at my core.

Third wave feminism emerged during the same period and challenged the
second wave’s definition of femininity. Without getting into a major essay
about the history of feminism, I will point out that third wave feminism not
only broadened its scope to address the experiences of women across race,
class, and sexual orientation, but it ushered in a brand of “girly” feminism.
Femininity and sexual expression became tools to fight objectification.

Personally, my look became a mix of under-groomed tomboy and
exaggerated “kinderwhore,” neither of which my family especially appreciated.
One day, I would wear a dress from the thrift shop with knee-high stockings. On
another day, I might wear men’s jeans and a tee without appropriate undergarments.
I’m a little bit Kathi Wilcox, I’m a little bit Carrie Brownstein.

I wore little makeup. I preferred a bare face and I didn’t learn to
pluck my eyebrows until college. Sometimes I might wear dark lipstick or nail
polish. Sometimes I’d shave my legs. I’d
cut and dye my hair willy-nilly.

I try to put a little more thought into my
choices these days, if only because I’m too tired to change so often.

I could have drawn up a tutorial about Riot Grrrl makeup. I could have
suggested a drugstore eyeliner that mimics the ones we used to burn with
cigarette lighters before we smudged them on, but y’all don’t really want to
see a closer-to-40-than-to-20-year-old woman dressed in her high school costume,
and besides, the Riot Grrrl didn’t have a look so much as she had a philosophy.
(I do know a good eyeliner, though.)

I don’t wear baby doll dresses or ringer tees anymore. Or wait--I
might, but not all in the same week. I no longer shave my own hair or dye it
blue. I do enjoy a nice matte lipstick and purposely undone hair, of course.
What stays with me, however, is this idea that I can use makeup and beauty
products to express myself, or fix perceived flaws, or to feel a little
livelier because that’s what I want for myself. I can decide to not use them at

I’m not trying to be beautiful because that’s what someone decided
girls are supposed to do. I can want to be sexy. I can want to have sex without
feeling obligated to just because I look a certain way. I try to make decisions
about what I buy based on what I think will be pampering, pretty or fun, and
not based on my insecurities or “what men like.”

Ultimately, I am my talent and my intellect and my choices. I
can still voice my opinion and stand up for what I think is right. What I look like
isn’t everything, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun with it.