More than a beauty salon, the airport confirms that femininity is not a degrading obligation. The perfumed aisles of an international duty-free zone make glamour feel attainable. Cosmetics aren’t my splurge of choice, but at the airport I’m mesmerized, physically drawn to those crimson sentinels, the tubes of lipstick, Chanel in its understated sans-serif font. The slick displays suggest an end to the search for the right shade of red. But why this everlasting quest for the “bold lip?” Why the spray of perfume?
Virginie Despentes says it’s a degrading obligation. Virginie Despentes, French film director, novelist, rock critic, rape survivor, former sex worker. It’s in her punk text, “King Kong Girl,” a kind of manifesto. But you can’t argue with a punk text. A manifesto refuses refutation. I’m arguing because I want it to be my manifesto, too, but it doesn’t fit. I want to talk back when she says:
After several years of genuine, sincere and rigorous research, I have come to the conclusion that femininity is the same thing as bootlicking. The art of servility. You can call it seduction to make it sound glamorous. But it is very rarely a skilled sport. For the majority of women it’s the simple habit of behaving as inferior. Walking into a room, checking whether there are men in it, wanting to please them. Not talking too loud. Not being forceful. Not sitting with your legs splayed to be more comfortable. Not speaking with authority. Not talking about money. Not wanting to claim power. Not wanting a position of authority. Not seeking glory. Not laughing too loud. Not being too funny.
I understand her need to reject the feminine and claim the space and freedom this rejection gives a woman: to be allowed an imperfect body, to have an opinion, to take the bus, to walk down the street, to say something, to write something, to speak up, to speak out. High heels will keep you from running fast. Preoccupation with your face, your hair, your voice, your body, your gestures, will keep your time and thoughts and money from bigger concerns. Despentes again:
I’m not saying that being a woman is in itself a painful constraint. Some women do it very well. It’s the obligation which is degrading. Of course the great seductresses are right up there in terms of reputation. Figure skaters are pretty cool, too – but no one expects us all to be figure skaters. Horsewomen have their own special charm – but you don’t get given a saddle and bridle the moment you want to exist.
I’m not a great seductress, a figure skater, or a horsewoman—the only exceptions Despentes seems to allow! Still, after all these years, I need the red lipstick; I would feel unfinished if I buzzed away my long hair, as freeing as the act might feel.
When I was a child in 1980s Venezuela there were only three TV channels, and the kids had memorized the schedule of the scant times when cartoons were on. Saturdays were a particularly boring time for TV. One channel had a single show called Sábado Sensacional that filled the whole afternoon with contests, pop stars, kids wanting to be pop stars, a lot of salsa bands, comedians, all live on a big stage, under many bright lights. I mostly ignored the show when I was small, except when I saw the dancing women come out. I couldn’t get enough of them in feathers and sparkling halter tops and high heels. There was something illicit, delicious about how they were half-naked and all the men were in suits or long sleeves.
The logical conclusion of Despentes’ argument that femininity is equivalent to the art of servility is that a society of women made to worship femininity would have the most servile women. This may be why my American friends are horrified when I confirm the supreme reign of Miss Venezuela. The stereotype is true. The Miss Venezuela pageant was a national obsession, at least in my youth. Not just the national pageant. There were state pageants, local pageants, school pageants. Classrooms elected a queen (my sister was the queen of her second-grade class). My father played amateur softball in the league of university professors. Each department team—law, engineering, economics—had a little beauty queen with sash and flowers leading it onto the field. To say a girl was beautiful, you would say she was “una Miss.”
The country bowed down and worshiped women’s beauty, but it wasn’t some nightmare world of servility. This devotion to the female figure didn’t carry with it a consequent disrespect of women’s minds or capacities on a societal level. All around me there were women doctors, lawyers, engineers, politicians, professors, journalists. They were respected as such, not viewed as slightly less than their male counterparts or marked out as unusual, at least from my vantage point as a child. The constraint was on appearance. The worst criticism would not come for a career choice, but rather for choosing to reject feminine trappings. It would be hard to get anywhere then, without dressing for the part of Latin woman.
I understand the pernicious effects of this overemphasis on requiring women to embody a particular kind of femininity. They need to be named, too: perpetual objectification, including street harassment; acceptance of this objectification as normal; a sense of inadequacy; insecurity and low self-esteem; equation of self-worth with appearance; forever dieting and an obsession with weight; eating disorders; prioritization of artifice over depth, appearance over character; societal rejection of an identity outside the feminine ideal. We shouldn’t stop talking about these things, we must remain alive to them. But I also want to know why we—we women—hold on to this feminine picture in spite of all this harm.
The societies where women face the most unjust social circumstances, where they are least free to exercise their civil and political rights, are ones where it is a crime for women to show their bodies, where women’s bodies are erased, and where women do not take up any space at all, outside of their families and homes.
