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Dressing My Inner Child

I randomly looked around the apartment yesterday (I was looking for something that I still have not found), and while it was obvious to me that it was sorely in need of organizing and tidying (and that if it gets much worse, I'm going to be a candidate for Hoarders), it also occurred to me that it is full - overflowing - with really beautiful things. 

I collect all sorts of vintage clothes, some of which I wear, and along with that comes the accessories.  I love jewelry, and because I have long hair, I love pretty clips and pins and hairsticks to dress it up.  I have instruments, and collectibles, and antiques, and artwork, and flowers, and fascinating things tucked all over the place.  If I died tomorrow, collectors would have a field day with my possessions (especially if they like lacy and/or sparkly things).

All my life, I've played at femme.  I reject jeans, I never dress down, I wear makeup almost every day, I live in heels, I own more than one gorgeous petticoat to go under skirts and dresses, and I keep my nails manicured with almost impractical length nails.  I like skirts.  I like ruffles, and flowers, and lace, and sparkles.  I own tons of skin care products, and scented bath bubbles, and perfumes.  I am not practical, and though I love digging in the dirt and playing in the woods, you're likely to see me do it in a carefully chosen and coordinated outfit.

(No, I don't wear heels in the woods.  But I occasionally go barefoot, and yes, my toenails are always painted.)

When I was a child, we didn't have much money.  Mum was working hard, but she was on her own, and had three kids and a large old house to take care of.  While our house was nice, things were threadbare, and the stuff she bought for us tended towards the practical, rather than the decorative.  It was also the '70s; children were dressed androgynously, and trousers were standard for everyone.

Me, I loved pretty things.  I longed for a bedroom with pink walls and white lacy bedspreads and Austrian balloon shades.  I wanted dresses, and when I made the mistake of asking for my hair to be cut short (it was down to my waist), I regretted it painfully, as my long hair was the only thing that people thought was beautiful about me.  I loved dressing up, and even then, I was very into vintage clothing.

But I was dumpy, and (everyone told me) I was fat.  I wasn't pretty or graceful, I was lumpy.  I had fat little hands ("puddy paws", my grandmother called them), and a fat little face, and a fat little body.  Such delights as lace and tutus and fairy costumes were not for the likes of me.  I learned early on to find my body repulsive and disgusting.  I saw it in people's faces, in the way they reacted to me.  I was not beautiful, and beautiful clothes on me were just grotesque, emphasizing the un-beauty of the person wearing them.

But even ugly people can wear make-up, and learn to be elegant, and I craved that.  I became my own teacher in the art of playing femme; I learned how do do my own manicures, to put my hair up (later how to dye it properly), and I learned how to move so that I could fool people into thinking I was, if not beautiful, at least not a thumping bull in a china shop.  I longed to be someone else, someone taller, thinner, more acceptable to the people around me.  I learned very fast that pretty girls get all the breaks.  Pretty girls can transgress and not be severely punished, whereas dumpy girls receive not only the harshest punishment, they also get the accompanying rage that comes with having the nerve to exist without being pretty.  My teachers were disgusted by me.  Intelligence doesn't matter when it comes in an ugly, repulsive package.

I grew up with a sense of loathing for my body.  It was grosser than anyone else's, more vile, more despicable.  It was disgusting.

The only way out was to learn to be feminine.  And I am a good learner.  I was socially awkward (all smart kids are; their brain capacity outruns their social skills early on), but I could learn to shut up and be pretty.  Unfortunately, I didn't have the money to buy beautiful things.  My mother never saw the use in them, so I had a hard time persuading her of their neccessity. So I did what I could with what I had, and endured the mockery from kids whose parents bought them designer clothes. 

It took me a long time to get to a place where I was able to stop caring about what people thought of me.  Ironically, in that time, I grew into my body, and became conventionally attractive, enough that I can now take advantage of beauty privilege.  But the inner child remains, and craves beautiful things. 

For me, feminism isn't about rejecting all that is girly, it's about being equal to men in power and consideration.  Because women's status as decorative objects throughout history (and only a limited class of white women, at that - the rest were invisible drudges, hardly seen as female at all) taints the performance of femme, we look on it as somehow lesser and something to be discarded.  But I don't perform femme because I want to please anyone else, I perform femme because it is one of the ways I tell myself that I am worth love and care, despite not fitting the accepted beauty standards (that really should be rejected).  Beautiful clothes and accessories make me happy.

Yes, these things come with baggage, and yes, the relationship between femme and women and feminism and equality is complicated, murky, and difficult to negotiate.  And I'm not going into it here - this is a navel-gazer of a post, not designed to tackle some really big issues, like how much of what we enjoy is really shaped by societal demands on how women should behave, and look, and be.  I am not actually justifying any of my choices - they come with problems.  But I'll negotiate things my way, and everyone else can negotiate things the way that works for them.  All I know is that the ugly inner child lurks painfully close to the surface sometimes, and pampering her with all the things she longed for once upon a time is a nurturing experience for me.

We all come with baggage about our looks; it's not a sign of being broken, it's something that comes with growing up in a society where women are continually judged first by how they look, and only secondarily (if at all) by their other accomplishments.  It is fundamentally unequal, and it's bullshit, but we are all shaped by it.  I've lived both sides of the beauty coin, and it makes me very aware of the privileges that come with being attractive to both men and women.  I've gone from being invisible to being desired, and I've experienced the feeling of dying inside when I've recognized the repulsion on someone's face at seeing me.  The least I can do is make my life beautiful in an act of kindness to a young girl who longed for beauty, in herself and her surroundings, and thought she had neither.


Jul. 7th, 2010 09:04 pm (UTC)
Ya know, my Grandmother always told me I was beautiful (though, unfortunately she added "not skinny like Patty and Susie!" heh.) and I didn't believe her. It's sad; you can be told you're pretty by every adult you know and it won't matter if the kids at school say you're ugly.

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