The Unnatural Tyranny of Natural Beauty
She seemed surprised when I told her that I desperately needed to color my roots, they were getting out of hand. There was an awkward pause, and then, “you color hair? I thought you were all about being natural?”
It’s a word we throw around so much about women and beauty. Being a “natural beauty” is, of course, the ultimate goal, but we are constantly told all the ways we are not naturally beautiful, so we must buy lots of products and services to try and look like natural beauties. It’s weird. I don’t get it. It’s one of those “no win” situations: either you’re a natural beauty, or you’re a fake. The more you try to achieve the ideal, the faker you are. So, try too hard to achieve the goal and you make yourself worse.
Can we stop this game now? Please.
Please stop telling women what they should look like, and then judging them with every step they take towards trying to do so.
But, stepping back to this idea of natural, and why people think that I am so natural.
I am not about being “natural.” I’m not against it either. But I don’t have a dogma about the natural state that I adhere to. And I sure as hell don’t have one that I would apply to anyone else.
I am about being empowered. That means being able to do the things that I want with my life and my body without fearing how people will respond to it. People will respond, I know that. But, for me, I felt empowered when I stopped caring what their response was. When I internalized the truth that how someone reacts to the personal decisions I make about my body and my life are a reflection on their values, not my value.
THAT’S what I’m about. For everyone.
Now, on this question of “natural.” In there somewhere is this idea that we wake up looking exactly how we want to look, and presumably how the rest of the world wants us to look too. With no effort.
What does that mean? Not showering? Not brushing and flossing? Not being disciplined in both food and fitness in order to keep my body running at peak efficiency? Not shaving? Not picking out clothes that…. Every tiny decision we make in our day is, in some way, unnatural. Starting with the ability to turn on the lights in the morning and make a pot of coffee in the kitchen while watching the morning news. There is virtually nothing natural about modern life, except maybe the natural desire to actualize ourselves however we want and fit into the world around us.
Deal with it.
So what we’re really suggesting is that by doing cosmetic things to make ourselves look or feel better, we are somehow “less” natural. Less ideal. Less good.
And I say “bollocks.”
We all have the right to choose what we do with our bodies. It is not inherently a reflection of weakness to want to tweak things. I think that it’s rather empowering, actually, to be able to make decisions about my body an d act on them. It’s certainly a position of privilege.
She asked me “why?” Why do I color my hair? There was an air of concern, as if she’d uncovered a magical weakness, were my roots my kryptonite? Did the powerful Alyssa have a weakness that can now be exploited, or must now be protected? (I have many, glad to tell you about them, and thanks, but I’m fine. We all have weaknesses.)
“Because I want to.”
Which is really all anyone needs to know. I want to. I choose to. I do.
But then, it got me to thinking about all of the “unnatural” things I do and have done, and why. And I thought I’d share them, as a way of starting a discussion that can move us away from the weird binary of “Nautral” and “fake.” And all the judgment that goes with it.
1.WHY DO YOU COLOR YOUR HAIR?
Because I want to. I’ve been coloring my hair since I was a teenager. I think it has been every color of the rainbow, sometimes stripes. I am glad that my brief experiment with dreadlocks took place before we all had phones in our pockets, but it happened. My hair has been long and short, and both. (Yo! Totally had a mullet!) I have even shaved my head. I don’t color it out of insecurity, I color it because I have the attention span of a squirrel on coke wandering through Time Square looking for shiny things. My hair is the only thing about me that I can change, completely, in an hour or two. I do it often. Because I want to.
2. WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE PAINTED NAILS?
Because I want to. Aesthetically, I love the look of red nails. I don’t know what it is. Sexy? Powerful? Playful? I just love the way it looks. I also love the contradiction of a perfect manicure on calloused hands, covered in chalk, lifting heavy things. Irony pleases me. At this point, I’ve been doing it for about 15 years. Always the same color, almost always done. When I met my husband for the first time, after emailing a bit, I told him he could tell it was me by the dark red mani / pedi. It’s almost a trademark at this point.
3.WHY DID YOU GET A NOSE JOB?
