A Woman in America

I don’t need to tell you that last week, Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. I don’t need to tell you that on that cover, she looks, by society’s standards, really good: her hair is long and flowing, her features are delicate, and her boobs, no less than assertive. I also probably don’t need to tell you that her appearance has been a hotly disputed topic of conversation. Caitlyn Jenner Vanity FairWhile many are eager to say things like, “She looks amazing!” and “This is a hot woman!” there are plenty of others who are equally eager to note the implications of Caitlyn’s feminine looks, as well as society’s response to them. In John Stewart’s commentary last Tuesday, he addressed Caitlyn directly (and facetiously): “Caitlyn, when you were a man, we could talk about your athleticism, your business acumen, but now you’re a woman, and your looks are really the only thing we care about.” And since then, there has been a storm of articles reiterating and bemoaning this sentiment, and ultimately asking the question, What does it mean to be a woman?

Elinor Burkett’s NY Times Op-Ed, What Makes a Woman? offers an aggressively “feminist” (or perhaps I should say: female-ist) perspective on Caitlyn’s transition, and focuses on the idea that transgender women like Caitlyn “haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails.” She claims that trans individuals “disregard… the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.” Okay, Ms. Burkett, but perhaps it would be more productive to replace the word “woman” with the word “person,” and remember that we are all, in fact, individuals who have been shaped by our experiences. Caitlyn’s experience as a trans-gender woman is not the same as your experience as a cis-gender woman, just a my experience as a cis-gender woman is not the same as yours.

And I get it. It’s hard to hear someone speak on behalf of woman-kind, whether explicitly or implicitly. “As a woman,” or “because I’m/ she’s a woman” or “for women” are oversimplified and essentially meaningless phrases. But sometimes we simplify to make things, well, simpler. No woman can claim to know or understand any other woman’s experience – or any other person’s experience for that matter. But she can relate, and she can empathize.

In creating Natural Beauty Month, I am acutely and uncomfortably aware that some of the language I have used is exclusionary. I am also aware that I have equated “natural beauty” with “no makeup,” and focused on advertising the event to women – or at least, I did for the first two years. While I have been careful not to bill it as an event “for women,” I have spent far more energy advertising it to women than to men. Why? Because I know a lot more women who wear makeup than men who wear makeup – I Am Woman redand when I created the event, not wearing makeup was the primary challenge. This year, I felt moved to expand the challenge, focusing less on exposing one’s natural face and more on exposing one’s natural self. My hope is that Natural Beauty Month encourages people of all genders and sexes to see themselves as they are, and to become more comfortable sharing those selves with the world. For me, a cis-gender woman who has tacitly adhered to the feminine norms of wearing makeup and shaving my legs and armpits for most of my life, this means remembering that I don’t need to do any of these things to be a woman. For Caitlyn Jenner, a woman who has previously adhered to the masculine norms of not wearing makeup, not shaving, and not painting her nails, this might mean remembering that she can do these things if she wants to. And ultimately, it’s not up to me, and it’s not up to Caitlyn to change society’s perceptions. Natural Beauty Month will only work if society accepts what we propose: we do not need to cover ourselves up; we are who we are, and who we are is a beautiful thing.

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Natural Beauty Month: Season Three

Two years ago, I challenged myself to go the entire month of June without wearing makeup. I remember the first time I was about to leave my house without my usual eyeliner and mascara, I nearly cried. Why would I do this to myself? I wondered. Why would I choose to make myself feel so uncomfortable and exposed?? But I had already blogged about it, told all my friends about it, and encouraged all the women in my life to join me in the challenge – so I couldn’t back out.

By the end of the month, I had grown used to my naked face. No longer did my reflection seem foreign, and no more did I fear the world seeing my face as it was, naturally. I still thought I looked “better” with makeup, but I had finally accepted the fact that I didn’t need it.

Last June, I challenged myself again. At first, it was almost disappointingly easy. Soon, the challenge became less about my appearance and more about my life: Were my choices reflecting my desires? Were my actions consistent with my beliefs? Was Ibeauty isnt makeup letting the world see me as I was, even when I wasn’t at my “best”? When the challenge is simply don’t wear makeup, the course of action is clear-cut, even if it’s difficult. But when the challenge is be yourself and let the world see it, things are trickier. Before we can be ourselves, we have to know ourselves – a challenge all on its own, and a dynamic one at that. When I graduated from high school, I thought I knew myself, and for all intents and purposes, I did. When I went to college, however, I realized that I would have to get to know myself all over again. The same thing happened when I graduated from college, again when I quit my first full-time job, and again when I moved to Portland last summer. I knew who I was, for the most part, but I would again have to learn who I was becoming.

