I stand in front of the bathroom mirror, applying makeup.
I become acutely aware Ella is in the doorway.
She’s watching me.
Why do I wear make-up? I think. Do I wear it for me or do I wear it for the world? And if I “wear it for me” do I even know what that means? Is that simply an empowering, feminist, girl-power trick to convince myself I’m in charge here, when in actual fact, the world is still dictating how I should look? That I “wear it for me” because actually, make-up makes me feel better about myself and the way I look? That yes, it’s “for me” and “I choose it” but only because it makes me acceptable; so that I fit just that little bit better here?
Of course I’m going to choose to fit here.
Ella’s voice cuts through my thoughts. “I love Elsa,” she says. I look over. She is sitting on the floor next to the bath tub, tying up her roller skates which have a picture of Elsa on them.
“What do you love about Elsa?” I ask.
“I love her braid. And I love her clothes.”
“Mm-hmm,” I say. My voice sounds more flat than I mean it to.
“Those are things you like about how she looks. What about what she’s like? Do you think she’s brave? What are the things you like about who she is as a person? Do you think she is strong? Do you think she stands up for herself?”
“No, not really. Well, I like that she does magic. And I like that her name is Elsa.”
I leave it at that. I wonder how much can really get through anyway. But the undeniable thing is that I’m deeply unnerved. Is this our culture’s fault? Is it because she watches movies of thin, blonde-haired characters who giggle a lot, have long hair and wear long, flowing, princess dresses? Is it because when people talk to her they say things like, Look how long your hair is! and I love your dress! and so she is already learning that how she looks is judged and valued more than what she thinks and says? Is it because she’s gathered that a girl’s appearance is public property, a gift, something she owes someone? Is it because she is already learning the unspoken rules of what it means to be a successful girl in this broken world: Look Beautiful. Or is it her doing? Are girls inherently drawn to beauty? Do they notice it immediately and begin to value it and emulate it without realising what they are doing?
I turn back to my make-up. She continues to tie her laces. I lift up the concealer stick to the dark bags under my eyes and I dot it on like I do every morning. I rub it in with my index finger like I do every morning. And suddenly, watching myself in the mirror, I feel part of the sick problem. I feel confused. What am I doing?
Not for the first time, I dread her growing older. I simply cannot fathom that I’m the one in charge here. That me with all my fury and confusion and unresolved pain and great hot mess simmering just below my skin every single day should be the one in charge to guide her through all of this crap. Where are the adults? I think.
A week earlier, she puts on her pink, dangling, clip on earrings she begged me to buy for her. She walks over to me and says, “Am I pretty, mum?”.
I hate these kinds of questions. I scramble to know how to answer them correctly. Is she pretty? Is pretty the goal? And if it’s not, is wanting to be pretty then bad? Is this another god damn teaching moment of why the hell prettiness is even contemplated by my four-year old daughter? I need a nap.
Joel steps in. “Dressing up is just for fun, Ella. You are always beautiful, but putting on jewellery and when mummy puts on make-up? It’s just for fun.”
I appreciate his answer. I recognise I have answered like this before and he is taking my lead, reinforcing the need to tell our daughter a different story to the one the world is telling her; one he’s often oblivious to because he doesn’t have a vagina.
It’s a good enough answer for now.
Here’s the thing: It’s not wrong to want to be beautiful any more than sunsets and flowers are wrong. Beauty exists in this world and it’s unrealistic to deny it has value. It does. Beauty has value. What is wrong is following the pursuit of beauty when it costs us ourselves. What we need to fight against on a second-to-second basis is that asshole with his photoshop tool selling us an ideal of what beautiful looks like and then the teenaged boys, the young men and the grown ones who insist we comply. The boys and men have the power and the girls and women work for their validation and approval. No, thank you. What begins to poison us is that asshole in his high-rise advertising office using our humanness to cash in. Using our loneliness and our fear and our unworthiness and our feeling that we don’t belong in order to buy his hair straightener, his kitchen bench tops, his lipstick. Oh, you feel less than? You should. You don’t look or act like this woman and you certainly don’t have this life I’m selling you. Here, buy this outfit. This bathroom. These shoes. You’ll be in the club then. You’ll have made it.
What we must do is say a big, hefty STOP RIGHT THERE to the stranger in the street who wolf-whistles and stares and asserts a power over us simply by openly approving how we look — that because he thinks we’re pretty we should feel good about ourselves. It’s the ultimate compliment, a man’s validation. Here’s what’s up: We’re grown women. You don’t get to decide if we’re pretty or not. Keep your fucking eyes and judgements to yourself. Or better yet, don’t make any. And also, have you decided who your heroes are in this life and why? Have you considered how you could live bigger and richer and fuller? Who you might serve better in your community? Have you helped a stranger? Have you called your mum? Have you remembered to do your tax? Perhaps you could spend your time contemplating that instead of objectifying us. We’re people under here. Humans. We didn’t get to choose these bodies. They’re just all we have to travel through life in. The pretty ones are not more valuable than the ones which aren’t. And the people stuck inside them aren’t either.
The thing we need to be absolutely, wholly, vividly aware of are the rules we as females follow unknowingly that keep us compliant, agreeable, pleasant and non-threatening — the very things that keep us the opposite of true. Smile. Be polite. Apologise. Don’t get fat. Don’t be dramatic. Or difficult. Or dominant. Or angry. Good god, we’ve got another angry one.
What we must do is get very, very curious about the definitions which exist for beauty, prettiness and sexiness and get very, very honest about whether they are OUR definitions or the WORLD’S definitions.
Because every time we comply to the rules someone else sets for us, we are complicit in our sickness, and betraying ourselves is the ultimate road to death.
Show me a woman who is true to herself without apology or explanation and I will declare her beautiful.
The sun is setting. I’m in the lounge room, writing. “Mum! Mum!” My daughter comes running. “Mum, guess what? I was falling back on my chair and I got a shock but then I saved myself. I saved myself, mum!”
I look at her and take in her open face shining up at me, asking me to be proud of her. I hold up my hand for a high-five. She slaps her hand into mine and beams. “Saving yourself is the best,” I say. “It’s the best.” And she smiles and skips away.
Beauty On, my loves. Stand up straight and show the world who you really are. We need to see you.