Because I wanted to. But it’s a funny story, with a disappointing twist. As long as I can remember, I hated my nose. It was entirely too big for my face. I have my father’s nose, which looks fine on him, not on me. Furthermore, there were two decided lumps in it, with a nice valley in between. Absolutely suitable for alpine recreation at the microbe level. Complete with a nice ski-jump off the bulbous tip.
At my exam, the doctor asked me when it was broken? What? Apparently, most of what I hated about my nose was the result of it having been broken in a car-meets-kid-on-bike accident when I was 10 or 11. My nose had not been tended to because I had more serious injuries. I was pissed to find out that I had medically necessary reasons to fix my nose – like breathing through it, for instance. It took all the wind out of my sails of empowerment. “Medically necessary” is so much less awesome than “empowered by choice.”
I wanted a nose job for as long as I could remember. But, having been raised by feminists in the heyday of whatever round of feminism we were in, I thought there was something wrong with wanting a nose job. Something weak. I was scared to even say it out loud. I finally steeled myself against the inevitable (and, indeed, forthcoming) accusations of both vanity and weakness. I decided I was getting it fixed, and I was so proud of myself for being empowered enough to go against the grain of my upbringing and take charge of this thing about my body.
4. WHY DO YOU NEVER WEAR MAKE-UP? (And, WHY DO YOU WEAR SO MUCH MAKE-UP?)
Because I want to. Or I want not to. This one really gets me, as it implies some superhuman power to NOT wear make-up, even though we’re supposed to be good enough to not wear make-up, or some clusterfuck of mixed messages. If I am, or am not, wearing make-up, it’s because that’s what I want to do at the time. I spend most of my life in the gym. I usually get there at 4:30 in the morning. Honestly, there have been days when I didn’t manage to brush my teeth and was wearing yesterday’s underwear because at that hour, looking for clean clothes if I forgot to lay them out the night before is a luxury that I won’t trade 5 minutes of sleep for. Yes, the “confidence” to not worry what people think about my pore-size was hard won. As was the confidence to admit that I’m lazy, sometimes.
But I LOVE playing dress-ups. For me, that generally involves red lips (sense a theme?) I tried the smokey-eye look, which I love, but with my bags and wrinkles and red eyes, I look more like an old firepit. I dream of someday having someone do it for me, and rocking it. Or at least thinking I do, which is all that matters to me. But no, I am not wearing make-up because my ego is bruised or I want to trick you into thinking I’m younger than I am, I wear make because, DRESS UPS!
I also sometimes wear clothes that aren’t made entirely of elastic, but not all that often. You can call me ‘mam when I do.
5. WHY DO YOU SHAVE?
Because I want to. I hate the way hair feels on my body. I am so committed to my dislike of body hair that I lasered it off. No, it has nothing to do with the patriarchy or twisted ideas of adolescent bodies. I hate the stuff. I hate the way it feels under fabric, under my fingers, just hate it. But why I do it really isn’t anyone’s business. I do it because it’s my body and I get to make that choice. And if you like it, you get to keep it. I love how that works.
6. WHY DID YOU GET BOTOX?
Because I wanted to. It’s been years since I tried this, and I only tried it because I had a friend who was a cosmetic surgeon and needed people for his techs to practice on. And I was curious. (I’ll generally try anything once.) I have to say, I loved it. I have 3 really deep wrinkles, more like ravines, really, on my forehead. There’s nothing wrong with them, I guess. Though I generally try to pass myself off as Vulcan, and they betray my Klingon ancestry, which is frightening and confusing for some. I’ve had them since I was a kid. A lifetime of raising my eyebrows in a silent “what the hell are you thinking?” has left its mark. When my laugh-lines come in around my eyes, I think they’ll balance out the great forehead ravines with foothills of humor. Until then, if I wasn’t both broke and lazy, I’d gladly get forehead Botox again.
When you get right down to it, none of the choices that any of us make need to be run through any sort of gender-politics lens. Sure, you can micromanage everything until it fits into a social story, for better or worse. But saddling people with that is just another form of social oppression.
Which is why I’m for empowerment. Empower each other to make whatever choice we want about our bodies. And celebrate the fact that we are all free to choose to do whatever we want.
I will fight for your right to do that too. You be you, the best you that you know how to be. I’ll cheer you on. You’ll recognize me by my dark red mani / pedi. Though I have no idea what color hair I’ll have.