In my (almost) 30 years on earth, I’ve met myself many times. I’ve made some really good first impressions, and some really shitty ones too. I’ve seen myself do and say things that make me want to curl up under a rock and die; I’ve also done things that I’m immensely proud of. And what I’ve come to accept recently is that this cycle will continue. I will never outgrow embarrassing myself, and I will never be too old (or too young) to do something amazing. Living well and living happily takes time and practice; it also takes failure and sadness. But above all, I think, it takes acceptance and love.

This year, I again present to you the challenge of Natural Beauty Month. This might simply mean not wearing makeup, or it beauty is not the facemight mean wearing less. I might mean reminding your friend that he or she looks (and more importantly, is) awesome. It might mean not using hair products, or not dousing yourself in cologne. Or maybe it means speaking up, even and especially when you’re afraid. Maybe it means telling someone you love them first. Whatever it means to you, let it actually be a challenge – then face it. Because you, my friend, are one bad-ass ninja-warrior of love and happiness, and the world needs more of you.

Pink and Blue

Apparently, when I was three years old, I informed my parents that “Pink is a girl’s color. Blue is for boys.” My parents, recovering hippies that they were, shared a perplexed glance as if to ask each other, Are you responsible for teaching her that genderist smut?! When neither owned up to it, they decided it must have been the evils of society – no matter how careful they were to shroud me from such ideas, societal roles and expectations were just too insidious.

Throughout my childhood, I was reminded of this story several times. To my parents – especially my father – the story seemed a sort of prototype, a representation of all the assumptions and preconceptions that we, as a society, pass down without knowing it. As I grew older, I would encounter many such gender half and halfpreconceptions, several of which would test my confidence: when I was in middle school, I learned that boys don’t like goofy girls; in high school, I learned that girls and boys could be friends without sexual tension (then, in college, I learned they couldn’t); in college, I learned that men don’t like confident women (then, in recent years, I learned they do); and somewhere along the line, I learned that women wear makeup and men don’t. While I have always fancied myself an observant and reflective person, it was not until last June that I truly pondered the absurdity of this last societal myth. If someone had said to me, “Hey! Isn’t it weird that half the population is expected to paint its face, while the other half is expected not to?” I might have acknowledged that yes, that was weird. But no one said it, and I accepted it as a truth.

In most of the animal kingdom, it is the male sex that primps and fluffs, and the female that chooses and chases her mate. In human society, we have somehow reversed this: women are the “fairer sex,” and under no circumstances are we supposed to chase our potential male mates. eHarmony even published an article alerting women to the dangers of, “E-mailing [the man she is interested in], texting him, Facebooking him, sending him a cute card, dropping by his house, in any way attempting to initiate some kind of contact.” Not only have we convinced women to cover up their physical blemishes, we have also trained them to cover up their feelings. What happened to letting the world see us as we are? Are we so afraid of judgment that we need to keep at least one layer between us and everyone else?

What would happen if we accepted each other as readily as we accepted societal norms? be-who-you-areHow would we behave if we did what we knew to be good, instead of what we were told was right? I have wracked my brain to come up with a non-cheesey way to say it, but I can’t, so I’ll just say it, cheese and all: Bare your face, and while you’re at it, bare your soul; speak your truth, and recognize that truth is relative and malleable; don’t worry if you don’t fit society’s idea of you, or even your own idea of you – a person is more than an idea. Perhaps Dr. Seuss said it best: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

Beneath the Surface

I won’t lie – I’m almost disappointed by how easy this year’s edition of Natural Beauty Month has been. Last year, I tormented myself by standing too long in front of mirrors, picking apart my reflection. Last year, I looked longingly at beautiful women, wondering how I compared. Last year, I researched one natural beauty tip after another, ate healthier, slept more – all in the name of cultivating “natural beauty” (read: “natural good looks”). But this year? This year, I have other priorities. Do I still feel strongly that a makeup-free month is a good idea? Totally. Do I still hate the societal expectation that women wear makeup while real men don’t? Absolutely. But am I still consumed by how I look with makeup vs. without? No, sir.

