On Dressing Up

2:00 PM

Jennifer Riches Photography

When I was little, my sister Adrianna and I would gigglingly sneak into our parents' closet to try on our mother's clothes. The closet was big enough that it was the kind of place more generous Dursleys would have given Harry Potter for a bedroom, the kind of place you could huddle in for hours and never be found. When I was by myself in my parents' drafty bedroom, watching NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams or Seinfeld re-runs at 10 PM, I compulsively closed that closet door--something about its gaping dark scared me a little, sitting on the couch in the cold.

But in the daytime, with Adrianna beside me and the lights on, the place was a museum of wonders. There were the big heavy sweaters that came down to our knees, relics of colder places. Maxi-skirts that made our little frames look like we were drowning in the fabric that pooled at our feet. Spare pillows and sheets we stuffed in our shirts so we could waddle around, laugh at our newfound girth, and declare ourselves "sumo wrestlers."

And the crown jewel of the closet: my mother's pale pink wedding dress with leg-o'-mutton sleeves, thin veil, and delicate lace gloves. It was folded up neatly in one of those clear plastic zip-up cases, the kinds bedsheets and comforters are sold in, and we eagerly unzipped the case and dug our hands into the gleaming satiny fabric as it spilled out like froth from a can.

I don't even remember how many times we played dress-up, how many times we played hide-and-seek in the thicket of clothes until our mom found us, how many times I longed for the day I would be tall and engaged enough to wear that pale pink wedding dress. There was something so alluring about all the costumes we put on, big as they were on our ungainly small selves. Maybe that allure was in the futures they represented--days and nights of solemnity or glamour that we, at six and eight years old, had never known.

One day my mom bought a makeup set from a garage sale. It was like new, sparkling eyeshadows and blush and lipsticks attractively packaged inside a sleek black case that read "Bon Marché" on the front. The French sound of the now-defunct brand made the makeup seem even fancier and more mystic; I loved the sound of snapping it open and shut, doing it again and again. Adrianna and I added makeup to dressing up, rouging our cheeks and painting our eyelids until our faces looked like cheeky kabuki masks.

All this time, we had a saying, my sister and I: in a singsong voice, she would say to me, "I'm pretty and you're cute," and I would obediently respond, "I'm cute and you're pretty." The distinction meant little to me as a small child, but when I got to be eight or nine I started realizing that "pretty" meant my sister's thinner face and long hair. "Cute" meant my chubby cheeks and bowl cut. We stopped playing dress-up and putting on makeup when Adrianna started wearing makeup seriously, not for fun. When we'd put it on in our mom's mirror with what we'd scrounged from her Bon Marché kit, we knew we looked silly. We caricatured adulthood. Now, she tried to replicate it more perfectly.

In the hurt of rejection--it felt like my big sister was leaving me behind--I tried to distance myself from everything that Adrianna did. If she was going to be pretty, I would try for the fashion sense of a 13th-century hermit. (Once, I stole my dad's green wool sweater, wore it with a belt, called it my "tunic," carried around a butter knife as my "sword," and imagined that I was a knight.) If Adrianna was going to buy and wear makeup, I would avoid it religiously. (To this day, I have no idea how to use anything but lip gloss.)

It's funny to me, how puritanical I was. I disguised my undiscriminating opposition to everything that my sister did as simply being principle. My principles were simple. Aesthetic decisions were shallow, the choice to look "attractive" was unapologetically sexual, and sexuality was for someone else. I'm not sure where I got that idea--maybe it was all the Teen Vogue and Girls' Life magazines with cover headlines like "12 Things You Do That Guys Secretly Love" and celebrities posing like experts in the Male Gaze, images that nailed into my mind the idea that beauty and sex and giving up some sense of self were all intertwined. I didn't want to be a pretty girl, I wanted to be my own girl.

As I grew older, those puritanical opinions moderated and eventually I shed them altogether--mostly, though, because I started having crushes (like this one). I used Chrome's Incognito mode to read Wikihow articles about how to flirt. I sometimes flipped through the shiny pages in Vogue and Harper's magazines at the airport and wished for actresses' made-up faces. I still didn't brush foundation onto my face or paint color onto my lips, and there were days I went to school without brushing my hair, but gradually I began to understand the idea that you would want to be attractive.

