"One is not born a woman, but becomes one."
This is one of the best-known quotations of the French philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir. She meant that women are not born with culturally-defined "feminine" qualities, but become so through social indoctrination. The Second Sex is a massive tome, but it's well worth reading for a look at De Beauvoir's reaction to commonly-held Freudian assumptions about women's essentially inferior nature.
I tend to remember this line when I'm standing groggy and heavy-lidded in front of the bathroom mirror some cold grey morning -- or better yet, before a party or a night out on the town or an important date. It comes ironically and unbeckoned to mind right before I pull my hair back and dive into my bag of brushes, pencils, paints, and powders. On ne nait pas femme, on le devient. To me, being a woman involves a ludicrous degree of artifice, deception, and trickery.
Everyone knows that the preadolescent years can be rough in terms of body image, but mine was particularly grueling; perhaps because of that, I have a difficult time seeing myself as anything but an ugly, flat-chested thirteen-year-old with bad acne. When my skin problems finally began to abate and I discovered the vast array of cosmetic products available to girls like me, all promising to fix flaws and erase imperfections, my experiences underwent as dramatic a transformation as did my chubby face, scrubbed pink each morning. Overnight, it seemed, my sense of value skyrocketed. Suddenly I was cute, adorable, pretty, all the things a girl should be. But I paged through my mother's magazines, marveling at the poreless, Photoshopped faces in the makeup ads; on sick days, I watched soap operas and studied the actresses' heavily accented eyelids and prominent cheekbones. I scrutinized my own reflection and found it hopelessly wanting.
I remember one bad night at an Italian restaurant with my mom and sister, when, even though I had only eaten carrot sticks and yogurt that day, I couldn't bring myself to take a single bite, I was so depressed. My face was peppered with blemishes and my hair looked frizzy. Also, my thighs were huge. My sister, who has never worn lip gloss or thumbed through a fashion magazine, said to me, in a voice dripping with disgust, "Why can't you just be happy with what God gave you?" I spent the rest of the evening curled up on the floor in the backseat of the car, sobbing, because her words were like a knife to my heart.
Today, I'm used to being told I'm pretty. I've heard it from strangers, close acquaintances, my parents' friends, and a number of young men who probably just wanted to get in my pants. But it brings me no joy, now, to win the affirmation and positive reinforcement I so desperately crave. I have always wanted, more than anything, to be be found beautiful -- but now that I am, the satisfaction of attracting admiring glances and compliments is disappointingly hollow, because my external beauty is all a performance, a carefully crafted lie.
I paint my face, set my hair in rollers, glue bits of plastic to my fingernails, suck in my stomach and perform the necessary rituals. Sometimes I feel like a fraud, more drag queen than human being. And yet for this I am praised, flattered, and rewarded...
But while I greedily reap the fruits of adhering to society's rules about what women should look like, for me this beauty has not been without cost. Perhaps worst of all, it seems as though my mood and sense of self are inextricably linked to my physical appearance, as if I've lost the ability to see myself as having any value separate from my worth as an object of beauty. I say "lost" because I assume I had some knowledge of my own value as a person, once, and not just as a feminine being in keeping with our culture's definition of femininity. After all, I wasn't born this way.