While I am pleased with this new-found confidence in my naked, unadulterated face, it makes writing about my experience more difficult – or at least, less superficial. Whereas last year, my insecurities came rushing to the surface, this year, my attention is deeper.Purchase this image at http://www.stocksy.com/51066 A lot has happened since last June: my boyfriend of three and a half years moved out; a dear friend moved in; I reconnected with friends I hadn’t seen in too long; I went on dates; I finished my masters’ degree; I decided to sell most of my belongings and move across the country with no job awaiting. At 28, I am about to begin a new episode of my life – and instead of “Married… with Children,” this episode is more like “New Girl.”

As I reflect on this month so far, I cannot help but extend my reflection to the year itself. And as I ponder why I am so much more comfortable without makeup this June than last, I must give a nod to my experiences. Even though I am still concerned with what I look like, I have far more faith in who I am. The friends I have made (and will make) and the men I have dated (and will date) do not like me because I have black eyelashes or smooth skin: they like me for me. Of course, I want to be attractive (who doesn’t?), but unless we are looking at a photograph or painting, attractiveness is never purely physical. In a post last June, I wrote that, “looking pretty is not the point of Natural Beauty Month.” At the time, I knew it, but I didn’t fully believe it. This year, I believe it.

The End of The Month, Not The Mindset

Well it’s July, and Natural Beauty Month is officially over. I considered posting a celebratory picture of my face, covered with an offensive amount of foundation, bronzer, eye shadow, eyeliner, maybe even some fake eyelashes, with a caption that read, “Soooo excited to wear makeup again!!” Then I realized that some people might not get the joke; that, and I don’t own half those products. But egregiously applied makeup and sarcastic captioning aside, the end of Natural Beauty Month does present me with some important questions: Will I go back to wearing makeup? If so, how often, and how much? Now that I am used to looking at my naked face, will I judge my made-up face negatively for being “fake”?

I have never been one for extremes. I don’t believe in strict diets that guilt a person into eating exclusively “healthy” food. Setting a strict “no makeup” rule for myself seems similarly restrictive: what if I feel especially dumpy one day and a dash of mascara makes me feel better about myself? One could argue that I should not care what I look like in the first place—indeed, this would be ideal. But the reality is, I do care, and some mornings I wake up looking more refreshed than others. I do not want to go back to relying on makeup to make up for the fact that I did not get a good sleep, ate too many fries, or didn’t exercise for a few days in a row. I want to be content with what I have and what I look like naturally, and I want to keep doing all that I can to care for myself from the inside out. I want to see makeup as an option, not as an evil entity, and certainly not as a necessity.

When I saw the headshots that my friend, John Schlia, had taken of me and two friends for Natural Beauty Month, I had a brief spell of anxiety. He had posted the pictures to his Facebook page, then tagged me in them—not only would my giant, naked face show up in his friends’ news feeds, but in my friends’ as well. Well shit, I thought, I guess there’s no turning back now… Of course, my two friends looked beautiful in their pictures, but mine was by far the worst. When I told one of these friends how jealous I was that her picture came out so well, she laughed: “Oh my GOD, mine is the WORST!” she said, “I thought you’d love yours!”  She proceeded to describe all that was wrong with her face in her picture—“flaws” that I had not noticed, nor did I notice when I went back to search for them. She told me that our third friend had felt the same way: our pictures were good but hers was the WORST. To each of us, the others were prettier, more photogenic, and our own natural faces looked terrible.

It is difficult to stop judging ourselves, and even harder to accept and love ourselves fully. Ironically, it is usually when we feel bad about ourselves that we treat ourselves badly. Unhealthy choices are addicting, but fortunately, so are healthy choices. There is a lot I will take away from this June, the most important being that no one cares what I look like as much as I do. When we stop seeing ourselves as flawed, broken, imperfect people, we start to treat ourselves with the love and respect we deserve. As we move forward into July, let us try to remember that no one will ever judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves. Let us make choices we can be proud of, and allow ourselves to make mistakes—these mistakes will not kill us, and they will probably even help us to appreciate the times we get it right.

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Even though I STILL think my picture is the worst, John is a great photographer. Thank you, John!

Reflecting on Reflections

Another week gone; another fifty people asking me, “Hey! How’s the no makeup thing going?” My favorite is when people say, “I saw your post about Natural Beauty Month—what a great idea… I mean, I can’t do it, but it’s a cool idea…” When I ask them politely, “Why can’t you do it?” they inevitably respond with the same things: I’m too old—you’ll understand when you’re 40/50/60; I literally have no eyelashes unless I put on mascara—you’d understand if you had blond hair; I can’t go without foundation—you have good skin so you wouldn’t understand.

