April 27, 2020

WILK | JustGirlyThings, Womanhood When No One’s Watching

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Earlier this week I woke up with reddened, crust-filled eyes and strained to check my phone for the time. Class was in four minutes and counting down. Shit.

But, online instruction brought slight comfort to this realization. I didn’t have to jump out of bed and start a chaotic race across campus or even worry about losing all the minutes that slip into the void the mirror of a public bathroom becomes when you’re agonizing over your reflection. I could trade all that for the peace of turning off my video on Zoom. No one would have to see me. No one could see me. I felt like I cracked a code, and I know I wasn’t alone in this. Countrywide stay-alone, stay-at-home orders cast a cloak of invisibility over households and some women are expressing almost hysterical relief in … existing, unmanipulated. Not shaving, not wearing a bra, not doing makeup, not squeezing into tight jeans, not taking irons to hair or wax to eyebrows, but just being.

Quarantine is revealing, without even intending to, how performative our traditional conceptions of femininity really are, although we’ve convinced ourselves of their innateness. We’ve been told and taught to retell the tale that wearing makeup, shaving everywhere there is to shave and otherwise constantly wanting —needing — to “fix” our appearances is what makes us women. This isn’t to say femininity and its many facets are wrong to enjoy. A lot of “girly” things can be fun, and make you feel good and pretty. A lot of them are enjoyable in ways that aren’t even traditionally or conventionally feminine; they stand as creative outlets, art mediums, hobbies, means of self-expression.

It’s just complicated because our enjoyment is largely coerced from us. And when we develop consciousness about the tediousness of these routines compared to our male counterparts’ complete absence of them, how they pointlessly pander to preferences that aren’t our own or the overall illogicality of maintaining them, we’re told it’s good to look good for ourselves. But I think it’s time we let go of the myth of achieving female empowerment by developing a dependency upon and infatuation with the same tools used to dehumanize us. Growing up a girl is like a long process of being brainwashed into accepting and desiring our own objectification, despite the violence it exercises against us; That’s the trick of “femininity.” It isn’t reflective of anything actually female; it’s the embodiment of a set of impossible ideals that each girl is socialized to aspire to. A set of ideals that are consistently narrow, exclusive, anti-black, fatphobic and deeply harmful.

So if subscription to these ideals hurt us, and we’re smart enough to know that they hurt us … even if it takes an event like a government-enforced lockdown to really take notice of this, why do we do it? Well, it’s for the audience, of course. An omnipresent, overly-critical, loud-mouthed, ravenous, invisible audience that every girl is gifted with before they’re old enough to even know it.

Our audience feels inescapable, in the world as much as in our own heads, as Margaret Atwood put it: “Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”

The world is our stage and performative femininity is the trick we all must spend our lives trying to master in a global competition against each other. It dictates that existing comfortably, without manipulation, is a lack of effort. It tells us we need to look presentable, and defines presentability as spending hours backstage so onlookers can eventually enjoy you while you shop for groceries, take notes or work out. But it seems like no matter how elegant your execution is, there’s no winning this. It’s a show, not a game, and so even while you’re being applauded for your graceful display, it is in anticipation of your next act. Judgment after judgment is thrown at you until you work yourself to exhaustion for the audience’s approval, at which point they might slowly rise from their seats and make a calm, orderly exit to the back of the theatre, whispering amongst themselves about your lack of effort. Or maybe their criticism becomes public, with smearing headlines about your wardrobe malfunction leaving you lying on the stage, tears streaming to create mascara stains down your cheeks.

And maybe it’s because procrastinating alone means rewatching Gone Girl and Daria instead of socializing with my friends, but I’m growing so tired and angry at the idea of performing. Classes on Zoom make me wish I could click on invisibility with a cute little icon all the time, and avoid the scrutinizing gaze that seems otherwise ubiquitous. Being alone has made me become more comfortable being “lazy” about my appearance, being “unpresentable.” Though, of course, this will likely reverse once quarantine is lifted. We already revert back into our dutiful performances whenever we want to post a picture on Instagram. But through laziness, lack of motivation and absence of plans, I hope girls can take time to be nonchalant about being unpolished. Because it’s not a revolutionary act. It’s you. It’s you when the world is deprived of its mission to provide you with the audience you are subconsciously always performing for.

Alecia Wilk is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at awilk@cornellsun.com. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this semester.