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July 12, 2011 / missmarymax

Beautiful, Girly, and Other Words What Disconcert

An uber-femme gayboi arrives at the home of his lesbian best friend, to prepare for a night out.  Before they leave, he primps and preens, even rummages through her things in search of glitter gel. (He clucks with disapproval when she explains she doesn’t own such things.)  Out on the town, some asshats harass him for his self-expression, and his face falls.  He asks, “Am I… ugly?’

“No,” she says.  “You’re beautiful.”

This scene — from an unpublished story a friend brought to a writing workshop years ago — has stuck with me for nearly a decade.  I think often of the beautiful gayboi and those who resemble him, men whom I’ve loved and wanted to love, protected and wanted to protect. I think also of the girl at the story’s heart, a girl not unlike the friend who wrote it: fantastically, comfortably masculine, disgusted at the thought of owning glitter.

This boy who craves beauty; I seem to always have his back. I rush to his defense when he’s a five-year-old, getting his nails painted in a J Crew ad and when he’s a seven-year-old ballerina in the Halloween parade. I defend him when he’s a cheerleading middle-schooler. When he’s elected to his high school prom court, I applaud his right to own that tiara. I cling to the right of the boys in my life to pursue beauty.

So. Why do I dismiss it for girls?

Why do I cringe when I see the disproportionate amount of pink in my niece’s closet? She’s adorable in pink, just as she’s adorable in red, in blue, in brown. The pink alone unsettles me. I worry about the sparkles and the sequins; I encourage her love of books and downplay her love of dolls.  I relentlessly retell stories of her — the time she held a rattle to her eye and declared it a periscope, the time she cut paper into “chicken salad” to feed a hungry monster — yet I somehow skip over the plastic baby constantly crooked in her arm. I would be decidedly more comfortable if her baby brother were to study ballet, learn gymnastics, or try his luck on the pageant circuit than I’d be if she did the same. I’d be quicker to offer him make-up tips — (provided I had any).  I’d squirm less applying his eyeshadow.

I’d protect girliness in my nephew. Yet, I discourage it in my niece.

The Tiny People have a way of making baggage blatantly obvious. I cut myself some slack on this one, knowing that — in large part — my stress over the pinkification of my niece’s world is a desire not to see her horizons limited. In this sense, it cuts both ways. When I see my nephew boxed into masculinity at the tender age of 21 months, I want to rip that box back open, hands and teeth. I want to counterbalance the social pressures on niece and nephew alike. I want my nephew to carelessly pull on a tutu, tenderly comfort a doll. I want my niece to love (and wear) all colors. So, I defend her right to have more than appearance, to have intellect, humor, and athleticism. I defend her right to more.

Still, I worry.  I worry that “more” will default into “instead.” I worry I’m teaching her to make the same bargain I spent too many decades making: don’t be beautiful. Be smart. Be funny. Be kind. Don’t be beautiful. Be talented. Be creative. Be loud. Don’t be beautiful. You’re so much more than that.

That “more” — far more often with my niece than with my nephew — morphs unpleasantly into “except.”  Be all of these things, so you won’t be that.  Be all of these things in case, some day, you need a fall-back. My niece puts this thinking to shame every time I see her; she effortlessly integrates her inner and outer marvelousness.  Instantly, she reminds me how thoroughly her humor, creativity, and smarts infuse her giant smile, her ripe cheeks.  She challenges the notion that “beauty” is something we trade in for more worthwhile qualities.  My niece reminds me that “more” means the full deal, the all that and the bag of chips.

I do not remember being my niece’s age. I ever-so barely remember being comfortable with how I looked, comfortable in my body, comfortable with myself as a girl (and a beautiful one). Pretty and girly — words forever intertwined for me — are words I still struggle, daily, to understand I can claim, as much as I want, in any of the ways that appeal. That struggle confirms for me how little we solve by dismissing beauty.  It confirms that there’s a difference between believing you have the right to walk down the street without make-up and believing you fail somehow by wearing it. There’s a difference between insisting you can wear a tuxedo to prom and feeling like a poser in the dress. There’s a difference between proclaiming that you don’t have to be beautiful and believing you aren’t.

I stand by every statement I’ve made about the need for beauty to not be required, constrained, or appropriated to cause harm. But I also stand for our rights to be beautiful, to feel beautiful, and even to pursue beauty. Femininity, fashion, beauty — these things are not inherently bad. The demand for them can devastate certainly. But the demand that they be abandoned, as superficial or unachievable goals– that, too, can harm.