I hear all these reasons, and I get it. I am 27—not even into my 30s, let alone my 40s, 50s, or 60s; I do have (relatively) dark eyelashes; I don’t understand what it’s like to have “bad” skin; I even have what society tells me is a highly coveted body: tall, tan and slender. It is these things combined that prompted one of my friends to tell me, “You know, there are probably some people who resent you for creating Natural Beauty Month—like, ‘sure, Abby can not wear makeup—she’s already got a good body and a pretty face.’ Other people are not so lucky.” Again, I hear this, and I get it. (And don’t worry, I have already felt guilty about the genes I have been given.) But my friend’s observation ignores two key things: 1. I work very hard to maintain the body that I have; it is not purely “luck,” and 2. looking “pretty” is not the point of Natural Beauty Month.

Cameron Russell, a 25-year-old American model, gave a TED talk recently where she dispelled the idea that being naturally good-looking leads to healthy self-esteem. She admitted to reaping the benefits of being physically beautiful, of which there are many: absolution from speeding tickets, special treatment from strangers, and of course, making a very comfortable living without exerting much effort, to name a few. As a model, she said, being acutely aware of her physical image is part of her job—and as most of us can attest, this sort of awareness often leads to insecurity. Do pretty people get special treatment? Yes. Does this mean we should all try to be prettier so that we can receive special treatment, too? No.

How others judge our appearance has nothing to do with us; how we judge others’ does. When I look at another woman and ask myself if she’s prettier than I am, I am the one making myself insecure, not she. And since attractiveness is largely a matter of opinion anyway, to judge one as “hot or not” is not only self-serving, but also absurd. We have control over what we do with our bodies: how much we exercise, what we eat, how much we sleep, how deeply we breathe. But there are certain things we cannot control: how tall we are, the structure of our bones, the color of our skin. In these last two (official) weeks of Natural Beauty Month, I encourage you to appreciate your physical body, to love and care for it, no matter what state it is in. Examine yourself honestly, and talk to yourself gently. Cultivate your health and happiness, for they are rooted much deeper than physical image.

do what you can

This June: Natural Beauty Month

I’ve just had an idea. It’s called Natural Beauty Month: if you’re an everyday makeup user, this one’s for you.

This weekend, I played in an ultimate frisbee tournament where everyone camped out in the rain and dirt. There was no point wearing shoes because the mud would eat them. There was no point wearing makeup or fixing your hair, because the rain and mud puddles would wash it all away — and I use the term “wash” loosely. We were filthy; we were soggy; and by golly, did we have fun.

But an interesting thing happened. A friend of mine, Susan*, didn’t recognize our friend Carla. Susan had met Carla several times, but since Carla wasn’t wearing makeup, Susan couldn’t be sure it was her. Another of my friends later commented that he did not recognize Carla without her makeup either. Yikes, I thought. I didn’t even think Carla wore a lot of makeup…

It got me thinking. Has this ever happened to me? Have any of my friends seen me without makeup and wondered who they were looking at? I’ve certainly been asked if I was tired on days that I was in fact quite energetic; the only difference was that I was not wearing my usual eyeliner and mascara. Most mornings I look at myself in the mirror and try to decide if I look alright as-is. Most mornings, the answer is, “Ehhh… I’ll just put some eyeliner and mascara on for now…” I don’t wear a lot of it, but I wear it a lot. I am used to seeing myself wearing it, so when I don’t, I look weird — but weird is relative. If I were used to seeing myself au naturel, I would adjust my idea of how I looked. I wouldn’t view my naked face as my face without makeup; I would view it as my face.

So here is what I propose: the month of June shall be Natural Beauty Month, where people everywhere dare to leave the house with a naked face. I know, it’s already June so you don’t have much time to prepare, but here’s the good news: there is no preparation necessary. Naked is sexy, right? So is your naked face. Wear it. Own it. And if you think you look tired, get some more sleep. If your skin is oily, eat more carrots and fewer fries. When you look in the mirror, see yourself for who you are, not who you aren’t. Actors and actresses wear makeup all the time: don’t compare yourself to them. In fact, don’t compare yourself to anyone. Be who you freaking are because who you freaking are is freaking awesome (or if it’s not, coverup won’t help)!! Go on, girl, admit it: you were born with it; you don’t need Maybelline.

ImageJoin us in solidarity through the Natural Beauty Month event on Facebook.

*All names are pseudonyms.