I learn a TON from Genni's posts here. Yesterday, I learned something I suspected anyhow, but which nevertheless made me sad:
We get this socialization about how not-the-same we all are (and somehow that's always explained to us in terms of what we can't, oughtn't, or mustn't do) EARLY.
Bean got it sometime in elementary school. Genni got it in the third grade. Lesley got it at seven. BBrugger, around the same time. Meryl is something of a late bloomer, not getting it until the sixth grade. But Bitey got it at five, and--me for the win!--I got it at four.
But, you know, fuck all that. There are other click moments, click moments when you go, wait a second: You mean it doesn't have to be this way? And that's the kind of moment I want to talk about.
Some of us seemingly slide out of the womb feminists--read Amanda's story and marvel at how early she figured it out. Sure, she notes that in a town like the one she grew up in, it could hardly have been any other way; but I was going to church every Sunday for three hours at a stretch, plus an hour every weekday once I got into high school, in a religion that taught (unofficially, but nonetheless all the time) that in heaven, men would have multiple wives--and I STILL didn't get it.
I was at the opposite end of the spectrum. I was real slow. I had a dozen or more this-could-be-a-clue moments that I just never followed up on. For example:
I was about 17 or 18 and I was working at McDonald's and I remember I was in the women's room, touching up my makeup. I have no idea how makeup works these days because I mostly don't buy the shit, but back then the thing to do was to get a little trio of eyeshadow colors, and I remember the one I had, the one I was using that day to touch up, one of my favorite ones, was made by Cover Girl. It had a beautiful rich bronze for the lid color, dark coffee bean for the contour color, and pale sandy beige for the highlighting color.
(Let me just interrupt myself for a second. If you do not know what I mean by lid, contour, and highlight, congratulate yourself: You are the proud owner of some pretty awesome male privilege.)
I was always in the women's room touching up my makeup, or back in the break room touching up my makeup, because working at McDonald's, especially a McDonald's in a suburb of Phoenix, was HELL on makeup. All that grease, all that heat--my makeup was always either smearing or fading or both. Plus, it was the 80s; makeup wasn't optional and the natural look was o-u-t OUT. I don't remember any of us girls ever saying to the other, "You're wearing too much makeup," any more than we'd ever have said, "You have too much mousse in your hair." There was no such thing. Or rather, there was, and here's how you could tell: You were wearing too much mousse in your hair when the nasty shit started flaking off all over your shoulders like dandruff.
You compensated for this tendency of mousse to self-destruct by combining it with hairspray and gel.
So I spent a lot of time "doing facial repair," as I too-cutesily referred to it back then--and when I think too much about this, I nearly cry. I was 18. I had been blessed with very little true acne in my teen years. I probably looked FABULOUS without all that shit on my face. Instead, there I was, doing facial repair every 15 minutes.
And that day in the restroom at McDonald's, as I raised the applicator to my eyelid crease to touch up the contour, for some reason, I suddenly stopped, and I looked at myself.
And I thought, "Ilyka, what the fuck are you doing?"
It just hit me like a train how many hours I was spending on it. And not just how many hours I spent doing it, but how many hours I spent WORRYING about doing it, about being able to do it: Would there be a restroom? Would it have good lighting? Had I remembered my powder, my concealer, my lipstick, my mascara? I never left the house without my makeup. No one I knew did. It would have been unthinkable. I rode a bicycle often back then, and I still made sure I had my makeup with me to touch up along the ride. You understand? I was wearing and maintaining and fussing over and worrying about makeup on BIKE RIDES.
Although, then again, I always have been a little on the obsessive side.
But, you know, I had that moment, and all I really did about it was back off the eyeshadow a little bit. And then a little bit more, and then a little bit more, until finally it was the 90s and eyeshadow went o-u-t OUT, just like the 70s natural look had done in the 80s, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I had gotten away with kissing off eyeshadow.
And then I set about earnestly buying lipsticks with that new enhanced staying power, 8-hour long-lasting, virtually all-day color--so you see, I really learned a lot from that moment in the restroom.
That is how it has usually gone for me. I am not kidding about being slow on the uptake.