The last time my niece was in town, she played happily with her reflection in a hotel mirror.  After a few minutes, I walked up behind her, wrapped her in my arms and asked, “Who’s that beautiful girl?” She replied immediately.  “That’s me, Mayee!”

Her certainty sticks with me. I expect — like the scene from the unpublished story — it will stay with me for some years.

So, yes- I want this girl to be smart and political, deep and well-read. But I also want her to hold onto that assurance, to claim — and be allowed — the beauty I’d so readily hand to her brother. I want this for myself as well. If I can’t remember feeling the confidence she shows, I demand my right to learn it from her.  I demand the right for all of us to claim in ourselves the sparkly, the pink, the princess, and the queen.

Self Discovery Word by WordThis post was created as part of the Self-

Discovery: Word by Word series. For

   more marvelous posts on “beauty” –

keep an eye on this month’s host blog,

Balancing Val.

-

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10 Comments

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  1. Elliecan Pelican / Jul 13 2011 5:37 am

    So beautiful to read your words! I have the same relationship with my son and my daughter. I grew up on the edge of Adelaide’s gay scene, many friends and relations were part of it, and myself being a strong willed woman who intimidated men for the most part had a hard time allowing myself the traditional female gender roles. It wasn’t until my second child was born, my daughter, that I softened for the first time in my life really, enough to embrace my feminine and take joy in my beauty, and even see myself as beautiful for the first time in my life. As I fell further and further in love with my children and their inherent beauty I finally have found space for my own. And I do (shudder) dress my daughter in pink, and she looks beautiful, and I did say no to my 3 1/2 yr old boy buying a pink pair of pants, wondering why I have to participate in this ingrained societal norm that forms boys into ‘real men’ and girls into objects of desire. However, encouraging the balance, taking those moments of creativity and inspiration that occur so many times in a day from small children, I am also relaxing on my gender bending bent and allowing them to unfold like the flowers of life that they are….

  2. pbrooke / Jul 13 2011 3:28 pm

    I also reflect on how much easier it seems for me to promote assertiveness, strength, and maybe even competition in my daughter that I imagine I would be much less comfortable doing in a son. (‘Course that bites me on the butt as I have an exceedingly mouthy girl.) My pink-phobia is soothed upon realizing that many girls do have a sort of flexiblity that is not allowed boys (though with boundaries, increasingly regulated boundaries as they age). My daughter can don the tutu and superhero cape, the tiara and the the toolbelt. She doesn’t have a problem with the two co-existing. Boys who wear tutus, even very young boys, make many uncomfortable and are censured.

    My daughter proclaims things “boy” toys and “girl” toys (ignoring or rolling her eyes at my correction) but simultaneously and unproblematically explains “sometimes girls like boy toys.”

    I know that a girl who refuses all of the “girl” stuff and opts only for Star Wars and skateboards and Pokeman will experience social censure as she grows 7, 8, and 9. And I’m watching very carefully as my daughter grows out of pink tutus to see what she grows into, to help her maintain a balance.

  3. iamcharli / Jul 13 2011 10:50 pm

    This is fantastic. I can’t even put into words how much I identified with this. I struggled for a long time with being an athletic women but also being a pretty, fashionable woman. In fact – my team affectionately nicknamed me “Hollywood” because of my girlie-ness. For the longest time I thought it was a bad thing to be feminine and want to be pretty. That I had to choose between being tough and athletic or wearing makeup and skirts. It took me far to long to learn that I could be both. I still struggle with people taking me seriously in the athletic world because of the fact that I am very feminine, but it just give me more motivation to prove them wrong.

    This is so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing!

  4. missmarymax / Jul 14 2011 2:45 pm

    Elliecan, thanks so much for reading and commenting. This — “As I fell further and further in love with my children and their inherent beauty I finally have found space for my own” — is truly beautiful. I think you sum it up so well. Out of curiosity, you mention not buying pink pants for your son; I’d be curious to hear why you made that decision, if you’re willing to share.

    Pbrooke, I actually thought of you quite a bit while writing this — conversations we’d had in the past about beauty and make-up and all that good stuff, as well as a time you mentioned how much easier it is to justify raising a badass genderbending daughter than a “sissy” genderbending son. (I’m paraphrasing, o’course.) Out of curiosity, have you read this? — http://meloukhia.net/2011/03/get_your_antifemininity_out_of_my_feminism.html <– It may be my favorite thing ever written on these matters.

