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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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.”