(Of course, some people wear makeup like their face is a canvas and makeup is the paint. I love that. But I am not talking about that. I am talking about feeling like I wasn't enough without it. I am talking about being a makeup junkie. I am talking about not being able to accept my own face without makeup on it. That is not healthy.)
I really gave up makeup about three years later, when I was living with a guy who liked to belt me one now and again. As my wearing makeup or not didn't seem to affect the likelihood of his belting me one or not, I quit bothering, except to cover up the occasional black eye or bruised cheek.
It was about that time I started working with Kathie. Kathie was a counselor at the county AIDS clinic where I worked. I was a secretary--oh, excuse me, administrative assistant. It wasn't a bad job, actually. I had a boss who liked to delegate and who accepted that his grammar was lousy. He let me edit all his correspondence. Hell, he let me draft the contracts and the grant proposals. To this day I give good abstract. He was a good guy, as bosses go. And perhaps it sounds bad to say it, but working at the AIDS clinic was a lot of fun.
I got to know Kathie about three weeks into the job, when she asked me if I would mind giving her a ride home. On the way out to my car, she explained that not only had her girlfriend failed to pick her up--
--but, but, her trauma didn't end there, because once she got home she would have to figure out some way to meet her girlfriend at the bar, and she really hoped her girlfriend would not be too drunk by the time she got there because her ex-girlfriend was also going to be there, performing for open mic, and--gack, it was just going to be so awkward--
I dunno how I kept walking, to be honest. I remember my voice went into auto-polite mode: "Oh, really? Oh, how terrible for you--" but like every paranoid hetero what I was thinking was, "Fuck, fuck--is she hitting on me? No, come on--she has a girlfriend and an ex-girlfriend, she's clearly got her hands full--okay, just don't freak out. DON'T FREAK OUT. Act normal. This is normal. NORMAL."
Because the thing was, another lesbian had hit on me a few years back and it had really freaked me out; I worried ever after that I had done something. Somehow or other, without my knowing it, I must have given off that lesbian vibe. When, really, I was lucky to be getting any attention from anybody, considering I was walking around with half of Drug Emporium's cosmetics section on my face. But I didn't look at things like that back then.
It took me awhile to get over my initial freakout at finding out Kathie was One Of Those. Initially, figuring I had to go along to get along, I mentally substituted "boyfriend" whenever she said "girlfriend;" but after awhile, even my dumb ass realized this was a pointless substitution, because it made no damn difference. Relationship problems are relationship problems. Her girlfriend wouldn't ever clean the cat box?--My boyfriend wouldn't ever clean the cat box! Her girlfriend was emotionally abusive?--My boyfriend was emotionally abusive! (And then some!) In fact, we were basically dating the same person, except Kathie's girlfriend looked better in men's dress shirts than my boyfriend did.
It turned out the weirdest, oddest, strangest thing about Kathie was not that she was a lesbian. The weirdest, oddest, strangest thing was that she was a feminist, a vocal feminist. She didn't think men were shit, but she thought you were probably safer so assuming. She had a Scandinavian last name that she'd had legally changed to end in -syn, instead of its original -sen. She had me type up her resume (on the sly, of course), and I boggled at the seminars she had attended: Who the hell was Starhawk and what the fuck were womyn? "Hoo, boy," I thought, "this is some wild shit."
But, you know, I was paid to type, so I typed. And formatted. And printed multiple copies on the good heavyweight cream-colored stock, after my boss had gone home. Your tax dollars at work.
Kathie read a lot. I had used to read a lot, but I had stopped, because my boyfriend didn't like it. He had grown up with a bookworm mother, and he told story after story about all the times she had failed to pay any attention to him because she was in the middle of a book.
"Oh, fuck him," said Kathie. "Grow UP."
And out loud I made excuses for him. But inside I thought, yeah, you know what? Fuck him. Had my childhood been all roses? No, it had not. But I wasn't telling him not to do the things he loved as a result of it, now, was I?
I broke up with my boyfriend and got my own apartment. It wasn't a real breakup; I still went over to his place every other night (he needed me! Besides, getting used to sleeping alone after sleeping next to someone can be tough.). But I had some space. I had 500 square feet for $365 a month and I could read books again, so Kathie started lending me some.
Actually, she lent me a lot of books.
The first one she lent me was Mists of Avalon. I objected when she made her pitch for it.
