2. Weddings, Marriage, & Divorce, 3. Queer Stuff

Doing Femme

Yes, wearing makeup can be a feminist act. Wanting to appear feminine and femininely put-together can be a feminist desire. I never meant to imply otherwise. What I meant to say is that wearing makeup is not always a feminist act. Sometimes, it is a demonstration of internalized oppression, a desire to hide flaws, an act of objectification and submission, a nod to the system. When I wear makeup and skirts and pink and feel I’m doing that as a feminist act, I call that femme. I feel feminine, beautiful, brilliant, and powerful. I feel in control.

Doing femme means simultaneously critiquing and celebrating femininity in a variety of forms. It means embracing the aspects of femininity and female-focused culture that I find empowering and pleasurable in conjunction with embracing aspects of myself that totally clash with traditional conceptions of what it means to be feminine and womanly. Femme is about embracing contradictions, strengthening personal agency, and having a whole lot of fun. At least, that’s what femme means to me.

My last post was also about embracing contradictions. This contradiction: my decision to wear makeup does not only come from a place of femme desire and personal agency. It also comes from a place in which I feel I need to be girly in order to be accepted, in which I fear rebellion at risk of my own comfort and privilege, in which I yearn to achieve that standard of prettiness that I see held up as the ideal. Yes, that girl exists inside of me. Those fears and insecurities are a part of who I am.

Those fears and insecurities don’t make me any less femme and fabulous. Or do they? To be honest, I had not thought about it much until this week. I had associated doing femme with the times and places in which I feel truly free and empowered to be myself, to live and breathe and show off my own contradictions, to push boundaries. I had associated doing femme with weekends, vacations, or those days that seem so stressful that my best coping mechanism is to break out the red dress and black lace tights and go for it.

Until now, I had not thought to associate femme-and-fabulous with that place of insecurity and fear. When I chose to wear makeup at the wedding, I knew I could be radical and choose not to; but I still felt pressured by a desire to conform to mainstream practices of female beautification. Because I felt this pressure, this strong influence and pull that would, in the end, be a strong element of my decision, I didn’t feel I was doing femme. If it wasn’t totally free, it couldn’t be femme, right?

I realized today (through a conversation with a glorious femme friend) that not only had I been holding myself up to a ridiculous and damaging ideal, but I had also been holding up femme to an ideal that restricted it. I was trying to protect my femme identity from my own imperfections. I was protecting my femme identity from the parts of me that feel insecure, disempowered, and scared. But that’s not fair. What will it take to free my femme identity and let it flourish?

Femme can be imperfect. The reality of my inner experience is that, at this point in my mind-twenties, I can proudly and strongly embrace of my own power and beauty and brilliance. I am quite femme-confident. AND. And I have a good chunk of that internalized-female-oppression that entails a constant questioning of whether I am measuring up or not. I have both. And I bet a lot of other people do, too! And that’s okay. And that’s difficult. And it’s real. And yes I am using the word “and” over and over again on purpose to demonstrate that finding personal agency includes this process of embracing over and over again the contradictions of our own desires. And we can find beauty in these contradictions. And we can find power. And we can find feminism.

We can find these things, if we’re willing to risk looking for them.

Published by Mimi Arbeit

Mimi Arbeit

sexuality educator, developmental scientist, feminist.

One thought on “Doing Femme”

  1. queeringjew says:

    I really loved our conversation about this. I love that femme gives us space, and perhaps compels us, to wrestle with what it means to be feminine in a world that devalues femininity. What it means to embrace, or even just turn to, the parts of ourselves that are hardest to look at. In some ways, I think of it like wearing heels. Sometimes wearing fabulous shoes can hurt. Sometimes it reminds me of my own limitations and my own humanity. But it also accentuates my calves, makes me feel powerful, and is a conscientious choosing. So I put on heels for as long as they feel good, and then I take them off – and all of that gets to be femme. The taking on and the setting down. Femme isn't always easy or comfortable, but for me at least – it is permission to be uncomfortable and fabulous all at the same time; to revel in the contradictions and liminal spaces of reclaiming, owning, celebrating, and rejecting the things that have hurt us – because it is about both survival and flourishing simultaneously.

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