Being a second daughter in a working class family, I wasn’t raised as a princess. My sister got all the attention and indulgence specially saved for the first child, and by the time I was born, my own mother, not to mention other people, was disappointed because I wasn’t a boy. Im not complaining or anything, I am definitely very fortunate to be in a family like mine. But instead of wearing all pink, pretty skirts, fancy hair clips, being called “my little precious girl” or something along the line, I don't own anything pink, actually hate the colour, and most of the time am left to make my own choices. In short, my family allows me enough resource and independence to have almost everything my way.
But I’ve never been spoiled. Indeed I learnt to not demand very early, so early that even until now I have a hard time deciding whenever someone asks me what I want. All my requests for toys when I was a little girl were turned down. Even as my parents wanted to buy me toys sometimes, they were afraid of my grandparents, who for sure would always complain that toys are such a waste of money and children are both insatiable and easy to get bored when it comes to toys. So, unlike other girls, I never had lots of dolls and dress-up stuff.
My mother and my sister are average women who are not crazy about their appearance. The only woman close to me that succeeds in presenting herself as a feminine, attractive and mindful lady is my youngest aunt on my father’s side. Unfortunately, her influence on me is limited to a few clothes she buys me here and there, or rather, her own clothes transferred to me, which I most of the time happily accept. I’ve been taught to keep myself clean and tidy, but that’s pretty much it.
Being a girl in public schools in Vietnam throughout my 12 years, I learnt to associate girls who pay too much attention to appearance with bad traits. “They do not care about their study, they will grow up into bad women, they just want to attract boys, they are spoiled kids in rich family”, I heard these assumptions all the time, directly from family, friends and teachers, as well as indirectly from the media. In order to earn adults’ approval and present yourself as a moral girl, you should try to look as modest as possible. Dying your hair is a violation of the rule, painting your nail is a challenge to teachers’ authority, wearing tight pants or lipstick puts you in the circle of students rated as difficult and troublesome. Of course I was always around other “good” girls, who themselves stay away from makeup and rarely hang out with the other group. My friends, and myself, were proud of our morality and “authentic” values played out in our academic achievements in contrast to those who care too much about look and as a matter of fact, maintain moderate or worse than average result in their studying.
Being a female sociology student in a small university in Canada, I’ve been fed with radical ideas of Marxists and feminists. I learnt to accept their doctrines before I have enough ground to question them. On the one hand, I’ve been immersed in a small town where the atmosphere is so laid back that no one really cares how others look. I’ve been pressured to look pretty when I go to school, in fact, most of the time I just put on whatever works. On the other hand, I detest high heels and push-up bras as means to alter self-image in order to fit into men’s expectations. Women defend hurting themselves with heels and extreme uncomfortable practices like dieting or dangerous procedures like cosmetic surgery by saying they just want to be beautiful. But the very standard of “beautiful” is not subjective. It is men’s standard, in short. Women do what they do to please men. And I hate it. I don’t want to be beautiful, if that’s what it takes, not to be a slave to a nonsense standard torturing all females.
Despite what have been said, yesterday I went out and spent a good amount of money on makeup. The first time. But what is more surprising is that I didn’t regret it.
Why? Why? Why?
My legitimate reason is I am going to need makeup anyway real soon. Last summer, after being scolded by my aunt and my cousin, although I didn’t care to put a single word in my mind, I grew more conscious about my look. I started paying attention to what other women wore on streets, and I had to admit that I failed the system, which means that if I want to fit in this time, I have to change. I am going to work, and people are going to judge me by my look.
But I wonder if there’s another force working here. I’ve always had bad experience with makeup that I have no trust in it. I don’t believe putting on some colour will make me look better. My most significant others, of course, always discourage me from trying makeup.
I have a friend here who is so into makeup that to me, she’s like an expert. She is about the only positive force fighting against the current, and naturally, the one who accompanied me yesterday.
My way back into femininity, as defined normally, is not smooth at all. One point Im excited, and another disappointed. One moment Im amazed at the artistic skills of people in makeup tutorials on youtube, another confused and hesitant. Half of me wants to be pretty, just like others, the half that screams to conform to social norms and lures me with all the comfort of being a part of the greater good. It promises attention, acceptance and good treatment (I’ve read enough to understand that beauty does pay off, whatever scale you use to measure the benefit, you surely have an easier life in all aspects if you’re beautiful). Another part pulls me back. It asks me for determination, and even morality. You can’t advocate for feminism and secretly long for being perceived as a feminine lady at the same time and not feeling guilty. At least I can’t. I can’t help it.
Or is it because I have finally bought in the message of this individualistic society: “you are beautiful, you deserve the best, you must love yourself, and you define what you are”? Have I gradually sunk in my mind the right to be attractive, even if it means to look like everyone else?
The struggle between a conscious criticism of society and an unconscious urge to be a normal part of it will probably follow me through the rest of my life, I guess.