A while back, in Adventures In Incompetence, I wrote about an experience of teaching yoga to teenage girls. The general atmosphere of this “teaching adventure” turned out to be deeply resonant with John Berger’s observation -- presented in his BBC series (and subsequent book) Ways Of Seeing -- that portrayals of women in classical European painting as well as in contemporary advertising frequently rely upon forms of objectification completely divorced from anything even remotely “natural,” anything truly “naked.” Within such cultural contexts -- i.e. those defined in large part by dualistically distorted interpretations of “what it means to be a woman” -- Taoist understandings of gender and sexuality offer alternatives which are, at least potentially, deeply healing and liberating.
More recently, I’ve been reflecting -- with equal parts mirth and amazement -- on certain key moments in my own childhood conditioning into the hallowed “terrain of womanhood.” Several stand out as particularly formative, if short-lived, attempts (by very well-meaning adults) to set that young “me” on a path toward becoming “the perfect woman” (LOL) ......
Perhaps the earliest of these memories come from my first years of public school, as a six, seven and eight year old girl. For whatever reasons, my parents had decided that I should wear a dress -- rather than pants -- to school at least two out of the five days of the week. I found this rather annoying, for the purely practical reason that enjoying fully my activities on the playground -- the swings, jungle-gym, etc. -- was much easier in pants, than it was in a skirt.
My attempts to explain the situation, however -- and to make a case for more lenient application of this dress-code -- fell largely on deaf ears, and of course a child of that age has little real leverage to negotiate. So I simply endured those two days a week -- lessons in maintaining a delicate balance between modesty and youthful enthusiasm, during the more physically active (and most fun!) parts of the day.
I must have been fourteen or fifteen years old, when I announced to my mother, one day after school, that I wanted to start shaving my legs. Her response, immediate and uncompromising, took me a bit by surprise:
“You known, once you start shaving your legs, you have to do it every day for the rest of your life.”
A bit taken aback, but feeling undaunted and newly courageous, I readily accepted the challenge. Her conclusion -- the utterly finality of it -- did seem, even in that moment, a bit odd to me. I couldn’t really imagine why such stringent adherence would be required. “What would happen if I stopped for a couple of days?” the curious rebel within me wished immediately to know -- but I didn’t dare verbalize this wondering, in that precarious moment of seeking permission, and her blessings, to embark upon this symbolically-charged hair-removal ritual.
And so I began ..... and was dutiful, in a nearly religious way, for quite a number of years. It wasn’t until well into my undergraduate career -- after a full immersion in feminist theory and politics, that I came to realize the utter ridiculousness of that initial injunction -- and that no thunderbolt of divine wrath was going to descend, if I chose to not shave my legs for a day, a week, a month or even a decade ....
Today, in Boulder Colorado -- teeming as it is with bikers and swimmers -- it’s almost as common to see a man with shaved legs, as it is a woman. In these athletic sub-cultures, having shaved legs has become a part of how masculinity is defined. I’m probably still in the minority, as a woman, in terms of my choice to remain au naturel in relation to leg-hair -- but it’s a well-represented minority, and I can’t remember ever being explicitly judged for the choice.
Around the same time as my initiation into shaving, was my first serious attempt to apply make-up to my face. It was, as I recall, for a holiday gathering of some sort, which was to include a host of infrequently-seen relatives who were in town for the occasion.
With the assistance of my younger sister (who was en route to a career as an amateur actress, and was already a proficient make-up artist) I playfully painted my face. It really was “just for fun” -- a kind of creative exploration, within a medium that was relatively new to me. I certainly didn’t anticipate the response that I would get -- which was one of rather overwhelming attention, admiration and praise.
Suddenly, uncles and cousins who in previous encounters had barely cast an eye in my direction, were lavishing me with attention. And while there was a short-lived satisfaction that I drew from this newly-exalted status, mostly it just disgusted me. After all, it was so obviously the most superficial aspect of my appearance (not to mention my Being) that they were reacting to -- heaping me with praise and affection that could only be equally superficial. I saw this clearly, and somehow, in that moment, decided that the make-up game was one I really didn’t want to play, in any consistent way.
I did revert, for the first several months of being a new university student, to applying make-up every morning. But I could never really take it seriously, found myself applying less and less, until the actions became, quite literally, an “empty ritual” -- at which point I threw it all in the trash.
And that was pretty much it, for make-up on my face. Every other year or so, if for some reason I’m inspired to do so, or need to attend an event which seems legitimately (?) to “demand” it, I seek out the required assistance .... to once again apply what one friend playfully refers to as her “war paint.” But mostly I present my face as-it-is ....