Stay Young and Beautiful

I have a birthday at the end of the month, so even though I’m perfectly satisfied with my current age I will have to relinquish it.  I’m not one to pout, darlings, but the truth is that I’m really only comfortable with aging when someone else is doing it.  

Here’s where this post was supposed to turn away from the narcissism of my own issues about my birthday and discuss more lofty and socially important matters–the tyranny of youth, how to confront aging as a femme, blah blah blah.  But honestly, I’m not in the mood.  It’s just too dreary.

The thought that makes my inescapably middle-aged heart happy is this:  Van is 9 years older than me, so I’m always younger in comparison.  Wasn’t I clever falling in love with an older butch?   But actually she looks so much younger than her actual age that people regularly don’t believe her when she tells them how old she is.   No kidding, a new acquaintance just asked to see her driver’s license!   And she makes absolutely no effort to achieve this youthful glow, whereas I have a whole skincare regime–cleanser, exfoliator, masks, treatments and mosturizer. (Van says it takes me forever to get ready for bed.  Not true, I retort; it’s just seems like forever if all you do at night is brush your teeth! )

But since I’m indulging my narcissism, let’s get back to my story. Looking for words of wisdom and comfort today, I pulled out my copy of Helena Rubinstein’s My Life for Beauty, her 1964 autobiography which is also a beauty guidebook.  For women past 35, Helena advises:  “Sleep without a pillow or allow yourself a flat one only.  This wards off extra chins.”   Extra chins!!!  Good god.

Fuck it. I love my fluffy pillow and do not plan to stop using it anytime soon.  And, although I adore Helena, how reliable is the advice of anyone who says that “the ideal time to exercise in the evening is when you return from work at about 6:00 o’clock”?  Is she out of her ever-loving mind?!  That’s the ideal time for a cocktail, of course.

“To get back my youth,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “I would do anything except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.”  Exactly.  Time for a Manhattan!

Beauty, Femininity and Feminism

Is your lipstick a tool of the patriarchy?  Is the pursuit of beauty anti-feminist?   Before you answer these questions, consider this:

It is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sports are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.”  This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a hair salon.

I didn’t write the words above (except for the bit about the hair salon).  They’re paraphrased from Virginia Woolf’s watershed feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately beacause I believe the question “Is beauty anti-feminist?” repeats the privileging of the masculine that Woolf critiques.

Sublime Femmeness embraces the power of femme beauty and rethinks its politics:

  • We need to separate the beauty industry and anti-feminist beauty standards (e.g. whiteness as beauty) from the pursuit of beauty and femininity, which feminism should elevate.
  • When a feminist or anyone else denigrates makeup, fashion etc, what this person is really saying is that the things that matter to (many) women are trivial and superficial.
  • “The beautiful” is much more complex and varied than we have been led to believe.
  • It’s our imperfections that make us beautiful.

What else should be added to this list?  Does beauty and its pleasures shape your experience of femme?

Making Up

If I’m running super late–as I all too often do (sorry, honey!)–I can work at breakneck speed and get my makeup on in five minutes, but that means putting on my lipstick and/or mascara in the rearview mirror while I’m at a redlight.

Personally, I think the much-trumpeted “5-minute face” is a beauty industry myth. It sounds great in all the magazines: just a little tinted moisturizer, highlighter/bronzer/blush, quickly define the eyes, a natural lip and voilà! But seriously, if you buy and use even *half* of all the products these magazines promote in their pages, how can you possibly get your makeup on in 5 minutes?

I love to take my time putting on my makeup, which I apply sitting at an antique, wooden vanity that belonged to my mother. When she gave me the vanity, I explored it like a time capsule from my childhood. I cleaned out the drawers and found a negative of a honeymoon photo of my parents, a few earrings from the 70s, and a false eyelash! I’m tall so the vanity is kind of small for me, but I love using it. I love how old-fashioned it is, the feel of the wood, even the squeak the drawers make when you swing them open. (The side drawers swing rather than pull open, which is pretty charming.)

There’s also something interesting I discovered about having a vanity. It’s affirming. A vanity bestows value on the process of making oneself beautiful. For years I “dolled up” standing in the bathroom, so being able to sit down and enjoy the experience of doing my makeup is a treat. Usually I do my makeup in 10 minutes–more if it’s a special occasion or I’m playing with a new look, mixing colors, doing my brows, etc. Although I’m openly obsessed with makeup, people tell me that I “don’t really wear that much.” (Untrue!) I guess they’re surprised that I look relatively “normal” when they discover the extent of my makeup obsession.

So, I want to hear from everyone out there who loves to “make up”–how long does it take you to put your makeup on? Do you have a beauty routine?

What Makes (Me) a Femme

Long, long ago in a gender galaxy far, far away…

…I was butch!

I know what you’re thinking: how could your favorite ravishing femme queer theorist–who is typing these words with perfectly manicured red nails–have ever been butch? But it’s really true, my lovelies, I swear. I had Hilary Swank’s haircut in Boys Don’t Cry, stomped around in big Timberland boots, got my clothes from the men’s department, and my only grooming products were shampoo, soap and chapstick. In the community that I came out into, to be a lesbian meant that you were butch, andro, or flannel, period. I actually had no idea that other kinds of lesbian genders existed!

