Boogie has a friend, M. I’m quite fond of M, which given my general fear of small children is an event in itself. But M has what looks almost like an addiction to lip gloss and is rarely seen without either a wand brush or a gloss compact in her hand, dabbling at her lips. Boogie, knowing the answer, bless her, frequently asks if she can put some of the goop on her lips. I, also knowing the answer, say no. Lip balm is fine, I say, because it has a practical application. Lip gloss, on the other hand, is nothing about the practical and everything about the beautifying. So, no.
For a long time, my refusal of lip gloss, lipstick, nail varnish and other womanly paint, was instinctive and I couldn’t quite explain it. After all, little children copy what they see, play at being adults, and both boys and girls (until boys internalise the disdain for all things girly) are commonly fascinated by make-up and regularly slather it all over themselves. So what’s the biggie? I truly couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it just didn’t feel right.
Peggy Orenstein helped me out. Talking in her book (Cinderella Ate My Daughter), about her daughter asking for a toy gun, Orenstein didn’t know what to say. She thought back to her own childhood, which had involved playing with guns and thought, why not?:
‘And honestly, let’s be realistic. Playing with a toy gun – even yelling “Bang! Bang! You’re dead” – was not going to turn my kid…into Hannibal Lecter.’
How true. Like Orenstein, I played with guns and swords, or rather sticks pretending to be guns and swords (we were poor) a lot, and I seem fine, too. So why shouldn’t my daughter mess around with lipstick and eyeshadow? It’s not like it’ll turn her into Jordan, right?
As Orenstein’s husband notes when he nixed the gun, he had also played with guns as a child, ‘But that was a different time.‘ And then Orenstein nails it:
‘...playing with guns did not make me a sociopath. On the other hand, there was no industry trying to convince me that violence was the cornerstone of my femininity, no pressure to define myself by my bullets.’
Childish play with mummy’s make-up bag means something it just didn’t 30 years ago. Then, a 3 year old painting clownish lipstick all over her face was just one aspect of playing with identity; in and of itself, it really didn’t have any loaded meaning because this identity play was so varied. Children were allowed to ‘try on’ different identities and, importantly, given the latitude to discover for themselves how they all fitted, or not.
It is a different time now to when I was growing up. I’ll probably post about this more at some point, but for now, I’ll just say that, as a child, probably up to the age of say 10 or 11, I was convinced I was a boy. I didn’t wish I was a boy, I just knew I was. And, yeah, I knew that for some reason, people thought I was a girl (though not that often if they didn’t already know my sex – I ‘presented’ very much as male as a kid: short hair, no adornments, boys’ clothes, scakky trainers, constantly grubby with bits of tree and insects about my person – ya get my drift). But I just knew that, somehow, a mistake had been made. Luckily for me, this mistake didn’t particularly trouble me – I was able to occupy that space known as ‘tomboy’ which, back then, was a perfectly acceptable place to be, and so I lived my life as a boy and nobody made anything of it. Apart from the odd pissing contest (I’m talking literally here, not some testosterony business metaphor), being biologically a girl had no impact on my life as a kid. So, who cared? Not me – I was too busy climbing trees, getting into fights and experimenting with red ants.
But that was a different time.
All children have to investigate their gender; from their earliest experiences with adults they understand that it’s important to be ‘one or the other’; they can see that so much seems to hang off which one they are. My own investigation took a particularly long time, but all kids go through it. maternalselves talks about her own investigation:
‘I remember wondering about [whether I was a boy or a girl] when I was 3 or 4. I had short hair, I had a predilection for boy’s toys and I was unaware of the basic rudiments of gender difference.
‘When I look at photos from that time I can clearly see that I could have been a boy or a girl, especially when I was in shorts and a T-shirt. At the time I use to wonder: “What if I’m a boy and my parents don’t know yet”?…
‘What I’m trying to say is that my gender was constructed in a dialogue between the external and the internal, between the life surrounding me and my own development and needs. It was a complex process that took me a long time.
More and more, children are no longer given time for that process. As maternalselves notes:
‘Nowadays girls don’t have this space. The whole of their experience is merchandised and served up ready to be consumed...‘There is no room for them to express ambivalence about their gender because by the time they are 3 years old they are already dressed in pink like princesses.’
In other words, there is now an industry trying to convince girls that something is the cornerstone of their femininity, and that thing is beauty. That thing is to be passively consumed by the male gaze. And, more, that industry tells them that ‘femininity’ is entirely what defines them. And woe betide them if they’re found wanting.
I can’t even begin to express how damaging I think this is. Make-up, along with the whole idea of passive beauty, is no longer something girls can try on and discard, or not, depending on how they feel about it. The game is too loaded against them being able to make any kind of free choice about whether or not to be ‘beautiful’. The message overwhelms them, from every corner of both children’s and adult media, from every advert they ever see, from every Disney film, from every billboard for Spearmint rhino, from every pink comic offering a three-lipstick compact to five year old girls, from every ‘Lad’s mag’ cover, from every push-up bra for pre-pubescents, from every colour being pink. It is simply no longer possible for girls to explore who they are without being completely aware of what they are. And what they’re supposed to be.
This has to stop. And I can’t change the world, but I can at least challenge the strength of that industry’s message to my own daughter.
So, no, Boogie, no lip gloss. And I’m quite sure why not.