    IAmCharli – That is so interesting. I don't have the physical coordination to walk in a straight line, let alone effectively accomplish some sort of athletic goal, so that's not an experience I've had. I've heard female/athlete friends talk about pressure from coaches to perform femininity before and after games (hairbows, make-up, mandatory dress-up for bus rides and post-game meeting the crowd) — but had not heard about pressure around not being feminine. That's a flip-side of the same coin, I think, and a really interesting one. Glad you're finding a way to be the full shibang.

    • sui solitaire / Jul 29 2011 6:03 am

      Loving that Meloukhia article. It’s interesting. The feminist notion of “as long as there’s a choice.” I actually gave a speech this week about Twilight… and how potentially dangerous its message was for teenage audience. (The overarching point was the importance of literary criticism & analysis.) I said Stephenie Meyer claims that her books are feminist, but Bella has a choice. And she does have a choice. And she takes the choice to throw her entire life, her family and friends, and potentially her education away for a sparkly guy.

      Do you think that’s fair? Well, who’s to say… She had a choice.

      But I think it’s definitely misogynistic to say that women who choose to be housewives and homemakers are somehow being “antifeminist.” Clearly we all still have conscious choices (for the most part). Or at least I’d hope so.

      I know I have to come to terms with my own judgments when I hear a very smart, educated female friend of mine saying that eventually she just wants to be a stay-at-home mom. I know that family’s important to her, but then that part of me goes, “You’re wasting your potential! You could be such a strong leader and role model…!!!” But why not still, as a stay-at-home mom?

      Ironically I have fewer judgments when a (somewhat flighty, I must admit) friend says “I just want to be a housewife so I don’t have to do anything” because I know that that’s often not the reality of a life as a housewife, and.. ah.

      All this talk is opening up a lot of cans of delicious thought-provoking worms (oops, did I say delicious? in the delectable sense, not the edible sense) as I sit here procrastinating on, actually, writing the last paper I will ever have to write in my life(!!! yesss!!! I am not a school person at all)… & it’s on masculinity & homophobia enacted through films. Maybe I should save my energy for that…

      I also realize that I have to come to terms with my own femininity in general. I love dresses and wearing them, but why have I, in the past, cringed when I hear women talking about “loving to be feminine,” “feeling like a woman,” and, especially, “I wish I could be more feminine” (as if what they are right now isn’t good enough?) And what’s wrong with the choice to wear make-up, or even shave our legs…

      Whew. There’s a lot to unload there. “Unpack” if you will, to use that somewhat overused term.

      And I’m running out of steam. Haha. This might as well become its own essay ;)

  5. sui solitaire / Jul 17 2011 8:34 pm

    this is such a fucking beautiful, honest, asdfdfxfxdf post… your strength shines at me through your vulnerability. I understand your sentiments; I too always love challenging those gender norms, but I have to be more aware of when I actually devalue “traditionally (or socialized) feminine” values or behavior in an attempt to be subversive. reminds me of an article, “no way my kids are going to be like that!” if you can get a hold of it (it’s a sociology study) I highly recommend reading it.

    • missmarymax / Jul 17 2011 9:57 pm

      Sui – I haven’t read the study you mentioned, but will definitely seek it out. The most mindblowing pieces I’ve found on this topic (lately anyway) are from s.e. smith. I linked one of them above in my note to PBrooke, would really recommend it to you as well. And thanks again for the kind words. I’m really glad this resonates with people.

      • sui solitaire / Jul 29 2011 3:01 am

        I thought of your post again after watching Pink’s music video, “Stupid Girls.” While I liked the video (except for the misinformed portrayal of eating disorders… when is popular media going to be able to portray EDs with the truth of their destructiveness?… the only portrayal I’ve seen come close is actually Black Swan, which made me like the movie a bit more), the ending made me question: Why make playing with dolls something inferior? We’re just adding another power structure and hierarchy to behaviors by privileging traditionally “masculine” activities like football. What does it say when we imply that playing sports is “better” than playing with dolls..? Ah.

  6. VoiceinRecovery / Jul 18 2011 12:42 am

    I fricking love love love X a millionbazillionquatruple. This is ah-may-zing. A fantastic reflection and pondering about this issue. I too have thought about this when around my second cousin and a boy she grew up with. I protect the right of him to wear gloves and play in the garage dress up and yet when I see her wearing a little makeup I cringe. This confliction is truly an important discussion and LOVE the statement ” I worry that ”more” will default into “instead.” about the balance and mindfulness of everything.

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