Oh, how times have changed.
"We're all born naked and the rest is drag." -RuPaul Andre Charles
Now all of us who aren't conspiracy zombies or flaming turdbags are wearing literal masks when we go out, to protect other humans from our face-hole germs. That's hygiene, not fashion, although you can opt for expressive face coverings if you want to. During the pandemic, our artificial prettiness-plumage has accelerated in its shift toward virtual artifice (filters, Zoom backgrounds, trick photography and editing of photos and videos, etc.) and away from old-fashioned, frat-boy-succubus false eyelashes, but we still have those too.
As a society, we've also shifted in our understanding, thank goodness, that it is impossible to live in the world as a human being without taking any responsibility or having any conscious awareness of one's presentation to others, unless we are, perhaps, in a coma, or not born yet. And we all know that about ourselves and each other; what's really fake is pretending we don't. We also understand now, whether we actually did before or not, that there are many different reasons for managing our appearance that don't always have anything to do with attracting members of the opposite sex--or any sex.
Sometimes we don't even want to look pretty. Depending on our goals and circumstances in any given moment, we may wish to appear fierce, unapproachable, scary, funny, weird, unattractive, shocking, boring, inspiring, comforting, or as close to invisible as possible. Our efforts to manage our appearance in these various ways can be motivated by any goal whatsoever, and our motives do not always have anything to do with low self-esteem, vanity, or a predatory desire to obtain a victim.
There is power in feeling free to express not only our fixed and unchosen identities (such as the cultures we were born into) but also our personalities and moods and immediate interests, all of which can be authentic expressions of truths about ourselves. And it's worth noting that we are not obligated to project all truths about ourselves to all audiences at all times. We are people, not cuts of meat for sale at the supermarket.
Back in the 2000s, when I wrote the post below, I was just starting to work out how personal style choices aren't so much good or bad in and of themselves (as seen in classic women's magazine "dos and don'ts") but rather valued by their meaning in context and how they make us feel. Are we having fun, or are we feeling smothered? Are our corsets and high heels feeling like bondage (in a bad way) or the freedom to be you and me? Are we conforming out of fear? Are we being coerced into muting or exaggerating personal characteristics to make someone else comfortable? Are we rebelling out of defensiveness? Are we courting negative reactions as a method of harming or punishing ourselves? Are we flying our freak flag to celebrate and attract kindred spirits? Are we pleasing ourselves with our own appearance? Are we showing respect, care, and affection for ourselves and others? Are we going incognito strategically? Are we code switching? Are we imprisoned in our clothes and beauty regimens, or are we playing by our own rules? Is our closet a prison or a playground?
It's not what we do to manage our appearances, it's why we do it and how it makes us feel inside that matters. Below are my youthful explorations of this truth.
Fabulous Fake BeautySometimes I think I was a drag queen in a past life.
Have you read the book Freak Show by James St. James? I highly recommend it for anyone who likes to change appearances, dress up in costumes, and generally play with the ideas of beauty and ugliness. The main character, Billie Bloom, is a young transvestite whose parents place him in a conservative Southern high school in Florida. Hilarity ensues. I relate to him... well, somewhat... as a girl who got so fed up with the rigid, judgmental conformity of my snotty Catholic high school that I would show up to school dressed as Mad TV characters, in men's clothing, or in platform heels so high they lifted me over six feet tall and gave the optical illusion (from added leg dimensions) of my skirts being too short, causing hall monitors to slap my thighs with rulers and snarl with rage when they found that my scandalous hotness fell within the legal measurements and I could not be punished. Ha! Because I was a girl, and kind of a ferocious one at that time in my life, I never got beat up for my fashion choices, like Billie. St. James' book was a fun and inspiring read for me, and I can say I have never read anything else like it.
As St. James demonstrates in his book, there is a fine line between fake beauty and fake ugliness, especially if you get artsy about it. Both can be fun ways to express oneself.
If you're going out to the club and you feel like getting attention from the general public, that's A-OK in my book, as long as it isn't some kind of mental addiction. A friend in college once told me she avoided wearing makeup because if she got used to how she looked in it, she might start to feel bad about herself on days she didn't wear makeup. Well, OK, if you're having this problem, maybe it's time for cosmetic detox. But if you just like to dress up for fun once in awhile, no harm in it!
Some people enjoy the look of fake boobs. I'm talking basketball-shaped, hiked-up-to-your-chin unnatural. Hey, whatever floats your boat. (Literally?) But Paris Hilton has demonstrated that you can get the look for a night out without a lifetime of repeat chest operations. Paris is as flat-chested as I am, but she can achieve the fake-boob look without a surgical commitment, with a fantastic push-up bra, prosthetic boobage, heavy duty tape, and strategically painted bronzer. I have attempted this on myself, and it, like, totally works.
For women (or men) who already have some goods of their own up there, corsetry can be a fun way to reshape the whole body into a ridiculous hourglass figure with a bustline you can set a plate on.
During our clubbing adventures one Halloween, my husband took the even easier option of a pair of foam breasts from the costume store. Doesn't he look lovely in that dress?
That year, I dressed as Marilyn Manson (my "wife" at the time was Dita Von Teese), and it was quite a thrilling experience to go out in the guise of a male celebrity.
Nobody thought I was the real Manson, of course, but many people actually thought I was a man. A girl flirted with me at the bar and just about spilled her drink when she realized I was female. Men spoke to me in a completely different tone than usual. I gave a bouncer a fierce glare and got me and my "wife" let into a club, to the complete outrage of a group of faeries who were in line ahead of us.
You can get that junkie celebrity look without the drugs! Just use grossly pale makeup and a little baking soda crust around the nostrils.
But appearance fakery is not reserved only for extreme/grotesque displays like Halloween costumes. As long as it is used for fun and enjoyment, not out of shame over "imperfections," crafting a "fake" beautiful appearance can be enjoyable and empowering.
My friend Miss Moppett once saw a heinous infomercial for a hair straightening device. The ad showed a beautiful black woman with big, beautiful, textured hair--pouting and looking depressed because her hair was "unmanageable." Then she used the hair straightening product to make her hair flat and smooth, and her happiness was restored!
Excuse me, but that smacks of creating reasons for women to feel bad about their appearances so they will run out and buy a product to "fix" it. Lame! Curly hair, wavy hair, and afros are fabulous. Smooth-haired women often pine for fuller, wavier hair. (The grass is always greener, I guess.) I've heard a black woman say that she loves her hair because it's so versatile. It can be worn picked out, waved, braided, straightened to a glossy sheen, whatever. As long as a woman views her physical self as something that can be made beautiful in many ways, not as a problem to fix, I think that's healthy.
Here is my ugly mug without makeup. My husband loves me just fine this way. Just like I love him with or without facial hair, fresh after a haircut, or shaggy on the edges.
But it sure is fun to dress up and do the hair and makeup once in a while!
We all have several "best" features and a limitless array of possibilities for beautiful looks. We can highlight one or two of our great features at a time. For example, my friend Esperanzita has fabulous lips and wears Gwen Stefani's signature shade of crimson lipstick like it was designed for her. She also has big, expressive doe eyes.
There was a time in her life when she was often compared to Ugly Betty... in the nicest way possible, of course!
An artist online saw some pictures of her dressed as Frida Kahlo and was inspired to draw a portrait of her.
...and lately, she has worked on getting healthier and experimenting with different looks. Check out her latest transformation!
Behold! Everyone can be ugly! Everyone can be beautiful! In the end, who really cares? Have fun with appearance, and keep in mind that it's all in the hands of the artist and the eye of the beholder.