Before going to work every morning, my mother would plant bright red lipstick stains on each cheek in spite of my resistance as I tossed and turned in bed. When I woke up, I would desperately try to rub the marks off of my face. To me, the remnants of the lipstick represented manufactured beauty; I despised it.
My family was mostly conventional. Growing up with an elder brother and numerous male cousins, I had learnt to laugh at them when they resorted to using feminine attributes as insults in an attempt to emasculate one another. When some men didn’t subscribe to their idea of masculinity, a toxic one at that, they became instant targets.
On the other hand, I was well-liked among the boys, which could, however, be owed to an unfortunate reason: I had been assigned the label of a ‘tomboy’ very early on, a word I can’t tolerate now. I adhered to the label conscientiously: short hair, shorts and t-shirt. I had gotten accustomed to hearing my mother say, ‘She’s a bit of a tomboy,’ as something to be proud of. This further assimilated into my psyche that liking sports and dressing like a boy were somehow superior to liking things that were traditionally associated with girls.
Moreover, I was perhaps a little envious of my brother’s relationship with my father, especially the moments when they indulged in traditionally masculine activities. However, I did have an equally nurturing relationship with my mother where we frequently engaged in feminine activities. Now I wonder, why didn’t that comfort me?
90’s Bollywood romcoms didn’t help either: every South Asian girl who saw Kuch Kuch Hota Hai could see herself in Anjali, a stereotypical trope of a tomboy who is destined to get the male lead only after she completely rebrands herself as hyper-feminine years later. One scene from the movie persisted in my memory: young Anjali trying to experiment with her clothes and makeup, and everyone mocking her for it. This scene left such an impression on my younger self that it became seemingly impossible to break out of my ‘tomboy’ image.
As I grew older, the correlation between these childhood incidents became evident to me. The reason I belched at the thought of lipstick, or any form of makeup for that matter, was because I had internalised the thought that things traditionally associated with men were intrinsically more valuable than those associated with women (read: internalised misogyny). Thus, I was searching for any way to differentiate myself from conventionally ‘girly’ activities and choices, so as to attain validation from those around me. This gives birth to the ‘not like other girls’ phenomenon — identifying any feminine trait and running as far from it as possible in order to appeal to men.
Like most women, it took me a lot to finally break out of this thought process and accept femininity as an integral part of myself. Reading, writing, thinking and conversing with those outside my echo chamber of indifference to positive change helped me unveil the shroud of masculinising myself to discover the propaganda of patriarchy underlining all of my childhood. I now adore the same shimmery eyeshadow I thought I despised growing up; it’s not a matter of adding a feminine side to me but rather discovering one that has always existed but has always been rejected by patriarchal thinking deeply entrenched not only in the people I grew up with but also in myself.
I also realised that there is no one definition of being feminine; it comes in different forms and everyone is allowed to define it for themselves the way they fancy.
This realisation has led me to rethink every action I do, every emotion I have, positive or negative, and every goal I hope to achieve. Is the reason I disliked the colour pink growing up just another way to differentiate myself? Is the reason why I feel so powerful wearing a suit the fact that suits are associated with men?
Only when women adhere to the typified values of masculinity are they seen as icons. It needs to be understood by society that being powerful and being feminine aren’t mutually exclusive. Strength and leadership can come in the form of a pink summer dress. Global leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Jacinda Ardern are challenging this framework by not shying away from pronounced expressions of their femininity. Something as simple as a bright red lip and a high stiletto while simultaneously formulating global policies, mirroring an absolute emblem of power, is an inspiring image for generations.
Today, I look in the mirror and decide what shade to put on: a cherry-red or a silk coffee. Sometimes, when a tiny splotch goes astray, I use the edge of my t-shirt to earnestly wipe it off. What started as me desperately attempting to erase even the slightest stench of femininity off of me, ended up with makeup being my medium of embracing and adoring my feminine side.