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Machismo and Mascara: Making Up with Makeup

Wherever you go, there you are.

During my angsty adolescence, there were times when I would have genuinely preferred to die rather than go to the grocery store without wearing makeup.

I would like to say that this pathology had its roots in mainstream media’s gag reflex-provoking beauty tropes and messages of inadequacy, but the truth is perhaps more than skin-deep.

When I was in my early teens, my mom and I moved across town. I use the term “across town” liberally here since I am from Small Town, Texas – it was essentially packing all our things up and carrying them the ten feet to our new apartment.

She and I were makeup-less and sweaty from packing and carrying the boxes. We decided to take a lunch break at Panera, the staple casual eatery of Small Town. As my mom was placing the order, she kept telling the young guy at the cash register, “I’m so sorry, I’m a mess. We’re just moving, you see. I don’t usually go out like this. Please forgive our appearance.”

That one line stuck with me: “Please forgive our appearance.” My mother wasn’t apologizing because she was dressed inappropriately or insufficiently. She was apologizing that she did not adequately embody the regurgitated standards of beauty plastered in magazines and billboards, the glossy version of femininity that is as startlingly plastic as it is unattainable.

My mother was apologizing for being human.

It was in that moment that I vowed to never apologize for my humanity. I wouldn’t say sorry for a zit, a wrinkle, a mole, a sweat stain after working out or hiking. I would confront the world with the reality of personhood, of womanhood.

In college I almost disavowed makeup entirely. It felt good. But I also didn’t quite feel like myself, since I’ve always enjoyed some of the more archetypal trappings of femininity, including dresses, jewelry, and, occasionally, makeup. For me, these two ideas of representing the reality of womanhood combined with traditional aspects of femininity were not mutually exclusive.

Image courtesy of Youtube.com

At the same time, I found it repulsive that I was essentially required to wear makeup for a summer job in real estate at the risk of losing my livelihood. That an overt and conventional display of femininity was demanded of me in order to survive was problematic, to say the least. Before, I had dabbled in clothes and makeup when I felt like it; now it was compulsory. Even for a self-proclaimed “femme,” this element of societal pressure to conform and appeal to the male gaze, for the express purpose of surviving, was too much for me.

So, of course, I rebelled. I refused to wear makeup initially, then I conceded to wear nude lipstick or light mascara. But I resented every minute of it, this act of presenting myself for the consumption of others. Moreover, to sell goods – houses, in this case. Embodying both Stepford Wife and Saleswoman has never been my forte, but in this case it felt particularly stifling. The plucking of hairs, the waxing, the buffing, the powdering, the painting of skin, of nails, of hair, was not a labor of love. Rather, it was strictly labor. The modification of my body and the way in which I interact with the world in exchange for paper bills expressing my monetary value. Such papers would then, in turn, be exchanged for food, clothes, and other elements required for subsistence.

I had never thought about the phrase “to earn a living” until I was placed in such a position. The implication of the statement is, “You must earn the right to live.” In that moment, my right to live and my desirability as an object for masculine consumption were intimately interlocked.

That experience presented me with a whole slew of new issues to introspect when it came to my gender presentation, especially with regard to makeup.

It was the age-old question of, “Do you wear the mask or does the mask wear you?”

Image courtesy of Popsugar.com

I came to the conclusion that refusing to leave the house without makeup was unhealthy, but so was shunning my entire gender presentation out of fear or due to a misguided principle.

I was toying with all of these thoughts simultaneously when I arrived in Chile. While sexism surely exists in both the US and Latin America, machismo is arguably a distinctly Latin American phenomenon.

Street harassment, or what is blithely referred to as “tirar piropos,” is quite common. A few weeks ago, I was walking in an isolated area when I heard the familiar whistles and garabatos.

There were about four men in total, and they followed me at least five blocks until I turned onto a main road. Naturally, I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable during the whole ordeal. You never know when things are going to turn ugly – in Latin America or in the US.

I couldn’t help but wonder if it was something about my gender presentation – the pink scarf, the long hair, the necklace. If only I had dressed differently, did my hair differently, did anything at all differently.

Upon further reflection, however, I decided to take the more suitable, more holistically apt stance of, “Fuck them, I should be able to wear whatever I want and still feel safe.”

My face when someone starts mansplaining to me. “OOOH TELL ME MORE ABOUT WOMEN’S RIGHTS, KIND SIR.” [Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com]

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Especially when your body is made to feel like public property both at home and abroad.

Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to meet some wonderful folks working to combat street harassment and to promote gender equality in Chile. I interviewed a fellow teacher and friend about this very issue. One of the questions I posed to her was, “What can we as a society do to combat street harassment?” Her answer was that we need to educate youth about consent. She also mentioned that we need to stop placing the blame on victims of street harassment and sexual abuse by asking, “What was she wearing?” or “Why was she out so late?”

I think that’s a fantastic start. I’ll also echo her sentiment that women need to occupy public spaces openly and often. We should feel comfortable taking up space, both literally and figuratively.

Here’s to the folks of all genders working to make public spaces safer for everyone.

Down with manspreading and up with makeup! Or, more accurately, up with doing whatever the hell you want with your body because it’s yours and belongs entirely to you!

Dear reader: Hopefully one day our paths will cross on the metro, you with your earbuds in and me with my nose in a book. Each of us taking up as much space as we need and feeling completely and totally safe. We’ll smile at each other, a knowing smile, and then continue on with our days.

Until then,


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