The Effort of Not Wearing Makeup

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Makeup brushes are the worst. So. Much. Work.

Earlier this year I was diagnosed with a skin condition called melasma and an eye disorder called ocular rosacea. What this amounts to is having brown patches of skin, and red bloodshot eyes. It’s fair to say that 2015 has not been a great year for my face.

The melasma has meant I’ve had to coat myself in serums and sunscreen everyday, leading to vampirically pale skin. The rosacea has also meant I’ve had to stop wearing makeup altogether. Of course I can still wear lipstick, but not if I want to kiss my girlfriend often, which I do (this is another femme dilemma for another time). I’ve gone from someone who used to wear smokey eyes at breakfast, to a blankly pale-faced person.

The whole thing has been quite unsettling. But it’s also taught me a few lessons about my relationship to beauty practices.

I pretty much took my eye makeup cues from this guy

I pretty much took my eye makeup cues from this guy

On an ordinary day, I used to love wearing lashings of mascara, glittery eye shadow and My-Chemical-Romance-levels of eyeliner. Yet I remember that I used to feel so uncomfortable not wearing makeup, that even if I was at home sick I’d get up and put foundation on. I’d also start every morning so mad at the ridiculously long time it would take to put on every beauty product. I would sit at parties and look at the people who weren’t wearing makeup and think “I wish I could do that!” as if showing my un-makeup-ed face was not even an option.

When I was confronted with the new necessarily-pale-faced situation, it was quite a shock. But far from being a relief, I felt more beholden than ever – this time to creams, eyedrops and tablets used to treat my conditions – and worse, without the pleasures that makeup used to bring.

I legitimately own one of these

I legitimately own one of these

With my newly neutral face, I barely recognised myself in the mirror. It seemed like different eyes were staring back at me. Not wanting to brave the world, I was reminded of this quote from Germaine Greer: “The women who dare not go outside without their fake eyelashes are in serious psychic trouble”. I braced myself, and for the next four months went with my new look.

People started to comment on how good my skin looked, how bright, how clear. I looked more sophisticated without makeup, they said. Little did they know I was still wearing multiple layers of various serums, and that any skin brightness had been achieved through months of fierce chemical creams. I was still caught up in the desire to “look good”, just now without any of the fun.

This is what you get when you search for

This is what you get when you search for “natural beauty”

After all, my “natural” make-up free look wasn’t without a great deal of effort. Search for “natural beauty” and I’ll bet you won’t find pictures of someone with brown patches of skin and red bloodshot eyes.

I didn’t feel better without my makeup routine, I felt sad. I had lost a part of my day when I got to “get ready” and activated my persona for the world. I looked at past photos of me and longed for my old face. When I next went to see my eye doctor, the nurse commented on my file, “No mascara? Who does that doctor think he is?! Men, they just don’t understand!”

Recently, I decided to try full makeup again, just for a day. But looking in the mirror I was once again confused by the face that I saw. It made me realise that faces are subject to habit. If you wear the same makeup everyday, it just becomes the baseline.

Pretty sure I couldn't do this to my face anymore, for example

Pretty sure I couldn’t do this to my face anymore, for example

Because my face was always an eye makeup-ed one, the day that changed meant I had to adjust to a new face. But more importantly, a face I could never change or play around with.

The whole series of events has made me think that makeup for me is neither a prison nor a completely empowering practice. There are definitely social expectations that keep me tied to the beauty machine, but there are also pleasures that beauty affords that I never new I’d miss until they were gone.

My doctor now says I can wear some makeup, sometimes. But I think I’m going to try a new face…maybe one that doesn’t fall into habits quite so easily.

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Feeling Femme: Observations from Femme Hive 2014

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

This October I was lucky enough to be supported by the YWCA Canberra and the ANU, to attend the Femme Hive conference in Berlin. With my PhD work focusing in large part on femme identity, the conference provided a rare opportunity for me to meet femmes outside of an Australian context.

If you’re currently wondering “what even is femme and why is there a conference on it?”, check out this great explanation of femme identity from Queer Fat Femme Bevin Branlandingham. Many people have not come across the term femme before, and even some people I spoke to at the conference were unsure of what the term meant. While the conference was organised around feeling empowered about being queer and feminine identifying, some people were there because other people had labeled them as femme (e.g. lesbian couples are often confronted with the question “so who’s the woman and who’s the man in the relationship?” as if every time there must be a butch/femme pairing). A lot of people at the conference just wanted to find a space where they could feel comfortable being accepted as queer, where their feminine appearance was not simply dismissed as heteronormative.

femme pres 2

Contemplating femme at Femme Hive 2014

Unfortunately when I first received the grant from the YWCA, a local gossip magazine here in Canberra ran an article on me titled Queer Femme Is? which challenged the legitimacy of femme identity and biphobically mocked me as “a gal who likes hanging around with lesbians but prefers the closer company of a boyfriend”. This hostility was the first reminder of exactly why femme is an important topic for discussion – because so many people can end up feeling marginalised both within LGBT scenes and in the broader community, just because they are more “feminine” and therefore don’t fit within a neat set of assumptions about “deviating” from the norm.

Blush performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

B.L.U.S.H. performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

While the conference program was full of wonderful workshops, the best part for me was just listening to people’s own experiences of being femme within a queer community. Apparently in Berlin femme identity doesn’t carry much cache in the queer scene, and it was interesting that the conference organisers talked about “cultivating a culture of desiring femme” as one of their main goals. Significantly, the opening night of the conference involved a burlesque/drag/musical show, with a very diverse range of acts from across Europe exploring the theme of femme. The venue, Schwuz (a club that had a long queue, entry requirements of an airport and sold grapefruit beer), was packed, with more people sporting undercuts than I had ever seen gathered in one room. The acts revealed the complexity of femme, with each one so different from the last that it was impossible to settle on a concrete idea of femme identity’s common denominator.

