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Bodily Autonomy and Red Lipstick: On Being Femme, and Reclaiming our Bodies

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March 24, 2014

I own 13 shades of lipstick. I also have, according to my latest tally, 20 dresses, 16 skirts, 5 pairs of heels, and 18 pairs of earrings (and counting). I hardly ever wear sweats to class (minus finals week), I follow a number of fashion and beauty blogs, I rock a pretty rad wingtip on occasion, and I own maybe too much of various shades of pink. A fairly high feminine aesthetic, all around.

I’m also super queer. Oh, and super feminist. And a dedicated reproductive justice advocate.

And that’s highly tied to—not in spite of—my femme identity.

Femme, if you’re not sure, is a queer gender performance that embraces much of what has been called “traditionally feminine”. Mascara, high heels, floral prints, and on, and on. Often femme women have been otherwise labeled as “lipstick lesbians” by the straight community—or by certain queers to queer women who are femme—“acting straight.” I know I’ve seen both sides of it, as people within the feminist community deriding women who enjoy peter pan collars and baking cupcakes (see ALL the hate towards Zooey Deschanel) as somehow weakening the feminist movement.

But Femme is in no way conforming to a societal standard or pressure, unlike some might think. And in fact, it’s pretty radical to say “I’m going to wear this fucking skirt—regardless of whether you approve of disapprove.”

Femmeness for queer women is reclamation of bodily autonomy precisely because some many aspects associated with feminine aesthetics have historically been forced upon women. Often the standard has been, and still is often, that you must curl your hair, must wear a dress, must perform a certain femininity. A femininity that is rooted in a heteronormative, white-centered ableist system of desires. A femininity that’s forced as the only acceptable standard, and which is inaccessible to the majority of the population.

But taking back these aesthetics, by desiring to wear dresses, not to please the oppressor, but to please ourselves—well that’s pretty fucking radical.

Because women are expected to at one and the same both care about their appearance to get ahead, and to deemphasize aesthetics if they want to be taken seriously. Take Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who lays out her story of loving clothing but feeling like she had to hide it to be taken seriously.

(also I need to take a moment to just let it be known that Adichie is a style GODDESS and she is definitely, definitely femspo for me).

If you don’t like dresses and lipstick, then you should not feel pressured to wear them (nor are those the only tools to perform femmeness). But one should also not feel denied the performance they wish—to feel chastised, or not queer enough, or not feminist enough just because they want to wear a flower crown.

My femmeness is a source of pleasure and power and activism for me. Because every time I put my “Cherries in the Snow” Revlon lipstick, I’m not doing it for anyone else. I’m doing it for me—my body, my freedom, and my space in which to enact whatever kind of aesthetics I damn well want to.

Having the freedom to be femme is a form of bodily autonomy. And it doesn’t de-legitimize the work I do.

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