Beauty & the Feminist: Breaking Down 10 Years of Beauty Standards
I make fun of my best friend’s thick, black arm hair, and she pushes me off the elementary school slide. I deserve it. I am still too young to fully understand the pressure and expectations of hairlessness that society place upon women, even though I started shaving my legs this year.
My mom’s hand over mine, guiding the razor across my leg.
Middle school brings expectations and mystery. I’m fascinated by the elusive 7th graders who curl their hair and slick mascara on brittle eyelashes. This is the first time the desire to be older really kicks in.
I get my first period at a friend’s birthday party. I thought I was dying of a mysterious disease, internal bleeding, or something or the sort. I didn’t tell my mom for four days, until the bleeding stopped, frantically washing my rust-stained underwear in the bathroom sink.
Then, I realized my oversight.
And a whole world of new possibilities opened before me. Growth! Development! Maybe I’ll finally catch up to some of my friends. Grow hips, breasts, alluring thighs. I am hopeful and also relieved.
Maybe soon I’ll feel desirable, adult.
I matched my eye shadow to my outfit every day. Bright purples, blues, greens graced my eyelids. I slicked on four, five coats of heavy black mascara, providing a look that was a cross between doey-eyed new teenager and goth.
I compulsively separated each individual eyelash using a pointy, metal nail tool often seen at the manicure table, poking myself in the eye more times than I'd like to admit. I pulled my hair back into painstakingly gelled and tightened ponytails that gave me frequent headaches. Not a hair out of place.
While jogging around my neighborhood with a friend, a group of high school boys yell “hey sluts!” from their passing car.
I am intent on waxing my eyebrows regularly, feeling a need to tame them, to be clean, sharp, organized, sophisticated, and yet again, an adult.
I layered concealer over my adolescent skin, painfully self conscious about breakouts that I'm sure didn't look nearly as bad to anyone else. Staring into my huge, hyper-clear mirror which seems to magnify every imperfection.
Fixated on flaws. Nose too big, skin too oily, cellulite sprouting on upper thighs, stretch marks clawing their way into growing hips, breasts not-quite-developed yet. Feeling incomplete; a work in progress waiting to be transformed.
This is the year I’m first introduced to the idea that feminists are ugly, angry, man-haters.
Simultaneously, I learn that feminist messages are more palatable when conveyed by an attractive, white face.
A lack of composure, a higher-pitched voice, any visible physical flaws, all count against you in any argument with men over feminist principles. So even in the realm of advocacy, when we fight for what we believe, we are expected to defy the stereotype—created by men—that feminists are ugly.
We have to be pretty, be softer than the rest, be calm, not lose our temper, navigate a minefield designed for us to fail no matter what we do. Even when we’re pretty white feminists.
I resist every prompting from my mom to dress more nicely, more put together, more adult, instead preferring graphic tees with funny sayings and plaid. Lots of plaid.
The tables have turned, and now that adulthood looms, my clothes cling to childhood.
I wash my face.
I’ve made it to the other side of puberty, an odyssey that didn’t entail as much physical transformation as I’d envisioned. I didn’t magically wake up a woman one day. I undoubtedly look different, but I think my transformation was, to a greater degree, internal. I’m by no means entirely self-possessed and confident, but I’ve come into my own as a feminist.
My crappy dorm room mirror is nowhere near as revealing as the one I have at home. Not sure this is the best psychology, but my confidence improves the less clearly I see myself. I guess you could say I see myself more clearly with some distance from the immediate, the minute, the insignificant.
I don’t get my eyebrows done at college. It’s too expensive and inconvenient and I never have the time. I tweeze them every day and still feel untamed.
I don’t let him touch my legs if they are prickly; visceral discomfort takes over. I don’t let him touch me there because I am unshaved. Constant pressure to be ready because he lives so close, has so much more experience, insists he doesn’t have expectations, but I don’t believe him.
I feel small and young and rough.
But then I realize I’m just basically uncomfortable with the idea of being intimate with him.
I decide to shave after we end things, and it’s liberating. I’m already more comfortable, more ready, feel more beautiful. I never really stop to ask myself why that is.
Being in a long distance relationship is good because I don’t feel the need to shave as often. I don’t worry about my arms and legs in the winter months because no one will see or touch them. But I itch—hair nags when it gets too long, too rough, constantly reminding me of the irreversible decision I made, sacrificing one type of comfort to attain another.
And I realize how much I define my appearance by the male gaze. I realize I care less about how the hair on my body looks than how it would feel for a man to touch it.
But how do I reconcile this with my feminism? With my logical understanding that beauty standards are societal constructs and that I don’t owe anyone smooth skin or softness?
Ironically, I become more comfortable with my body after fully giving myself to him. I don’t define my confidence by what a man thinks of me, but being so open and intimate with someone who loved me so fully was liberating. He didn’t care about body hair or makeup, saw me in my most completely natural, bare state. And I realize that maybe sometimes the expectation doesn’t play out in reality, that sometimes, straight men can surprise you (*she says with a bemused smile on her lips*).
But I still want to feel sexy, be sexy for him, and for me, sexiness has always been defined as smoothness. Every time he visits, I accidentally cut my sensitive skin trying to be clean.
I paint my lips wine-stain red. I coat my eyelids in flecks of gold. I leave my hair wild and untamed, and I embrace that feeling.
I am more comfortable with my anatomy now that I can see it, but I want to see what they see. I want to take back control of my body, use it the way I want to, when I want to. I want to be able to make myself feel good so I can tell them what feels good. But I’m still defining myself based on the future needs or wants of a man. It has taken convincing for me to believe I can discover myself for my own benefit.
Now, I define beauty more as reclamation of control and agency, taking back what was lost, all the time and stress and tears that my body has consumed over the last 10 years. I’m stealing whatever I can and working hard to convince myself that self-confidence is not a gift—it’s a right, and I deserve it.
While writing an Italian research paper on Renaissance sexuality, I discover that during that time period, it was widely believed that women were naturally more modest because their reproductive organs are covered with hair.
So I write and write and write about desire and shame, pulling it out at the roots, and about what has been done to us for centuries. I write poems about masturbation and faking orgasms and read them for large groups of people as an exercise in overcoming shame. Of course, sometimes that backfires in more male attention, trying to prove me wrong or prove themselves by being the one to satisfy. But I’ve learned that male insertion into female spaces, female-centric dialogues, comes with the territory.
Withholding ultimately helps no one, least of all myself. I believe if we were all a bit more forthcoming, we would realize that we have common experiences, but shame has silenced us.
I’ve learned that being a feminist means making my own choices, on my own terms. Shave, don’t shave, shave some places and not others.
Do whatever you want. Feminism means supporting all other women, including yourself. Acknowledge and support all women as we try to accept ourselves in the face of different cultural and societal pressures and beauty norms.
Not everything has been resolved, but I can feel myself moving forward. And I like this direction.
No, I love it.
Author: Sienna Brancato
Sienna is a proud Italian American who grew up on Long Island (she has been told she has a bit of an accent). She is a sophomore at Georgetown studying English, Italian, and Government. Her passions include feminism, reading, spoken word poetry, and awkward dancing. Her favorite TV shows include The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Last Week Tonight. In her free time, you can catch her listening to the Civil Wars while eating an entire pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream and wearing fuzzy pajamas.