This is a blog full of questions and thoughts and feelings. I smashed it out right in WordPress and almost decided not to post it, because it always seems like such a superficial topic. Let’s not split hairs, let’s not divide women, etc. But I have questions and thoughts and feelings about these things. I sincerely encourage discussion in the comments.
What is not a question at all is that Katie Ledecky is a stunning, amazing, often breathtaking young woman.
Besides all that (and the staggering quality of her swimming, of course) she is utterly adorable.
That smile, man. Honestly, what kind of sublime, joyful water creature are you?
But the other night, while waiting to watch her race, NBC throws up this profile picture of her with all her stats or whatever:
And I’m like, wait. What? Where has that Katie gone? Who is that? I kind of see a resemblance but… but…
This has been a thorn in my side ever since I first figured out I was attracted to women, and I think part of the reason why it took me so long to figure it out. When I see a woman I find attractive (we all have our preferences) in her natural state, I cannot stop looking at her. I cannot stop looking at her. Like just this intense enjoyment of her natural features, her expressions, her humanity. But as soon as the makeup goes on and the hair is “styled” nine times out of ten I find myself scrabbling to find that woman I admire again. And a part of me doesn’t even want to look at her anymore. It’s like with the application of a few salon products she’s lost to me.
It seems like a tremendously overreactive response to the very things that are supposed to accentuate a woman’s natural beauty. And it bothers me, because I feel like I’m probably missing out on a lot of interesting women because I can’t get past the way that look dissuades me.
Now, I know – we all know around here – that makeup and hair styling and much of women’s fashion is designed to alter womens’ appearances towards the preferences of men. To make them look younger, more sexually approachable, more closely aligned with some kind of Perfect Model Beauty Standard only a handful of women in the entire world naturally express. I also personally believe that a great deal of that standard comes from the way women are made to appear in pornography – maybe much, much more than your average neighborhood 40-something wife and mother might consider while shopping at the Clairol counter. We all know that patriarchy, the male gaze, and capitalism are shoving all these products – based on this particular look – down women’s throats.
I also want to leave room for fashion and for personal grooming, including makeup and all kinds of hair styling/coloring/whatever, as a form of personal expression. It can all be used to create unique looks and if that’s what expresses your personality the best, then hey, I am all for it, men and women and everyone who identifies in-between.
What I am more concerned about is the near-ubiquitous acceptance and attraction to a very particular, standardized way for women to appear. For me, living in the US with a basic cable package, if I turn on my TV at any time during the day or night, for any length of time, 98% of women will strictly abide to this standard of appearance. The outliers will be a handful of contestants on reality shows, like chefs on Food Network, or a nice lesbian couple looking for a new house on HGTV.
Ellen Degeneres and Rachel Maddow, the most gender non-conforming celebrity women I can think of right now, both wear noticeable makeup. I have to say Ellen does a great job of downplaying it, however, despite being a spokesperson for CoverGirl. But hardly anywhere can you see a woman in her natural state.
With the Olympics we have an opportunity, at least now and then. Thank goodness! But then the network profiles the athlete, and in the case of several female athletes I’ve seen profiled so far, the first – the FIRST – point made in her biography is how really feminine she is and how she likes to go shopping and do her nails just like any other girl. Let’s not forget she’s only NOT wearing makeup to do her sport, right? And those muscles don’t make her any less of a girl!!!
Okay. I know, I know, the pervasive effects of gender roles under patriarchy. I know, I know. We live in a highly gendered society. But this is the question: If I am attracted to women in their natural state, and I know others – probably even (even!) men, I’m sure – are also attracted to women in their natural state, why is there utterly no room for that to be seen or expressed? Are there no women who can safely show their natural faces – none, anywhere? Is our world truly that small and oppressive?
This is what really worries me. And it spirals down to something else, which is the issue I’ve always had with the words “butch” and “femme”. I know, I know, lesbian terms from the days when it was best to appear in public with one woman passing as a man and the other appearing as a woman. But times have changed, and I sincerely don’t believe that in most cases “butch” lesbians are performing a male role. I think these days most “butch” women are simply eschewing feminine gender roles and dressing comfortably, perhaps with a short hair style she prefers. If a woman buzzed her head but wore makeup and a dress she would be “femme”. It’s not the buzzcut that makes the butch. It’s the total dropping of the feminine gender role.
So is Katie Ledecky “butch” in the pool but “femme” when doing a press interview on stage?
I know it is a precious term for many lesbians, but there are times when I want to do away with the word “butch.” We are all just women in our natural state. Sometimes, some of us put on makeup and feminine fashion. Sometimes, women in our natural state choose – or are pressured into – being femme.
(The problem with this blog is that I could go off on a tangent regarding transgender gender performance now, but you can all feel free to go off there in the comments instead. 😉 )
As a person who is primarily attracted to women in their natural state, it just boggles my mind – sincerely, in a frightening way – to think that there is a natural system of attraction that we could all rely on, that would leave women to be themselves in all their individual, unique glory (as men are allowed to be) but we are so overwhelmingly manipulated that we hardly ever get a glimpse of that possibility. Women do not have to wear makeup to be attractive. I say it again: WOMEN DO NOT HAVE TO WEAR MAKEUP TO BE ATTRACTIVE TO THE SAME OR THE OPPOSITE SEX. But we are so conditioned to believe women have to that we never see anything else. Sometimes, it seems like that alternative isn’t even an option.
At least not without some reassurance somewhere. Oh, look at this glamour shot. Oh remember, she likes to have her nails done, she’s just as girly as any other girl. Oh, doesn’t she look better with some makeup on. Oh, doesn’t she look better with her hair done. Oh, don’t we love seeing her dressed up to “go out”?
Because heaven forbid she go out as she is. Heaven forbid.
I know it’s misogyny. I know it’s patriarchy. I know it’s the veils women have been forced to wear since Roman times. I know it’s all of these things.
But is it really, really, that deeply, disturbingly pervasive? So pervasive that (I have no doubts) a woman will read this and immediately begin defending her use of styling products to make herself look like every other woman in the world, not as a social necessity, but as an innate expression of herself?
Honey, I know you’re so much more beautiful than that.
I always thought it was me. I always thought I was weird or super-picky or just not getting it. I always doubted I could be truly attracted to women because I wasn’t attracted to that standardized performance of femininity at all. But now that I’m older and wiser and absolutely sure I am attracted to women, in their most basic, natural state…
It is terrifying, at times, to think of what we’re really up against.