This might come as a shock, but I’m not really a glamorous sort of gal. I know, I know! Most introverted middle-aged women who blog about tech and anthropology are nearly indistinguishable from Angelina Jolie, but I guess I’m an outlier. So, I’ve been thinking about how the Internet shapes my superficial performance of femininity.
When I write about superficial gender performance, I’m thinking of public costume (fashion, makeup, hairstyles) more than the behaviors that would be included in the full definition of gender. Even limiting the topic in this way, it can be extremely divisive among women. Do we conform to societal norms of beauty or judge others who don’t? Should feminists wear makeup or dress in fashions designed to enhance sexual appeal? Do we consider issues like consumerism, environmentalism, safety, and health as part of our beauty culture? How do we address norms of feminine appearance that exclude women of color, size, or who have disabilities? The issues are far greater than whether I can wear tangerine lipstick with my complexion.
I’m female, cis female if you like, but I have always struggled with my performance of gender. Behavior aside, my self-perceived inadequacy in “looking like a pretty girl/attractive woman” has always added to the stress of my shyness. I had decent luck in the genetic lottery but I was both disinterested in my appearance and clueless about how to enhance it when I was younger. I never had a female mentor and I lived in a rural area, without cable TV or any stores where I could buy a fashion magazine. That might seem positive in some ways and I did have fewer unrealistic images to compare myself against, but it made me uncomfortable around girls and women who knew how to style their hair or apply flattering makeup.
I should pause here to say that there are countless ways to be externally feminine, and I don’t think any are innately superior, make someone a “better” woman, or necessarily reflect the inner person. Please don’t misunderstand me as saying that a proper woman is a glamazon. My personal ideal would be a polished and put-together appearance; not Kardashian-esque, but making the most of my assets. When I was growing up, I had no idea how to do that.
But now, it’s 2015! I can go to YouTube and find thousands of skincare, makeup, and hair tutorials. There are myriad beauty and fashion blogs I can consult as I try to find a personal style. I can have products delivered to my home so I don’t have to trudge through malls and department stores.
Despite that, I’m currently wearing a ripped flannel shirt, oversized hoodie, yoga pants, no makeup, and my hair is pulled into a ponytail. If I had to go to the store, I’d swipe some mascara over my lashes and replace my scrunchie with an elastic band (Carrie saying, “Friends don’t let friends wear scrunchies,” has stuck with me years after Sex and the City finished, but they’re gentle on my fine hair and I wear them at home, dammit.)
Why haven’t I honed my appearance now that information and products are at my fingertips? I think it comes down to my upbringing and dissonance between my aspirations and what I’m willing to do to reach them. Maybe it would be different if I worked outside the home, but generally, it seems like too much trouble, expense, and discomfort for my circumstances.
I suspect my virtual avatars are proxies that reduce that dissonance, too. Not only do they have idealized shapes and appearance, but I can also use them to express style I don’t have offline. Embodied in an avatar, I can change hairstyle and makeup with a few clicks and wear body conscious dresses and high heels without feeling absurd. I can be punk or pretty or elegant or athletic. If I sometimes feel like a femininity failure in the physical world, my appearance is almost too girly for my comfort online.
Truth is, the Internet has made a difference in my offline appearance. I might not wear makeup everyday but I’m more confident in my choices and technique when I do. I can easily check what’s trendy when I buy something seasonal, like nail polish. I resent that women pay more than men to meet societal norms of appearance, so it matters that I can find high quality products that flatter me online rather than buying handfuls of drugstore products that might work. That applies to clothing, too: standard sizes rarely fit me well, but I can order clothes custom-made for my figure at a factory in India (thank you, eShakti). My preference for tunics and leggings might not be high fashion but they can be neat, comfortable, and appropriate for many situations.
I’ll never be someone who spends much time on her hair or tolerates pain for fashion’s sake. I’ll probably always be envious of women who look effortlessly stylish. But, the resources available online now help me be more comfortable with my interpretation of external femininity.