Off her feet with the crumbs she throws you.
– Kim Carnes.
My grandmother was never what you would call a stereotypically attractive woman. She had no shortage of “gentlemen suitors,” but she was no beauty. She was just endearingly herself. She was loud, direct, well-organized, good-humoured, and confident. Instead of being shy on account of her enormous bosoms, she stuck them out like a pair of torpedoes. And she was always very well put-together, as I’ve written before. She wasn’t adventurous with her appearance, but she was meticulous and professional – low-heeled leather shoes, neat bun, polka-dotted frock, and, if she was going a little wild, purple lipstick. Her well-starched, spotless white coat was thrown over this ensemble with the studied carelessness of a soldier’s standard-issue jacket over a rakish uniform. Moving through the hospital halls, and various government offices, Doctor Antonova was a tank.
My grandmother also lived through the Nazi occupation of Ukraine. One of the things she tells me about it now is how she always took great care to “not appear vulnerable” to the Nazi soldiers. She was obsessed with “looking OK”: standing up straight, being well-scrubbed and clean, having well-brushed hair, neatly mended clothes. The Nazis picked on you if you looked vulnerable, she claimed. Meanwhile, the female volunteer/partisan was part of war-time imagery for little girls, as were the mothers of the male soldiers – by turns terrified and defiant. The fighting women, however, were always defiant – and always feminine. The uniform included a skirt pulled over tall, black boots. A plucked eyebrow was eternally cocked over the eternally gleaming eye. My grandmother heard of such women.
When I think about my relationship with my own appearance, I think about my grandmother. I’ve already written why. But that was not the whole “why.” The whole why has to do with the way I developed as a child. When did I start caring about the way I looked? Was I converted by magazines and TV? No, it began much earlier than that. It started with my first experiences of violence, with my desire to become a tank.
Feeling guilty, feeling liquefied and diminished and weak, I was determined not to let anyone find out as to what was happening inside. I had to appear as though everything was fine. So began my obsession with my looks. I brushed my hair carefully. I sat in front of the mirror, and adopted different expressions – calm, calmer, calmest. Angry, angrier, angriest. I was religious about fitting in, looking normal. And, I was also obsessed with a WWII movie – “A Zori Zdes’ Tikhie.” I remember wanting to be like the women in it – steely, gorgeous, recklessly brave.
My appearance became my armour. As I grew up, I endlessly cultivated different styles and looks. Every outfit was a performance in and of itself, even if it was a muted perfomance. A carefully-planned outfit figured into any important occasion, even if I’d spent a good hour trying to figure out how to not make it look planned in any way. Just like in writing, letting the seams show was a no-no. And is to this day, I think.
Perhaps this is why so much of feminist critique on beauty standards and grooming rituals seems to slide by me like drab countryside through a car window. So much of it I can no longer relate to, now that I’ve gotten to know myself more. It doesn’t invalidate most of the things that feminists say about beauty culture, it just makes me feel a bit cut off from the discussion (so, naturally, I start my own). Sure, I still very much like to blame my insecurities on some guy fawning over pictures of Nicole Ritchie on the E! Channel. Alternatively, I get pissed off at the idea that a $50 skin cream will somehow smooth out all my worries and scars, internal and external. I still snark at men who give women a hard time for simply wanting to do their own damn thing. And, on the flip-side, so much of me still very much needs to fit in.
But this need to fit in, it did not originate with the media. The media fed on it, the media inflamed it, but didn’t create it. Not in my case, anyway. I am not one of Lenin’s “masses,” or I try not to be, and so I don’t speak for anyone but me.
Am I a conformist? Hell yes. I like wearing the standard-issue mask of femininity. I’m rather romantic about it. Am I privileged? Damn straight I am. I’ve also gone through the self-doubt, I’ve gone through wondering if I can, or should, be someone I’m not.
I’ve gone through rejecting my mother, who claimed my deliberately unkempt appearance at the start of fall break freshman year was a sign of “disrespect,” as both oppressor and victim. Until I remembered, that is, that my mother’s mother lived through the war as well. And what they struggled to preserve, which was such a crooked thing, such an imperfect and improbable and strange and cruel thing, this whole entire Soviet shebang, was still important to them, no matter how much it was deconstructed and re-framed. My mother, my grandmothers – were terrified of the possibility that I would reject them, cut them off, take every single one of their traditions and mercilessly chuck them out. Appearance played a part in this. Appearance existed instead of the bulletproof vest, which had taken too long to invent. Appearance was pride, the rueful smile at the execution wall, the final “fuck you” before the curtain call.
I looked at these women, and thought to myself that this is what we have, this tradition of femininity that links us together, that exists far outside the babble on TV. This weird, perilous, ridiculous tradition – that felt like coming home to me. And I ended up choosing it for myself all over again, being older now and maybe even a little bit wiser.
And I still choose it.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. I also approach the idea of physical appearance as an artist, or try to, anyway. But that’s a whole other story, for a different bedtime.