When a man pinned me down on a bed against my will, I felt like I was in a play—it was a scene that was familiar, though I hadn’t lived through it before. I was in a scene re-enacted over centuries. I managed to run out of his apartment, but not before he tried to drag me back in by the wrist in a silent struggle where I braced myself against the doorway. He insisted on walking me home. He was pleading, crying, apologizing, pathetic. I was still afraid. I stopped in front of a building that wasn’t mine so he wouldn’t know where I lived.
The strangest part, the least expected part, is that whatever else I felt the next day—residual fear, anger—an exhilaration underpinned it all. Energy, excitement. Because I had given fate the slip, eluded the commandment of the gods. The story hadn’t ended the way it was supposed to, with my eventual submission, disassociation, violation, and its aftermath. I felt shaken awake from a nightmare, relieved.
In her history of the Roman Empire, SPQR, Mary Beard examines the foundation myths of Rome and the interpretations ancient historians gave to these stories. The best known is the myth of the orphaned brothers Romulus and Remus, who were nursed by a she-wolf and grew up to be the founders of Rome. One possible implication of this story is that the Romans were survivors, that they had something intrinsically tough and wild about them. A competing founding myth was that of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who fled to Italy to establish Rome as the new Troy. The subtext of this story is that a Roman can be from anywhere, a Roman is not born, but made.
The third foundational story is that of mass rape. In this account, in order to grow his young city, Romulus first declared Rome an asylum for runaway slaves, convicted criminals and refugees. Then, to increase the female population, he invited the neighboring communities, the Sabines and the Latins, to come and celebrate a religious festival. In the middle of the proceedings, he ordered his men to abduct the young women and make them their wives. Beard says that Roman writers continuously debated the details of this event, its scale, and its significance. “More than anything else, though, it was the apparent criminality and violence of the incident that preoccupied them.” She notes that the historian Livy argued that this event actually shows that the first Romans were attempting to ensure the future of their community and followed the “necessary expedient [with] loving talk and promises of affection.” Other historians argued that the mass abduction and rape was a sign of Roman belligerence, of war being uppermost in their minds.
I picture Western femininity rising up through this foundation of rape like green leaves through concrete. More than simply decoration, the feminine seems necessary for survival. I’ve gazed at ancient jewelry in museums of antiquity. Empresses and courtesans wore jeweled earrings, necklaces, bracelets. They styled their hair and followed hair trends. Peering in the glass cases, I smile that admiring smile that extends from one woman to another: “I love your necklace!” I would wear it. I understand how to admire these baubles, even while much of the rest of the culture is inaccessible.
I was given my first purse when I was around five or six. Looking back, I want to remove this purse strapped across my child body, let my child self be free of that weight a while longer, free to not think about what makes her a girl and not a boy. But it’s already too late for that, purse or no purse. In fact, I liked carrying the purse because it made my father and my beautiful aunts smile. I trusted the way the purse was conferred as a sort of privilege, but also with a wink and a smile, a joke that everyone enjoys. What does a six-year-old carry in her purse? Lip gloss, a few coins. It’s something between a toy and reality. I was also given jewelry; I was also given perfume. There was so much mystique and expectation around these totems. It was at that age, too, that I was first warned about men.
It dawned on me in my twenties how many stories I had heard of rape and sexual assault from so many friends and family members. Was I unconsciously drawn to people with these stories, or was this just the truth of any woman I might get close to?
The answer comes when I pursue women’s biographies. In a period when I listened to Nico obsessively, I went to her Wikipedia page, skimmed down, and there it was: raped by an American soldier in Germany. I became interested in the issue of women who were both muses and creators. I began to read a biography of Lee Miller, the photographer who was a model in her youth, for Vogue, and then famously for Man Ray. She was born in Poughkeepsie in 1890. Little Lee (Elizabeth) is beloved and coddled by her father. Then on page 20 out of 630, at age seven, she’s raped when left in the care of a family friend. Lee contracts gonorrhea from the experience and undergoes repeated invasive treatments. The biographer casts this experience as defining the rest of her life, Lee’s cleaving of sex and love. And the story of violation recurs, in my reading, in the news: Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, Madonna, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and so on.
I had a kind of angry mantra that kept me writing in my twenties. I wouldn’t have been able to explain it, but it summed it up for me: “Borges never had to worry about anyone staring at his tits!” Borges was one of my writing heroes.
I’ve flirted with rejecting the feminine ideal at times. In high school and college, I loved the fabric of men’s clothes, the cut of a man’s dress shoe, and would integrate them into the way I dressed, often from thrift stores: a grey wool vest, a crisp white shirt, tooled leather oxfords. I chopped my hair boy-short. I carried the smallest wallet in defiance of purses, then I switched to tote bags. I’ve been through a spectrum of attitude and practices around depilation. But the feminine creeps back. The bold lip, the spray of perfume.