I’m writing this piece in response to Hussy Red’s terrific post “The Femme Archive” on The Femme Guide, which asks all of us to share our own stories about how we’ve come to our identities as femmes. So, I’ve been asking myself: Who and what inspired, affirmed and taught me as I traveled the long and winding road to femme? What made me feel authorized to express my own queer femininity? Here are my answers, in no particular order:

1. Femme Icons. These are the brave, beautiful women who inspired me and educated me about femme, even if I never knew them. For me, Joan Nestle, Susie Bright, and Amber Hollibaugh are at the top of the list; their brilliance, political activism, magnetic eroticism and kick-ass femme attitudes made me think, that’s what I want to be when I grow up! Femme icons from earlier eras have also been a big source of inspiration for me. If you’ve read my post on Greta Garbo, you know that I love old Hollywood glamour and the beautiful and talented lesbian and bisexual women who serve, for me, as icons of queer femininity. (For the scoop about Garbo, Tallaluh Bankhead, Mercedes de Acosta, Marlene Dietrich and more, check out Diana McLellan’s The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood!) But Femme icons are also people we see everyday. For me, getting to know and work with smart and successful femme/feminine lesbians who were my teachers and mentors was an incredible blessing. By modeling their own versions of femme in their lives and work (from lipstick lesbian to campy, queer femme identities), they introduced me to ways of inhabiting lesbian gender that I had never imagined possible.

2. Butch/femme and lesbian history. Learning about the history of butch/femme in the 40s, 50s and 60s was incredibly important to me. Reading Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues–which was itself a life-changing experience–motivated me to learn more about butch/femme working-class communities in postwar America. I was so inspired and impressed by how brave these women were, and how hard they had fought to carve out spaces for public, visible lesbian communities under extremely oppressive social conditions. In fact, the main reason I began to identify as a femme (as opposed to lipstick lesbian, for example) is precisely because I wanted to connect with that past. This is still true for me today; calling myself a femme is one way I strive to honor the struggles, sacrifices, and hard-won victories of butches and femmes and carry them forward into the present. To learn more about butch/femme communities in the 50s, I highly recommend Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis’ wonderfully readable oral history, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold.

3. Gay men. What can I say? I’m a huge fan!! Meet me at the intersection of Oscar Wilde and John Waters. Gay men helped me to embrace my identity as a femme because they offered me a space to celebrate femininity with joy and a sense of playfulness, which felt worlds removed from the shaming, suspicion or just perplexed confusion that I felt from some lesbians and feminists. In the gay world, I wasn’t just “tolerated” for being femme, I was loved and respected. Gay male friends who appreciated beauty, fashion and glamour also taught me a thing or two about queer aesthetics and camp, both of which changed the way I look at the world. Most importantly, they inspired me to approach gender and sexuality with a sense of adventure and frivolity that has shaped how I “do” femme.

4. Facing My Own Pain and Gender Oppression. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I had an epiphany sitting in the audience at a GenderPAC conference, that I realized how hurt I’ve been from the years of being shunned in lesbian/feminist bookstores (for being too femme) or being marginalized in the straight world (for being too queer). At GenderPAC, Riki Wilchins was talking about the oppression faced by femmes, which often isn’t recognized because we do not (typically) transgress gender norms. Suddenly, tears filled my eyes and I was overwhelmed by a powerful emotional reaction I had never anticipated. What was going on?

I went to the conference because I’m an ally of trans and genderqueer people, and I wanted to participate in the important education and advocacy work that GenderPAC does. But as I was listening to Riki speak, I realized that I was exactly where I needed to be–not for others, but for me. Coming to terms with my own gender oppression not just as a woman but also as a femme has enabled me to work towards healing the pain I didn’t even realize I was carrying inside me. It has helped me to politicize my own experience as a femme in ways I hadn’t previously, because now I understand and appreciate the depth of that experience not only with my head, but also with my heart.

By Way of a Conclusion. All of this doesn’t quite tell you how I travelled from the andro butch of my younger years to the capitivating vision of femme-ininity I am now, but these snapshots of my journey are at the core of what has made me a femme. I hope you’ll go to The Femme Guide and write about what made/makes you a femme, because I can’t wait to read your stories! Regardless of how we identify or the differences that shape our lives, we all have *so much* to learn from each other.

Introducing Sublimefemme Unbound

A belated introduction to Sublimefemme Unbound, dear readers…

If you’re not interested in having your world rocked by a high femme queer theorist, who critiques politics and culture wearing a sheer black peignor and pink marabou stilettos, then this probably isn’t your kind of site.  If you do not worship at the feet of disarmingly smart and exuberantly sensual femmes, what can I say?  Your loss! 

I am shameless in my love for debonair butches, unconventional thinking, pleasure, serendipitous discoveries, contradictions, beauty, and extravagance of all kinds.  I take as my inspiration  Oscar Wilde’s ebullient dictum that “we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things with sincere and studied triviality.”  I have little patience for self-righteous moral and political correctness, so if that’s your thing, be prepared to loose your innocence. 

Sublimefemme is too busy being amazing (or doing her nails) to expend energy on the impolite or the unappreciative.