The flyer for the Femme Party

The flyer for the Femme Party

One particularly interesting piece focused on fat femme identity. Presented by the burlesque group B.L.U.S.H., one of the performers came out wearing a dressing gown, reading a women’s magazine. After showing disappointment that her larger body did not match the bodies shown in the magazine, she tore it up and stripped down entirely. Her body was round and tattooed. She slowly put on knee-high stockings, high heels and lingerie. To a huge cheer from the audience she took out a chocolate brownie from a box and smooshed it into her face, broke off several pieces and threw them into the audience. Openly didactic, this performance was interesting in terms of exploring the body politics of femininity (what is an acceptable “size” for feminine bodies). Indeed the question of “normal” bodies and the marginalisation of fat queer feminine bodies was a key topic of discussion in the conference overall. The performance was also interesting because it alluded to the “putting on” involved in femininity, without marking this as a negative thing (as femininity is so often accused of being a “masquerade” in feminist and other writing).

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Of course it wasn’t all burlesque and glitter. A weekend of workshops followed and I was lucky enough to present my research work on the last day. My presentation was called “Feeling Queer Femme: Assemblages and the Body” and in it I explored the troubles of representing (trying to “pin down”) femme, as well as the corporeal and sensory aspects of embodying femme (a theme that emerged in my interviews with queer femmes in Australia). Though it was a bit strange presenting my version of femme to a room full of femme people, it was amazing to hear that attendees found the session so helpful for clarifying their own experiences and ideas on the topic, even though this was something they were living out day to day in their own lives.

Overall the experience was amazing and my ideas on the topic of femme have both been affirmed and expanded through attending Femme Hive. Now to finish writing that thesis of mine…

Worried about your body? Join the club.

I haven’t always had a super happy relationship with my body, but it’s only been the last little while that I’ve really started to care properly about my weight. And when I say properly I mean, get obsessive.

In high school I was too distracted with worries about my ubiquitous dark body hair and small bust to think much about weight. My genetic predisposition/height/beach lifestyle/youth meant that I ate crap-tonnes of chips and never really worried about my midsection. Plus my mum raised me with an extremely good ethic of “love who you are“, and never spoke about dieting or an obsession with losing weight herself. When I got to uni, I would prance around in teeny shorts, still revelling in my 19-year-old metabolism. But I remember the day I started caring. I was 21, and I looked in the mirror at my bum and though, “Oh, right. Shit.” That moment didn’t really alter my eating or exercising behaviour much, though I did start covering up more. Mostly all I got was an unhealthy dose of body-angst.

I’ve always been someone who rejects “diets” and been the first to tell my friends who are trying to lose weight that they are crazy and don’t actually need to change a thing. Now I’m 26 and I’m not sure what triggered it in the last month or two, but I started to pay attention to my body a lot more. I decided I would try and take control of my eating and exercising. As soon as I started “calorie counting” and swapping hot chocolates for tea, and pasta for mountain wraps, I became a lot more aware of just how starving some people (especially famous people) must actually be. I’ve been trying to eat “well” and exercise a significant amount, but it makes me wonder- heck those famous people must be eating air to stay as thin as they are. And damn, they must be cranky!

It turns out yes, Jennifer Aniston for one is rumoured to have eaten the same salad for her entire decade on Friends. Just one type of salad. For 10 years!

I’m not on a crazy one-salad diet, but in the last month or so I have changed my eating habits, lost some weight and toned up a bit. But I’ve also become fairly obsessed about food and how I look, and that sure seems like a bung trade-off. I think I was lucky to have escaped the weight game for so long. Though I agree that magazines perpetuate unhealthy stereotypes of bodies, I don’t think you can just “blame the media“. These kind of critiques flatten our understanding of how ideas of what is “normal” perpetuate in society, and I hate to say it, but I think most of the time it comes down to ourselves – we are effectively policing each other’s bodies, every day.

“Well, at least this debilitating illness is making me thinner….”

Example 1: You comment to someone, “oh, have you lost weight?”. They might immediately feel self-conscious that you have been silently judging their weight in the first place (“you thought I was fat before?!”) while simultaneously proud that they look thinner (and who knows, maybe they’ve lost weight because they have swine flu…)

Example 2: You complain to someone that you feel “so fat” and are trying to lose weight or are on a diet. This often comes up when you are buying/eating food together. The other person might immediately feel guilty for not doing the same act of abnegation.

Example 3: You judge the crap out of your own body. If you get in a judgey state of mind, there is no way that you are not judging everyone around you and comparing yourself to them. It’s a negative cycle with all roads leading to judge town, population: you.

Then of course, there are the overt examples of you or others blatantly commenting on weight or size, “you could exercise more”, “you are too skinny”, etc etc (or my personal favourite: I bought a packet of Oreos to a work meeting, and one of my colleagues told me I should “watch [my] arms”). If we simply blame the media, we miss the fact that we open up Vogue and condemn the lack of diverse bodies on the one hand, and then all secretly download calorie counting apps and don’t have a tim-tam when it comes to afternoon tea, on the other. We are promulgating the issue, just by the fact that we don’t acknowledge just how much we are really judging ourselves.

There’s obviously no simple remedy to this (except maybe watching a local Roller Derby game to remember that kicking-ass comes in all shapes and sizes). But perhaps, if we can’t stop judging ourselves – and by that standard others – maybe we can at least admit that we are. We need to think: when we are watching weight, is that all that we are really watching?