Self Esteem and the Mask of Femininity

We are talking a lot about self image, assertiveness and confidence in relation to our Boastful Women Equal Pay Day Action this November. Many women I know are held back by low self esteem, I would go so far as to say that it is an epidemic plaguing women as a class. In the malestream media it is suggested that this is something defective in women that needs to be fixed by tele-experts. But actually, low self esteem seems like a perfectly reasonable reaction to being the subordinate class in a patriarchy. Patriarchy proscribes low self esteem for women, it is seen as attractive modesty and contrasts with the grotesqueness of ‘pushy self promoting women’.

Self esteem is not a hippy phrase with no meaning. It is not- to be accurate- ‘loving yourself’- in the language of beauty ads and makeover shows. You cannot paint it onto the outside of yourself and it is not  some mysterious essence that you conjure up from inside yourself without foundation, from nothing.

It can be proven and tested out in reality. It comes from being active in the wider world: contributing, achieving things, reaching goals through your own effort and celebrating your success, pushing out from yourself into the world. Being active in society, as a citizen, being politically active, involved in ‘the life of the polis’. From living as a real body- having a physical presence, not tolerating offences to your person or your dignity. Having power over yourself and your life. Deciding your own fate. Speaking your mind to other people, standing up for your ideals and convictions.

These things are proof of self esteem and they generate self esteem. This is also a pretty comprehensive list of things associated with masculinity, that females are not allowed to do, have or be.

Gok Wan style makeover shows are about negotiating a higher price for your sale as opposed to not selling yourself at all, or objecting to the notion of a trade in women altogether. They often evangelise about women having more self esteem- loving themselves and accepting themselves when at the same time showing in minute detail all the things that are wrong about being a woman- fat belly is wrong, bony knees are wrong, body hair is wrong, menstruation is wrong, stretch marks are wrong, wrinkles are wrong, saggy breasts are wrong, post birth body is wrong. These programmes require opposing events to occur- for women to modify themselves physically so that they no longer resemble themselves- and for them to love and accept themselves just as they are. It is an astoundingly successful work of propaganda that more women do not see this as a ridiculous contradiction.

The test of self esteem is not whether you feel good when you’ve shaved all your body hair, but whether you feel good without shaving. Its not how good you feel in makeup but whether you can feel good without it.

The unrelenting moderations and interventions and alterations women are required to make to come up to the bar of acceptable femininity require constant invasions of the body that create a breakdown in personal integrity.

We’re born naked and everything else is drag. As women’s lives become more free in the west and we are allowed to step into public roles as full citizens and public spaces that were the preserve of men, the beauty mandate becomes correspondingly harsher and more intrusive. The standard of acceptable female appearance gets higher and more narrow. Each time dress codes gets more free and liberal- corsets evolve into bras, the Victorian all in one bathing suit becomes the bikini- more flesh is
on display and the cruel eye of the male gaze points out something that must be corrected to please it. Women are never allowed to appear in public- in the male domain- as themselves i.e. looking like people. The are allowed to appear so long as they are in disguise. A mask of face paint, a wig of extensions or a weave, fully dipped in tanning dye, the corset of ‘magic knickers’ or of a diet, padded bra, false nails, false eyelashes. The details change with fashion but the rule is the same- females are required to ‘pass’ as real women. Alternatively, a full Niqab does the same job- women are in disguise- seen and not seen.

Your beauty regime is a terrorist organisation. Time for a regime change. Easy to think, harder to do. I have tried over time to decrease the amount of make-up I wear from the ‘full face’ to minimal, first because of the time it takes and then from a political objection to it. I am tired of putting it on every morning, the same re-painting over and over, and of taking it off every night. The truth is, like most young women who I know, I feel ugly and vulnerable without make-up,  and in that way it functions exactly like a mask- when people are protected by a disguise they can do anything.

Having trained as an actress I can say what an incredible feeling it is to be on stage wearing a real mask. From the moment you turn to face the audience the effect is instantaneous- there is now no responsibility for what you say or do, no one will know even if you are blushing from embarrassment as you do some weird thing you’d never do otherwise. Social conventions and self censorship deteriorate and the feeling of relief is enormous.

Interestingly, an important theatrical convention with masks is that the audience do not see you actually put it on or take it off, because it breaks the illusion if the transformation is visible and the mask is revealed as a bit of plastic. Men don’t want to know about the weird beauty products, odd contraptions and insane regimes you use to get the effect of ‘pretty dolly’ perhaps because it breaks the illusion, and they will have to face the reality that underneath it all is a flawed, hairy, smelly human woman. What a scam! False advertising they think! And so make-up etc is culturally cordoned off in a section labelled ‘silly things silly women do to themselves’ and women are made to feel guilty for hating themselves and/or hating the mask.

The compliments I receive, often from strangers, when I ‘dress up as a woman’ are as addictive as crack cocaine [I assume] and they almost always come from other women. The positive reinforcement is very hard to let go- perhaps I’d still get compliments if I was without make-up, but I don’t actually believe that. Maybe that ex-boyfriend would still have wanted to go to bed with me if, when we met, I was dressed down and bare faced, but I don’t believe that either. On the contrary, I felt that I had tricked him into bed with the promise of being more good looking than I actually was and that it was only a mater of time before the spell wore off and he made his escape. This is a common theme in het relationships which gives men an enormous amount of leverage and power- women having to ‘keep themselves maintained’ in order to keep him interested, he’s always half way out the door and we have to lure him back inside with the promise of… Vajazzles?

As far as I am concerned nothing so closely resembles suspicious warts on a recently plucked chicken as a pink diamanté Vajazzle. Even a little bit of resistance is meaningful: the strongest bastion of body hair colonisation is surely the armpit. It outranks leg, pubic, and facial hair in its disgustingness to the beauty ideal. I recommend at least a three month grow out to the hair-curious, especially if you’ve
never seen your full adult body hair in all its luscious glory. I’m hoping this will lead to a Best Lady Pits competition for Cambridge-competitors be warned my armpit hair is of a particularly high quality. Check out this awesome website-

4 Comments on “Self Esteem and the Mask of Femininity”

  1. blueanna says:

    ‘we need a regime change’… brilliant! I am really glad you wrote about low self-esteem among women being endemic because this is something I’ve often thought about – we spend so much time battling to feel good about ourselves that we have little energy left for battling other things.

  2. E-R says:

    Exactly, perhaps thats even the point- women spend all their time self policing and remodelling whilst men put on any old clothes and carry on running the world… RIOTS NOT DIETS!

  3. rachelette says:

    I’ve really enjoyed all your posts so far, I’ve found them very thought-provoking and challenging. I think there is another element to self-esteem which is to do with getting to know and like ourselves as people, accepting our personalities and not accepting the negative labels that get applied to most female personality traits. Words like bitchy, gossipy, nagging, shy, needy, hysterical are used to reinterpret positive behaviour in women like being assertive, sensitive, or emotionally expressive and reframe it as negative in order to undermine us. I heard women being interviewed on the radio the other day on ‘Why are mothers so competitive?’ and the answers they gave were “because us women are just naturally bitchy” and “that’s what women are like, we’re much meaner than men”. We’re encouraged to dislike our own personality traits and those of other women (how many women have you met who say they ‘prefer’ men, that men are ‘less complicated’ and thet don’t like other women?) and I think learning to re-interpret our selves using positive language is another crucial way to regain the self-esteem that our society tries to knock out of us.

  4. […] definitely on the way in. One day unsparkly vaginas like mine will be viewed as disapprovingly as E-R’s hairy pits are […]

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