Read it on Salon
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
One of the first things I told my fiancé after we got engaged was, “I am not wearing a fucking white dress.”
Fast-forward to now, mere days before the wedding, and I am wearing a fucking white dress. That isn’t all. I spent hundreds of dollars on makeup and makeovers. I purchased multiple pairs of sparkly high-heeled shoes that left me limping after trying them on. I crash-dieted. I bought a pair of Spanx, a modern girdle (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one). One evening I earnestly told my fiancé, “Maybe I should wear fake eyelashes for the wedding.” Without missing a beat, he replied, “Baby … remember feminism?”
I barely could.
Feminism, in its most superficial sense, came to me easily and early. As a little girl, my dad praised me for climbing in creeks, kissing banana slugs and having a good frisbee throw, not for my ability to look cute. When I started wearing makeup, high heels and perfume in high school he rolled his eyes and called it a waste of time. “I think what makes a woman attractive is her brain,” he would say. My mom was evidence of this: She was often bare-faced and focused on comfort, not fashion.
By the end of college, I was convinced that makeup, leg shaving and high heels were tools of the patriarchy. I would make such proclamations with an ironic self-mocking grin (but actually, no, seriously, it is the patriarchy). And yet, I participated anyway. It was one thing to think these things, it was another to live them. Really, what it came down to was that I wanted male attention more than I wanted to live by my intellectual principles.
So, I resentfully applied makeup and hobbled around in heels that sent me to a podiatrist — until I found my person. Then it was comfortable shoes and an incredibly lazy leg-shaving routine. Conveniently, he didn’t care about such things. This felt like freedom, a battle won — but then there came the wedding.
Despite reading every book I possibly could on the tyranny of the wedding industry, I fell victim to it. All of the everyday personal battles I successfully won in my late 20s were suddenly undone. I found myself turning to women’s magazines for makeup tricks and hairstyles as I once had as an insecure teen. The cosmetic counter goons talked me into makeovers and facials — and bags full of products that I will never actually use. I listened to their girlfriend-y pitches and thought, “Why yes, I do think that a $125 makeup brush set sounds sensible” or “Gosh, this $60 under-eye cream seems essential.” They drew me diagrams of all the ways I could use bronzer and blush and highlighter to define the contours on my face, and I paid them rapt attention, as though they were sketching out the ends of the universe.
Those beauty industry pressures aren’t unique to weddings, of course. It was as if my cultural indoctrination had laid dormant —perhaps held at bay by my years at a women’s college and as a feminist blogger — and was suddenly reactivated upon the planning of my wedding. As though I were a Cylon programmed to execute a betrayal of feminist principles at this precise moment (sorry, I am getting into “Battlestar” a million years late). It didn’t matter that I had never dreamt of my wedding day or created inspirational tulle-filled scrapbooks as a little girl; I still knew exactly what was expected of me, and I did not want to disappoint.
Many feminists see no contradiction in such things, and I have no interest in defining what is feminist for other women. All I can speak to are my own feelings about my own feminism — and you know what? I feel decidedly un-feminist when I wear shoes that hinder my movement and work to deform my feet; when I shave my legs and suffer the resulting nicks, and sometimes scars, and ingrown hairs; when I wear a garment that makes breathing — and moving and living — difficult, all in the interest of maintaining unrealistic standards of femininity; when I contemplate wearing a white dress, traditionally meant to represent virginity, on my wedding day.
So why am I doing these things? It certainly isn’t for my future husband, who has made it all too clear that he prefers my face without hundreds of dollars worth of makeup. Nor is it because I’ve convinced myself through a series of stunning mental gymnastics that these acts are somehow a feminist reclamation. It’s simply easier to do many of these things than to not, particularly on my wedding day. The deep-down truth that I hate to admit even to myself is that I care deeply about what people think. It is cowardly and superficial and uncreative, but I want to fulfill everyone else’s vision of the blushing bride. A wedding, as with so many moments in life, is a social performance — and when these times arise, I am still that teenage girl flipping through women’s magazines, looking for the secret to being acceptable.
That isn’t to say that I have compromised all of my feminist values. I’m not changing my last name. My dad is not walking me down the aisle. I won’t be throwing a bouquet for all the single ladies. It’s just, I realized while planning this wedding that I am nowhere near as rebellious or courageous as I would like to think — and not even this $30 concealer can cover that up.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
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