If I’m being honest, I was upset starting last night, because of the silliest of professional slights. Silly, minor. Living this life means feeling invisible or attacked about half the time, and crazy the other half, and sometimes it is my fault. Sometimes I am being, as they say, too sensitive. So I decided to go to the mall.
Sometimes I am treated differently because just a girl not universal feminine unable to be neutral mixed race crazy just another mom. I know what it is to be punished for leaning in—which isn’t perceived as leaning in, but as entitled crazy demanding stepping out of line. I know, with absolute certainty, that sometimes, things happen because of race and gender. I also know with absolute certainty that most of the time I will never be quite sure, so I will feel crazy. I know that the meritocratic myth is there, in part, to discipline my responses away from “this is systemic and wrong” and towards “I can do better” or “I can serve you better…” and I know that class often matters more than race and gender but that intersectionally speaking, these things recreate and reinforce each other.
I talk to my students about how being nonwhite and female in this world is complicated but also simple: it will sometimes boil down to feeling invisible and unheard and a little bit crazy. So I tell them, bring it to class and we will analyze it together. That is something we can do. But. Today. I’m unable to analyze my way out of it. I truly believe that my students and I, we mostly help each other. I tire quickly of grading but I almost always love seeing them, and I miss them today, because it is spring break. And I’m unable, just now, to teach myself not to feel crazy. So what do I do? I bring my work and I go to the mall. Why the mall? Because I feel invisible, and frustrated, and I want lip gloss.
At the mall, I know sales people and only sales people will talk to me. I know they will be nice to me. I wear nice shoes and I carry a credit card. So they will be nice to me. In fact, the lovely young woman of color in her black apron at the makeup counter is, at first, somewhat distant. She excuses herself to help a white woman holding a coupon and leaves me stranded near the Urban Decay for five minutes. But I am extra nice to her, in my nice shoes. I listen to her recommendations. I promise to buy the compact she brings me. And in the end, she is lovely. She mixes me a sample of primer and writes down extra information for me. Class privilege and affective labor, at the mall in America, trumps race. And the money spent will make me visible to myself. I may be invisible and without a voice but I can acquire this thing I need. This lip gloss and eye shadow.
Boo hoo you feel sorry for yourself so you went to the mall. Dumb lady.
Sure. I am lucky to have this choice, to buy lip gloss on a bad day. But this is also about the options left open to me, when I feel silenced in the halls of true power. Makeup makes me feel stronger, that is its false promise. But makeup also feels no less optional to me than the pressures of the beauty standard itself.
I wear makeup every day to work. I don’t wear it just to drop my kid off at school, or to exercise, or even out to go out to dinner with my husband sometimes. I know he will have me without it. But I have never gotten up in front of a class, for more than ten years now, without makeup. It is part of the way I participate in the physical rhetoric of teaching on a college campus. I am short. And conventionally feminine. And mixed race Asian. I don’t feel that I can stand among the towering young men in their cargo shorts and the young women in their yoga pants and their nicer shoes than mine without at least a couple of inches in heels and makeup.
I am automatically awarded less authority, automatically judged on my appearance, too pretty to be serious, too serious to be pretty, laughable if ugly, dismissible if lovely, she’s a bitch/ he’s tough and there is no way around this bind. A colleague, my age and my build but ethnically white, was leaving her class the other day when an older white male professor said to her, apropos of basically nothing, “You’re so young and pretty I just assumed you were an adjunct.” He meant this as a compliment.
I dab on vanilla latte crème in the morning and wonder how makeup would be sold and understood if it were men who wore it as a first line of defense against the world. What if it were masculine to have smokey purple eyelids and a sharp black kohl hugging the lash line? Then there would be great, dark, smokey warehouses of makeup. Young men in black slacks and white shirts, perhaps with sleeve garters, would shuffle under mirrors hanging slanted from the ceiling reflecting male pattern baldness and five o’clock shadows from all angles. Men would sweep palettes of color out in front of other men like decks of cards. Bare mineral neutrals, today, sir? Or something more aggressive? A heather dusk? Women would be characterized as unable to understand color and line and not be allowed in. Perhaps they would pour a whiskey with your skin consultation. Clears the pores. Sawdust on the floor and a hushed silence, in the halls of paint and power, except for the clank of the trash cans receiving the used samplers.
I feel lost, and frustrated, so I bought war paint. In a few years, I won’t even be able to wear these colors. But you can say I treated myself if you want to. I got a Clinique Black Honey sampler.