I feel oddly naked without fake eyelashes. I have deep-fried, bleach blonde hair. You probably won't ever see me without the thickest cat eye and the reddest lipstick on anytime soon. I wear mini skirts, and I consider fishnets appropriate workplace attire. And I'm a feminist.
I grew up sharing a very small suburban house with a very staunch second-wave feminist. I should correct that to say a very staunch, Puerto Rican Catholic second-wave feminist. These are seemingly paradoxical things, and yet, they worked in a sort of perverse harmony when it came to parenting me. To my mother, and many of the adult women that surrounded me as a kid, feminism had clear stipulations.
I was to respect myself fervently. I was to feel guilty and defiantly shun any activities that were deemed too girly, sexy or, well, "unimportant" in terms of getting ahead or finally achieving the red stamp of equality.
When I got caught shaving my legs in middle school or trying to straighten my hair with a dinky hair dryer or when I came home with drippy makeup after a sleepover, I was promptly -- though gently -- chastised and lectured. To my mother, I seemed to be saying yes to systemic objectification. I was agreeing to my own sexualization.
And while I appreciate that my mother was trying to shield me from a world that so blatantly objectified women and held us to an unattainable standard, I can't help but think that the restriction kept me from exploring the more creative, effusive side of my personality.
I always kind of smelled a fox in that proverbial hen house. I didn't like the idea of restricting my self-expression. And as I grew, I remember actively thinking that rejecting the things associated with my gender expression wouldn't make me more equal to boys -- or later, to men. In fact, it seemed backwards to write off style, beauty and fashion as automatically conformist and limiting, instead of as a means of asserting artistic expression. For me, it is a way to appropriate and subvert traditional beauty standards.
Recently, there was a talk at the New School in New York that featured the phenomenal bell hooks and my favorite trans-activist it-girl, Janet Mock. There was a point of contention between the two, and it centered on female self-expression and sexuality. Ultimately, as any topic of conversation is wont to do these days, the two ended up talking about Beyoncé. bell hooks seemed decidedly anti-Beyoncé and her sexy TIME cover, while Janet had some enlightening insight on why, as women who are still striving for agency and respect, it is harmful to police our actions and expressions of sexuality and to label that self-expression as conformist.
Earlier in the talk, when hooks asked if glamour was a source of power, Janet replied:
For me to prettify myself in whatever way I want to -- for me to don a hot purple lip, and to wear these heels and to walk out and claim my body, and to prettify myself... there's power in claiming that space. I will do it for myself, and not in the way I was trained to do -- for the pleasure or gaze of men.
While I don't mean to minimize the importance and effectiveness of Janet's reclamation of space by using beauty, glamour and sexuality, her words resonate with me deeply.
bell hooks didn't let this logic lay, however. She responded: "You are not going to destroy [patriarchy] by creating your own version of it."
I see what bell hooks is so worried about. Most modern feminists have read The Master's Tools by Audre Lorde (and if you haven't, get to it, for the love of God). As a woman, I am aware of how adhering to a standard of beauty propelled by the male gaze is harmful and unfair. All women have been hurt by that sick system, whether in the form of fat-shaming, body policing or other means. I'm aware of how the pressure behind the surgeries and hair dye and dieting keep us systematically down.
But you can't convince me that I'm immediately complicit in a sexist system for loving makeup and wearing booty shorts or itty-bitty crop tops.
There's a unique kind of freedom that comes with manipulating fashion, and I think it can be done in the name of feminism. As Janet says, your body is your canvas that you show to the world. It can be strictly for your benefit and no one else's. Furthermore, you can tell people things about yourself without speaking.
I actively use fashion to articulate and demonstrate how I feel. For example, if I'm particularly annoyed with insistent cat-callers, maybe I'll don my combat boots and black lipstick. There was a while there last fall where I dyed my eyebrows green. My hair has been every color of the rainbow, and multiple colors at once -- I feel like I resembled some sort of poisonous sea creature. I don't shy away from tattoos. Sometimes I wear my dad's gruff flannel shirts as skirts, all tied up and bulky around my legs.
Fashion has become my voice, my way of rejecting the obvious sexism in our society that is still putting limits on what women can and can't do and what we should or shouldn't wear.