"Kathie," I said, "I don't LIKE King Arthur. My MOM likes King Arthur. She's totally into that shit. I grew up with Camelot on HBO every six hours. She loves Camelot. But I HATE IT."
"That's why you need to read this book."
"I don't even want to like King Arthur!"
"Honey," Kathie said, "this book isn't about King Arthur. It's nominally about King Arthur, but what it's really about is the women surrounding King Arthur."
"I don't know anything about them. I never read this stuff. I never made it through a full showing of Camelot, even. Look, it's just fantasy. Chivalry and knights and magic spelled with a 'k.' I don't CARE. I am not into that shit."
"Look: Just take it home, read a few pages. If you don't like it, bring it back tomorrow."
I didn't bring it back "tomorrow." I brought it back three days later, puffy-eyed and red-lidded from staying up all night to read just a little bit more, and then I didn't shut up about the damn book for roughly the next 10 years.
I recommended Mists of Avalon to everybody. It was unsafe to begin a conversation with me. Grocery clerks kept their distance. Given any opening at all, including "Hello! How are you today?" I would start in:
"Have you read Mists of Avalon?"
"Mists of Avalon! Marion Zimmer Bradley. Oh, man, you NEED to read that. It will change your LIFE."
"Uh-huh. That'll be $46.83, ma'am. Cash or check?"
I bought a copy for my mother, the King Arthur fan. She unwrapped it, examined the back cover critically, and expressed skepticism that she might enjoy a book about the women of the King Arthur tales.
"Just read a few pages," I said, "and then, if you don't like it . . . ."
A week later she called me up sobbing.
"This is the best book! But it's so SAD! Oh, I can't stop crying, it's just so unfair--"
"I KNOW!" I said. "And it's so frustrating because all the time you're like, 'Morgaine, go HOME. Go back to Avalon. Viviane NEEDS you.'"
"Oh, Viviane, what they DID to her--"
Other books followed rapidly after that: The Stories of Eva Luna. The Bean Trees. (She kept telling me Pigs in Heaven was better, but years later I read it and I got so mad I threw it across the room. It is not good when I throw books across the room.) Summer People and Woman on the Edge of Time (remind me to write about Woman on the Edge of Time some day). Stone Butch Blues, which, again, I initially balked at, but: "Just read a few pages. And then, if you don't like it . . . ."
I didn't send Stone Butch Blues to my mother. I had my limits, and she had hers. Instead I cried my eyes out over it, and tried vainly to repent. Oh, how stupid we high school girls had been! "Poor Coach Adams, never gonna get a man looking like that"--yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, we'd been idiots. Coach Adams had the worse life for all the reasons in Stone Butch Blues and then some. But Coach Adams also had what we didn't: The ability to not give a fuck. You can't forget your makeup if you don't wear makeup. You can't bitch about a run in your new stockings if you don't wear stockings. And you can't worry that no man is ever going to love you if that's not how you're built to love in the first place.
None of which is to say that reading Stone Butch Blues will fill you full of envy for butch lesbians. If it does THAT, odds are you can't read. But it sure as hell did make me think a lot, and feel a lot.
I owe Kathie more than I can ever repay. Until I met Kathie I thought there were exactly two novelists who wrote about women: L.M. Montgomery and Betty Smith. The rest were all romance novelists, because that's what paid and who could blame them. That's how I had it figured.
But through all those books, the world got bigger and wider and it started to make a teeny bit of room for me. I started to think I could fit in it somehow, even without a bitchin' Cover Girl eyeshadow trio.
And it was at some point in the middle of all this relentless feminist indoctrination that I bought myself a book, a book I took a lot of shit about from my not-quite-ex-boyfriend, a book I tried to give to his mother, the bookworm, as a present: A book she sneered at, muttering something about how women were never going to get anywhere if they kept miring themselves in victimhood like that.
And that, my dear lurking Republican women, is why most of what you say is not only so familiar, but too familiar. And that is why I don't care to respond to most of it: You are raising old objections, objections that go back centuries, objections that are not new or provocative or innovative but simply old, old, old. You can work those objections out your own self, same as I did: Slowly.
Or, you can read your history. There is more to it than you think. Just read a few pages. And then, if you don't like it . . . .