“…This is not about me…this is… about men wallowing on bar stools, drearily practicing attraction and everyone who will drift home tonight, crest-fallen because not enough strangers found you suitably fuckable. “ – Katie Makkai, Pretty
This is not an unfamiliar story. Society tells women that it is our duty to “turn out”. We are celebrated as beautiful when we put on makeup, when we hide our flaws, when we present ourselves as sexual objects. Show a little cleavage or leg; select a dress that highlights your ass, and for fuck’s sake, lose some weight. It’s a formula, and we all know how to achieve it.
It saddens me that still, today, as a twenty eight year old woman, I still hesitate to leave the house without a mask of makeup. God forbid someone think I’m ugly.
It’s hideous. Hideous that we feel that pressure. Hideous that we use that word to describe our bare faces.
Growing up female, becoming a woman; it is a jarring process… and I think the story often goes untold.
When I was eleven or twelve, I began noticing men noticing me. They looked at my legs in shorts. I felt their gaze on my child’s body. And it began so quickly. I felt, at times, embarrassed by the gazes that I felt. I felt as though I owed them something – that it was now my responsibility to be something more than a young girl – it was my responsibility to be pretty.
I began my struggle with severe acne as puberty commenced. From age thirteen to my mid-twenties, I was ashamed of my face. A friendly touch on the cheek was enough to send me into a panic. I feared such a gesture would reveal what I felt was true: that I was an ugly girl.
During that period, I wore makeup all day, every day. Beginning in the morning, through gym class, until I went to bed at night. My true face was largely confined to my bedroom. I wore a mask of liquid makeup, concealer and pressed powder. I added blush to my cheeks to mimic a natural flush. I added eye makeup and lipstick to “make up” for my flaws.
My later teens and early twenties brought another superficial challenge: weight gain. Between the ages of 18-21 I put on about 30 pounds, quite a bit of weight on my frame. I was a chubby girl with bad acne. Not exactly a recipe for high self-esteem.
At the same time, I longed for attention from men. I wanted someone to desire me, even though I felt my outsides were unlovable, hideous. I envied the “pretty” girls, the women with thin bodies and clear skin, the women that men lusted after. I desperately wanted that attention… to feel that desire… that love.
College parties, for me, provide a perfect picture of that feeling of desperation. A pack of young women would enter a dorm room… a haze of drunk teenagers and hip hop – the particular brand of hip hop that white college students listened to in the mid-2000’s – Akon and such. I found myself giddily dancing to tunes like Supersoak That Ho, and if I was lucky, a man would grind on me. It sounds so bizarre, but when I was eighteen years old, it was an extreme compliment for a guy to approach me from behind and rub his groin against my ass -- in tune with the music, of course. Sometimes we would make out on the dance floor, I would allow his hands to grope my body… that would be a great night. Oftentimes I wouldn’t even know his name. It was a good night because someone wanted me. I was desired.
The social constructs of those parties in my memory are, of course, completely abominable. I objectified myself, most of us did. It was a compliment for a man to look at me and judge me to be the kind of woman he would like to fuck.
That brings me to the present. Nearly a decade later, I derive most of my self-confidence from things outside of appearance, but my attractiveness to men still absolutely informs how I feel about myself. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s entirely true. I still fight to feel confident without my mask of makeup. To feel confident and worthwhile as a human person, not a sexual object.
This has partly become easier because as I have grown older, I have become more conventionally attractive. I’m able to talk about a rejection of conventional beauty standards from a point of privilege, because I am able to conform.
So where does that leave me? Struggling. Struggling to believe that the superficial is not what is important about me – even when the world tells me that I am important only because I am beautiful. Challenging myself to leave the house without my makeup mask. Challenging myself to let the world see me as I wake up in the morning. Challenging myself to be a beautiful person in my spirit and my actions. Those are the difficult things. Walking down the street in a tight skirt and deriving self-worth from a male gaze is easy… it’s also not very satisfying.
I write this in hope we can teach the next generation of women that there is so much more to us than our sexual cache. Our sexuality is not a commodity and we do not owe it to anyone. Our beauty is in how we treat the people around us, how we interact the world. It’s not in the makeup we purchase at Sephora.