Although the ideology of feminism does not prescribe any rules for how a feminist should behave, often when you exist in an environment of constant-focus on the politics of womanhood, you start to question whether you are allowed to be feminine. However, feminism and femininity aren’t two sides of the same coin, they are allies.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
I’ve been scared of lipstick my entire life. The first time I put it on, I must have been twelve or thirteen-years old, and what I saw in the mirror was horrifying to me. Not only did it seem like I was trying to paint a heinous, forced identity onto my face, but also like I was competing for an idea of beauty that wasn’t mine for the taking. I am not part of the community of beautiful people and that has always been okay with me because I derive much more joy from watching beauty than I do from wearing it. I derive much more joy from understanding and taking apart the psychosexual aspiration to and cultural obsession with beauty than I do from applying its principles to myself. We all have our place in the world, and that is mine.
I am the person who will question the environmental impact and sexist nature of the pants I have to buy because all the rest of mine are torn. I am the person who would rather blindly cut off their hair just to avoid having to comb it than do them neatly. I am the person who cannot enjoy any festivals because I cannot find it in my heart to relate to the joy of culture that is rooted in stories that I find problematic in one way or the other. I am the person who will tirelessly and constantly talk about how everything in the world is related to women being oppressed in this or that way even when I can hear people getting annoyed and bored. I am the person who has a crisis of identity because she cannot decide how she feels about lipstick.
Lipstick is not so simple. Even as I feel an aesthetic-draw to it, I feel the pressure to condemn it, and I know that seems like it’s a feminist thing. Our understanding of feminism has been corrupted and co-opted by the loudest and most damaging voices that tell us feminism is about castrating men and sterilizing women.
The truth is that feminism never told me to hate anything. It never told me I cannot put on a skirt nor that I couldn’t get married or have children. It never told me to hate men. It never told me I couldn’t paint my lips or that I had to burn a bra. It didn’t tell me to hate Diwali or other women who fast for their husbands. No. Feminism taught me to question things. It taught me to care about other women like they were soldiers in my platoon. It taught me to consider society, with its norms and laws, in an analytical and solution-oriented manner. Feminism showed me that in this world where I was always being told what I couldn’t do because I had a vagina, I had power. I had the power to speak and affect change. It taught me that I matter. That I didn’t have to reduce my voice to being a daughter, sister, wife or mother. Feminism made me believe I could be a giant, if I wanted to. However the unintended impact of giving yourself so fully to a cause is that it begins to permeate everything you are and everything you do. In that being a woman is much less a part of my identity than being a feminist is. Feminism turned womanhood into an entirely political experience for me.
Issues of gender are complex but if gender is defined by social identification and experience, then my experience of womanhood is entirely political. Womanhood is about the struggle to me. It’s about rape and restricted access to medical services, it is about being forced to wear beautiful colours and to care about fabrics. It’s about having roles enforced on us and having our rights violently taken from us. It’s about being asked about my reproductive plans at job interviews. There is no room for aesthetics in this experience of womanhood. There is no room for complacency. There are no days off. There is no moment when I can allow myself to forget that being a woman is going to war. That ideology, and the fervour with which it exists in many of us, has us regard a thing like lipstick as a grenade we are throwing at ourselves, but every once in a while, I stand before a mirror, grenade in hand, and I paint my face in colours of beauty.
I don’t do this because I must. I don’t do it because it is necessary for the social situation at hand (though I must admit when I was younger I would apply make-up to look older so that people at work would take me more seriously). I don’t do it because I like the feeling of having a sticky mouth. I suppose somewhere deep inside I feel a yearning to explore my femininity. Femininity, unlike womanhood, does not feel political. It seems like an artistic expression of hormones and a reappropriation of social norms to create something authentically beautiful. I like to believe that is at the heart of fashion as well. That is what I see when I look at beautiful people around me, I see the aesthetic expression of who they are. Femininity seems like the artful side of womanhood (and my version of womanhood requires it be optional) but I do, feel like many women around me, a desire to engage in a female aestheticism.
In concept, I believe I could be beautiful in lipstick. I feel a desire to connect with an innate sense of beauty that I believe all of us find inside ourselves but I am unable to do it for myself. I know women are told routinely, as a means to empower ourselves, to dress beautiful for us, to put on make-up because it makes us happy, and while I appreciate the sentiment, I smell a rat. I smell a rat because tying a shoelace around my neck seems pretty to me but it seems to bother everyone who is looking for pretty in me. It just seems to me like we are being convinced we are acting of our own accord and even if we aren’t and that is the bias of my feminism, if I engaged in lipstick for my own image of myself, I would be betraying my own image of myself. I would feel like a defector. Feminism didn’t tell me to feel this way, but it taught me that if I looked hard enough I could find a great reason for feeling this way. Yet somehow it also taught me that I could love freely and in love I was exempt from the norms of both feminism and womanhood. In love, I can be whoever I want.
So when I hold the lipstick up to my face in search of my femininity, I don’t do it for myself. I don’t do it in my name. I do it in the name of the person I love because I cannot unlearn that to me decorating myself is a form of objectification but I can love in a way that delights me to be even an object for the person I love. I can revel in femininity only in the name of love because feminism taught me to seek love in a way that fulfils me instead of fulfilling my obligations as a socially conscious woman and so I can have a relationship where I am truly free to honestly explore myself in ways I find comfortable. Feminism taught me I can make my own choices in love and empowered me to do so with authority.
Ultimately feminism isn’t at odds with my femininity because without feminism I never would have found the space to explore my femininity. Without feminism I would have been a solider with no one to write home to and that sounds worse to me than every part of the experience of womanhood. Without feminism I would have died in battle, but with it I can write beautiful tales of war in lipstick.