I could never go all the way. I was too impatient to spend the time required under the hair dryer to fully tame my hair into a silky and controlled substance. I stopped short of understanding make-up as layers and contours. There are Venezuelan women who have perfected the feminine art from lacquered nails to tamed hair to gold-decked fingers to the smoothest legs. This look is maintained at all times, during grocery runs, visits to a friend’s house, or trips to the beach. Later in life, it becomes an ever carefully maintained face, sometimes involving injections and surgery. I recognize both stages when I see them out “in the wild.” Sometimes the woman is Brazilian, or Mexican, but there’s something familiar about the thoroughness of the look, and a familiar unease at feeling unkempt, less attractive in comparison.
I heard talk of many different diets and potions as I grew up. There was one aunt who advocated a seaweed sludge smeared on the thighs with a ropey, big mitten, and then covered in plastic wrap for half an hour to reduce cellulite. I had a friend who described helping an aesthetician put together her machines when she opened her business. They looked like torture devices, he said, to perform a number of rituals to tighten or relax, reduce or increase.
I was in solidarity with women writing #MeToo, speaking up, but I didn’t write #MeToo on any platform; though, there were many of my own stories I could have told, such as my escape from sexual assault and the boss I thought of every morning when I got dressed, choosing the outfit that might prevent him from staring at my breasts. I was angry that we should have to engage in this collective educational project. My assumption when I meet or speak with any woman is that she has faced sexual harassment, abuse or violation in some form or another. Any woman, whatever her culture or political stripe. I was angry at the surprise from men, including from men I’m close to, that this is ubiquitous in women’s lives. This was the shocking part about #MeToo for me. Not the women’s stories.
I heard the activist Eve Ensler say in an interview that violence against women is not women’s problem, it’s a problem created and perpetrated by men. Women have taken on resolving this problem, but it is men who must solve it. It’s a simple thought, but not one I’d had before.
When the #MeToo movement was exploding, burgeoning, upending entire industries, the hashtag on everyone’s lips, I kept thinking about the fact of keeping silent. This was often the line from people resisting the seismic shift. Why didn’t she say anything, why didn’t they say anything at the time? Why didn’t she just leave? Why did she go to his apartment? There are the obvious reasons of course (obvious to a woman who has been through such an experience): fear of retaliation, fear for her own safety, fear of having a career sidelined or destroyed, fear of being stalked, fear of being isolated or shunned, fear of being re-traumatized, etc.
I think about this silence, because I’ve kept it many times, and it used to shame me. I didn’t understand it. I called myself a feminist since I was a child. Beyond all the reasons I’ve listed is a deeper, more formless fear. When, at age 24, I was requested by a human resources director to confront that boss about his habit of staring hard at my chest whenever I was in his presence, I remained silent. In the little conference room, I couldn’t bear my breasts being the subject of words spoken out loud. It didn’t seem like those words could be spoken there, my workplace (an organization whose mission was to advance women’s reproductive rights), where I edited and wrote and was a person at work. The place would implode, there would be nowhere to go next. Now I realize the danger of this secret knowledge, of acts remaining without language to define them. To experience violation is to experience the collapse of the world as you know it. To speak it is to collapse the world as others know it.
Femininity in the Latin American context to me isn’t connected to passivity, to virginity, and coyness. There are powerful women who wield red lips. And femininity doesn’t only involve the surface image, it includes all the scaffolding holding it up. A woman in an evening gown is also the woman of the moment before she puts on the gown. I think of watching my friend’s lawyer mother straining to pull up support hose, her hair blown out, face still bare of make-up, yelling at our rebellious friend to get her act together and interrupting herself to ensure my sister and I were beautiful and perfect. My stepmother in big shoulder pads and clip-on earrings, both somehow making her larger, a decidedly feminine look, but for one at work, not a domestic self. My aunt who had been a flight attendant, her delight in mini-skirts, and also her wrecked toes, twisted and calloused, from years of service in high heels. The poisonous smell of nail polish and nail polish remover, the claw-like appearance of the ideal nail.
I don’t want to be a woman who can’t face the outside world without a drop of make-up on, but I also feel sorry for men who can’t ever hide behind make-up. Women talk about “putting on their face.” A different face than the one they wear at home. War paint. On some red-lip days the lipstick is the best accessory to black-and-white stripes, red cork-heeled sandals, and an oversized pair of shades. It feels like being in a movie. In other words, it feels like a lasting image. On other red-lip days, the red is protection. I’ve thrown it up for cover, a flare to distract from my real face, whatever it is I’m feeling. The red lips cover for me, they eclipse all.
Virginie Despentes. King Kong Theory. Translated by Stéphanie Benson. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2010.
Mary Beard. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Profile Books, 2016.