Thursday, November 3, 2011

Make-Up As Media Making

cross posted from my Media Justice column

Yes! You read correctly. In this piece I will make an argument that using and applying make-up can be a form of media for many folks. Now, this is not to say that folks who use make-up are always choosing or aware they are making media, but I think many of them are aware they are engaging in a form of art. Now, I know there are lots of folks who may disagree with this for several reasons, and I’d like to respond to some of those. Last week was the first time in a long time that I had been complimented on my make-up. A friend and colleague had said to me in the elevator “your make-up is flawless” and I felt good!

I don’t know too many folks who don’t like to be complimented. I felt proud to know that there was someone who recognized the care, skill, and time it took to get my make-up the way I had wanted it to look. This was one of the things that sparked my desire to write this post. Before I get into the specific points I’d like to make, let me share a story with you.

When I went back to school to focus on gender I remember having many comments made towards me about my gender expression. As my bio above mentions, I identify as a “femme” and have always had a gender expression that many read as stereotypical to Western ideas of how women are to look and ideas of femininity. I did not feel welcomed in that space. I questioned if my purple backpack was “gender neutral” enough. I resorted to wearing jeans and t-shirts more often than I cared for. My creative spirit had been broken and I became depressed.

You see for me, and many of the folks I know who “beat their face,” putting on make up, nail polish, etc. is part of our gender expression. It is a part of who we are. For me, it is a creative aspect of my identity that is extremely important. When I don’t have the ability, time, or resources to be creative in ways that fulfill me on a regular basis (photography,dancing, collaging, letter writing, zine making, etc.) I still find space for that creativity to be nurtured in make-up application.

One day at the MAC make up counter (of which I am a MAC Pro, which means I have a membership as a make-up artist and performer and thus receive a large percentage off my purchases, let me know if you want in on this discount as I make purchases for others), I heard a person say “look at all these women trying to change the way they look.” I looked up and it was a racially white woman rushing past and speaking to her pre-teen daughter. It was in that instant that I knew there was something more here. I looked around at the women at the counter and we were all women of Color.

Ideas and standards of beauty for women of Color are not the same for racially white women. Instead of hashing out this history, I encourage readers to do personal research and analysis on their own about how these differences occur and manifest. I once told a psychologist I was working with that I don’t have the pleasure, luxury, or privilege to leave my home without looking “well kept”/”put together” as a woman of Color living in this society. He did not understand and disagreed with me. I expected this and disengaged with him after I shared some resources for him to look into.

There are some folks claim that if someone uses and wears make-up you/us are perpetuating stereotypical ideals of beauty. This is one of the many issues “femmes” like me experience on a regular basis. These messages we hear from folks in and outside of our communities. There are many folks who identify as feminists, radical, revolutionaries who judge us because of our choice to wear make-up. I’ve encountered several of them who claim what I am doing is not revolutionary, is a problem, perpetuates the issue they are attempting to erase. All of a sudden I’m a part of the problem, not a useful member of the community, someone to be ridiculed, reprimanded, and ignored as my voice no longer matters. It is rare when some folks consider how my gender expression challenges them in ways that make them uncomfortable and sit with that discomfort to examine it. I write that as someone who has sat with that discomfort and will continue to do so as I learn about myself and others in such experiences.

One thing I often find interesting is that folks will judge me based on my gender expression and use of make-up, yet will not consider how I paint other parts of my body. Often when folks do recognize or discuss my body art they have vary different responses to the art on my face. The same radical, revolutionaries, and feminists enjoy talking to me about my body ink when they can see it, something that is often not done regarding my make-up.

Many of us recognize how important gender is to our lives. Many of us work regularly to be inclusive of folks who challenge gender binaries, be trans inclusive, and challenge misogyny on a regular basis. For some reason though there remains a disapproval of those of us who have a certain gender expression no matter how demure or exaggerated. There seems to be a disapproval, irritation, and even disgust for what is considered feminine. I wonder what that means for all women. Is there even safety and protection from other women in our communities? Do we really “have each other’s backs”?