Part of it still felt like a betrayal of principle, though. I've been a feminist for as long as I can remember, and the idea that some accident of birth fated me to spend more time thinking about the color of my lips or the length of my lashes than any of my guy friends irked me. I watched talks like journalist Tracey Spicer's "The lady stripped bare" at TEDxSouthBankWomen that exhorted women to waste less time on appearances, and read books like Toxic Beauty: How Cosmetics and Personal-Care Products Endanger Your Health...and What You Can Do About It that centered on the negative health ramifications of makeup. So it surprised me a little when I took my sister's side one night, in an argument with my mom.

Wearing makeup, my mom said, was anti-feminist. How could my sister call herself a feminist?

I replied that trying to regulate the personal choices of women would be the real anti-feminist thing to do.

My mom looked unconvinced and I figured that the argument would surface again some other time. And it did. We were watching Saturday Night Live and my mom caught sight of musical guest Nicki Minaj in a very tight, very neon color-blocked dress. There was a deep V, almost down to her stomach, and the hem of the dress hit upper thigh.

"Why would you wear something like that?" my mom asked.

"Uhhh...because you want to?"

"Why draw attention to yourself that way?" she persisted.

I protested that the language of women "drawing attention" to themselves when they choose to wear revealing clothing is embedded in patriarchal norms that see women as culpable in their own objectification, with ultimately disastrous consequences--everything from middle school girls being subjected to sexist and unequal dress codes because they'll "distract" boys, to rape survivors being told they were "asking for it." Nicki Minaj should be able to wear whatever she wants: it's our choice to look, or look away.

I said all of the above in a very fast voice.

My mom looked at me skeptically. "Some people definitely do "dress up for boys.""

No shit, I thought. You're saying 'some people' like I've never done that. But it's also well-documented that women dress up more for other women. It's incredibly heteronormative to assume that, when a woman is dressed in a revealing way, that it's only for men's benefit. I think people, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, tend to appreciate beauty (or hotness, or sexiness). Ultimately, regardless of who will see them or where they're going, sometimes some people just enjoy dressing up. They may feel a sense of aesthetic empowerment related to their own evaluation of how they look, not what anyone else thinks of them.

I used to think that there was shame associated with wanting to look a certain way. I don't think that way any more. It's only when people feel that most or all their power is drawn from aesthetics--especially when women feel this more than men--that we have a major problem. To combat this, amazing young women have launched petitions to get magazines like Teen Vogue to stop Photoshopping their models. The company Aerie launched a campaign called "#AerieReal" featuring photographs that hadn't been retouched. Celebrities young and old have posted Instagram shots sans makeup. Any and all efforts to celebrate beauty in all its forms, to emphasize that you don't need makeup or Photoshop to look wonderful, are a welcome departure from the typical "you aren't good enough" media message bombarding young girls.

When I was younger and I dressed like a hermit, on some level it was because I had resigned myself to that idea: I wasn't good enough. That there was no hope for me to be pretty, so why even try? And at some point in early teenagehood--thirteen or fourteen--that switch just flipped. Yes, maybe it started with boys telling me I was pretty, and yes, maybe it started with dressing up for them too. But at some point I realized two things: your beauty doesn't have to be for sexuality, and your sexuality doesn't have to be for other people.

Ask me if dressing up and wearing makeup is anti-feminist, and I'll remember posing and picture-taking with one of my roommates in freshman year. We'd try on dresses like runway models and wear finery to dinner for no reason. Once we posed in our sports bras after a run, flexing our arms for "gym selfie"-type photos and sending each other sultry Snapchats. Say we did it for each other, sure, but on some level we also did it for ourselves.

Ask me if dressing up and wearing makeup is anti-feminist and I'll remember playing dress-up in my parents' closet with my sister. Were we anti-feminist, then, at six and eight? Did we set women back, by delighting in pretty things, painting our faces and falling giggling into heaps of clothes? I don't think we did it then.

And I don't think we do it now.

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