“Modern womanhood was more about rubbing snail mucin on your face than she had thought it would be. But it had always been something, hadn’t it? Taking drops of arsenic. Winding bandages around the feet. It was so easy to believe you freely chose the paints, polishes, and waist-trainers of your own time, while looking back with tremendous pity to the women of the past in their whalebones; that you took the longest strides your body was capable of, while women of the past limped forward on broken arches.”
– Patricia Lockwood, No One is Talking About This
When I sit down in front of my distorted, five-dollar Target mirror and spend twenty minutes doing my makeup, I pretend that I do it for myself. I like makeup, genuinely. There is something artistic about the process, about figuring out new ways to make my eyes look bigger, my nose look smaller, or my acne disappear. It is comforting to sit there and feel entirely in control.
But I am not really in control. Before I have taken these twenty minutes out of my morning, I don’t feel attractive enough to leave the dorm and exist in public. As I go about my day, some tiny part of my brain is fervently wishing that my skin was clearer; I am thinking about one day saving up for a nose job, or buccal fat removal (I don’t know what buccal fat is, but surely I don’t want to have it!) or botox in the forehead wrinkles only I can see. When I was eight years old, I didn’t know any of these procedures existed. I didn’t know these were things you could wish for.
I hope that I do not grow up to spend thousands of dollars on cosmetic surgery. I think it is tragic that mainstream feminism is okay with it when people do. We should not applaud the woman with lip filler for “doing something for herself.” We should not demonize her, either. We should criticize the system that leads women to believe they need this in the first place. Painting this choice as empowering distracts from the extent to which our culture tells us the faces we are born with are not good enough.
I don’t think about this every time I do my makeup. I will wake up tomorrow morning and dab on foundation, secure in the knowledge that it is not my job—or anyone’s—to exist in perpetual opposition to the patriarchy. Still, I will remember that the patriarchy taught me to buy makeup; it isn’t something I would want for myself in a vacuum. When feminists take things like makeup and plastic surgery and argue that we ought to uncritically “let women do what they want,” it reinforces the belief that the goal of modern feminism ought to be to “reclaim” an oppressive, patriarchal standard and pretend we have chosen it for ourselves.
I worry that the recent TikTok trend of “girl dinner”, “girl math”, and girl whatever celebrate an insularity more obligatory than chosen. On its face, showing a plate of assembled leftovers labeled “girl dinner” is funny and relatable. When “girl dinner” becomes two celery sticks and a rice cake, the problem becomes a bit more obvious: Perhaps we should not reclaim the aspect of girlhood that is starving.
When presented with these issues, though, content creators say that the trend is about celebrating womanhood. In some cases, this is certainly true; take a TikTok of two women to each other from opposite sides of the street as they filmed their respective outfits, captioned “this is girlhood.” This was an authentic and harmless celebration of a shared female experience. But the line between celebration and oppression is blurry. Is the “girl nightstand” covered in diet coke cans, empty pill bottles, and hair ties still celebration? What about “girl math,” or, in other words, careless spending? When do messages that celebrate the beauty in experiencing womanhood shift to glamorizing eating disorders, perceived intellectual inferiority, and impossible beauty standards? Or are these messages always the same?
There may well be something beautiful about “girlhood”: piling into a twin-sized bed at a slumber party; dusting blush across your best friend’s cheeks; glancing over at your mother when your father asks your brother to help carry the groceries; jumping up when your third grade teacher asks for a big strong boy to help carry the textbooks; asking your boyfriend to communicate more; telling him that feelings don’t have to be scary. (These are, of course, generalizations, and that’s another problem: There are a million different experiences of misogyny. There is no one way to be a woman, and you do not have to be a woman to experience patriarchal oppression.)
Even if girlhood is sometimes beautiful, though, I still hesitate to celebrate it. The “female experience” is a product of arbitrary constructs of gender, the same ones that define “boyhood” as the absence of intimate friendships, emotional vulnerability, and whatever self-expression women supposedly gain through makeup and fashion. True equality would eliminate the entire concept of girlhood, because people assigned female at birth would not be brought up in a way that was intrinsically different.
So do we celebrate that difference, or do we decry it? I don’t know the answer to this question, but it’s worth asking. Because the word “girl” is starting to change: in front of “math,” it means irresponsible; in front of “logic”, it means nonsense. These examples appropriate “girl” to perpetuate sexist stereotypes. And when we defend these terms—saying that they are, in fact, a positive celebration—we are no different from the women who broke their backs with whalebone corsets while telling themselves they wanted to wear them. We are falling into the same traps that women have fallen into for centuries, the ones that only reveal themselves as traps in hindsight. The next generations will pity us: They will not see the influencers starving themselves with juice cleanses, the billion-dollar plastic surgery industry, and the ever-growing makeup collections and think that today’s women are empowering themselves through their choices. If the fight for gender equality continues to progress, it’ll be clear in a couple of decades that these were never choices, that we only said they were in order to escape the helpless feeling of patriarchal oppression.
And if feminism does not progress? If future generations are also convinced that liberation can be found at the bottom of a makeup bag and that embracing stereotypes will somehow make them go away? Then our daughters will pay to cut off the tips of their noses, work out and diet until their waists are half the size of their hips, and never pursue careers that require them to do anything more than “girl math.” They’ll tell us it feels like empowerment. We will be bad feminists if we disagree.