Affirming our identities is important for many of us, if not all of us. There are many things we do each day to connect with who we are and where we come from. I know wearing make-up affirms my identity as a radical woman of Color, as a sexual being, as an intellectual, and educator. It also challenges ideas that people have about my identities. My use of color challenges ideas of me wanting to hide who I am and not stand out. This is associated with many parts of our identities that we are socialized to attempt to not make visible whether it is being a woman (and being passive), being fat (and not bringing attention to yourself as you already take up too much room), being a person of Color (especially if you are one of a few, or the only one in a room), being someone with a different ability (see being fat and a person of Color), and being of a certain age (wear color and products that are gender appropriate).

I’ve shared often how media is created and consumed. With this I believe that there are messages that I create when I put on my make-up. Some of my messages may include: I care about my appearance, I’m not afraid of color, I will wear this neon orange lipstick (or other bright non-traditional color) year round if I want, I love my eyelashes, cheekbones, and lips; parts i’ve been told are too broad, wide, and not beautiful. Other messages I choose to convey include: I belong here. This is one thing I hope to leave with many of the youth I work with: that they belong wherever they want to be!

Often I’ve joked that red lipstick is a cultural artifact in my Puerto Rican home. My mother wore the color, my aunts, grandmothers as well. It was a color I was given at a very young age to play with while dressing up. It is a color I continue to use to this day. This color is attached to many things for me and using it has become a ritual. One of the main reasons I adore the color right now is because it is my mother’s favorite. And I miss my ma and when I put it on I remember her, hope she will take pride in me transmitting this practice and color to other generations in our family. I’m connected to my mother through this color and practice.

I’ve also created ritual around make-up application. A ritual that is not only connected to my own forms of self-care, but also to my cultural background. While applying my make-up I put on certain media (usually a song or image) to inspire me. I have a process I follow in figuring out how I’m going to apply the products, in what way, with what brush, what effect do I want to create today, what shapes and lines will I create and how many will there be, and of course: how much sparkle to include. I do the same with nail polish. This ritual, as small or materialistic as some may see it, is a form of self-care for myself. I’m spending time with myself, doing something I love that is connected to my community, roots, and my own sense of self.

Some folks have said to me that my own sense of self can come form being natural. Ideas about natural being beautiful are ones I wholeheartedly agree with. Some folks think there is nothing natural about wearing make-up and I have to disagree. This seems to be a very US-centric perspective; one that does not recognize the diversity and varied cultures that already exist in the US (even before it was considered the US). Body decor and modifications are found all over the world and are not “new” phenomenons. Thus, these ideas of not being “natural” are not only judgmental but also make assumptions of defining “natural” for all people in the same way.

Is there privilege in putting on make-up? Sure, there’s privilege in doing a lot of things. However, if we just focus on the privilege aspect we erase the rituals and traditions of generations of people who do similar practices. That is not always helpful. There are many femmes and folks who use make-up who are using their privilege to access products by supporting certain brands exclusively. Many folks only use products that have organic components, no chemicals, are not tested on animals, do not have different pricing for different shades, are fragrance-free and are run by community members. There is a way to strategically use our privilege and many make-up wearers are aware of this.

At the same time, assuming that people who wear and use make-up only use corporate brand names is erroneous. There are many ways to make your own shades, primers, and glitter. One of my broke femme tips is that I used to (and sometimes still do) fill in my eyebrows with a wooden match. I strike the match, let it burn, then blow it out and take the tip off. The remains on the wooden stick are great for creating black shading. I have many other friends who make primer out of milk of magnesia, pinch their cheeks for blush, use sugar in the raw to get rid of dry skin on the lips, and who use coconut oil as moisturizer.

If we support choice and folks having power over their body to do with it as they wish, how and why is there still this marginalization? My make-up use and application are not about you or them or that over there. It is about me. It is an expression of my creativity, personality, love for self, connections to my culture, commitment to challenging expectations, and it is my choice.

Is being femme a political identity? This is a question I deliberatly chose not to answer as it’s complicated and very layered. For some yes. For others it is just who we are. There is a lot of literature and thought about femme as an identity, a political and queer one and I encourage folks to look into that literature if you are interested. Also consider attending theFemme Conference in 2012 which will be held in Baltimore.

Many folks are familiar with this piece of media below: “To All of the Kick Ass, Beautiful Fierce Femmes Out There” by Ivan Coyote. I think it fits well into this discussion and is an important reminder to us all.

Share with me some of your ideas on media making and the connections to make-up. Do you think there are any?

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