November 28, 2012

The Power of Red Lipstick. ~ Jennifer Umberg

Give good lip.

I have been asking myself a lot lately whether feminists wear high heels… or even lipstick for that matter.

But these past few days, I’ve been mulling over the question of whether women who do chose to wear lipstick are doing a disservice towards woman-kind when those luscious ruby lips remain sealed.

This question hinges upon the way women are portrayed in media today. Recognizing the work of the most powerful and influential women is inextricable from simultaneously recognizing they are women (thank you Hillary Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nancy Pelosi and Arianna Huffington). They stand out to us to some extent particularly because they represent the idea of an “empowered woman”.

However, this uniqueness is in contrast to the more common role of women who dominate the media. From the opposite school of women, we plaster Kim Kardashian, Rhianna, and Paris Hilton onto our magazine covers. And while these women have merit of their own with certain talents to justify some of the clamor they have received, they are also from a different camp that not only welcomes but requires a sensualized presentation.

But when the whole world gawks at these vixen starlets, the strength, ambition and intellect required to thrive in their industries are forced to take a back seat to their curves and lips. Is this discredit a loss of theirs alone?

After finally confronting the sharp barbed wires bordering the two camps of women-identities—thorny divisiveness erected by the unspoken norms of both men and women—I did what any person with strong convictions would do.

I spoke out. I took my tube of red and painted a picture for readers about the time my past lover and I gradually smeared my face with caked-on sexuality in order to satiate his hunger for the “perfect woman.”

Derived from his addiction to porn, this obsession with the synthetic feminine ideal corroded our relationship. He eventually left me because he was in love with “my mind, but not my body.” Amidst the lipstick stained words, I stripped down for readers to show them my scars of an emotional rape. Falling deeply into the throws of selfless love, I gave up the first in order to gain the second. The danger of the forces of what creates the definition of sexy for young men and women today—pornographic films, erotic photography, etc.—is that it compartmentalizes and separates the two.

And in the process, I had lost at both.

I extricated myself from the role that a woman should play—only to run into another.

I imagine most families would have a breakdown if they found pornographic, degrading and self-selected images of a loved one circulating the Internet. In contrast, mine relayed inexpressible amounts of mortification and shame upon realizing that I had painted red words of sensuality and pain in order to mark the invisible walls as warnings for other men and women. And with a sense of consciousness aimed at tearing down these walls altogether, I sought to start a discourse.

In my article, I applied that red lipstick again of embittered sexuality for people to pay attention to my voice. Instead, I was asked to wipe it off my mouth with shame and put a scarlet letter upon my collar. I was told “an ambitious woman would never be hired if her employer saw that she had written the word sex next to her name.” And a daughter “could never be seen as righteous or moral if she admitted to having premarital sex”, even if it was intended to be out of love. No.

No, the reactions in regards to my speaking about losing identity to the grips of what roles we are told to play, were instead based upon seeing the word sex in my article. Not the words together forming sexism.

I was desperately pressured to remove the article from the Internet, my voice that had finally learned to cope with the disparity between the two identities of women was shackled yet again. The most important man in my life since childhood was concerned with my image as an “empowered woman”, not my words.

What is discouraging about this perception is that it probably holds some truth to it. Both the image of sexy that had been pushed upon me by my past lover and the image of driven and lady-like that had been pushed upon me by my family are thought processes derived from generally perceived norms. These invisible walls are not unique to my own world.

Susan Brownmiller, a gender and women studies professor at Pace University sums up the current feminine struggle saying:

You have to be a babe, in addition to everything else. Looking like a sex object but also claiming the rights of women who are not sex objects—that’s tricky.”

Even trickier when you’re young and ambitious, trying to just break-through the world of demanding careers when in some public way you have in some sense aligned yourself with the wrong camp of images. Bennett, Ellison and Ball explain in a Newsweek article how women’s issues are being swept into silence with the new generations citing a study revealing “young women avoid leadership roles for fear they’ll be labeled ‘bossy;’ another survey found they are four times less likely than men to negotiate a first salary.”

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education data also show that young women will take home, on average across all professions, 80 percent of what their counterparts make a year after graduating despite earning higher GPAs in nearly every subject. Bennett, Ellison and Ball also cite that “even full-time working women who haven’t had children still make 77 cents on the male dollar”.

Women in the 60’s and 70’s burned bras. They contested the traditional domestic role of women. They risked their own images and reputations in order to challenge women’s oppression by moving beyond just the political and economic sphere. They demanded to redefine the social sphere in order to address the roots of all these problems.

Women now stand in incredible and unprecedented positions of power while bills regarding pay equality pass through Congress.

But here’s the bigger problem: these feats, possible because of the firey tenacity of our predecessors, have led to a place where lipstick-stained power-wielders are imprisoned by the importance of “image” and prevented from speaking about the contentious issues that still remain. Some of them being sexism. Some of that being sex.

I decided that wearing lipstick is not at all indicative of a woman’s stance on self-empowerment and feminism. Wearing lipstick to be considered sexy and shying away from it to assume a transcended role of the “empowered woman” is precisely the type of compartmentalizing we need to be addressing. What archetypes a woman might seem to slip into on the basis of her image are irrelevant. Image is secondary and contingent upon what her words say that she stands for.

In spite of this, the women who have broken out their lipstick concern me only because the heels and the red seem to be relieved signs of victory that they are acceptable in a world where gender inequality was a fight of the past. Red lips are pursed shut and those with the spotlight create a consensus of silence and therefore complacency about inequalities crafting our norms.

I wrote the first article because Martin Luther King wrote a speech that was meant for his children, in which he told us that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. And I write to you again today asking you to pay some lip service to our futures as well.

I had not realized that my past lover held discriminations until we were literally stripped vulnerable in front of each other. I had not realized that my beloved and respected father held biases of what I should appear to be, hurtful to the both of us, until confronted with his daughter’s own feminine subjugation. I talked about sex and sexism because the way in which we form our relationships set the bricks for what paths we choose to take together as a society.

I now talk about the relationship with my family to point out that these lines of how we view gender roles are wrapped up in intimate relationships beyond just lovers and into the way we interact and view anyone that we love. Shape our world by first of all shaping your world. Speak to your daughters about what it means to be an ambitious and loving person, in sexual relationships, in pursuing dreams, and in standing for what she believes in. But also speak to your sons, your husbands, your fathers, and your friends that might have dismissed a person based upon pre-conceived biases formed by the media.

Open up those lovely lips and speak.

*The article cited in this piece is: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/03/18/are-we-there-yet.html

Jennifer Umberg is a student at University of California Berkeley preparing to graduate after studying Peace and Conflict. She is eager to continue her education while recognizing it’s truly a lifelong, research intensive degree to unlatch the innumerable vaults of Life Lessons.  So far, Jennifer has worked to overcome Clumsiness by throwing passion into dance—a necessity that has also become a rhythmic sense of stability and meditation. She is inflicted with chronic Catholic Guilt, which is addressed by composting daily and flossing regularly (i.e. once a month). As far as technical skills go, Jennifer can saddle up Curiosity and ride Love. While she left her heart in East Africa and feels a tug towards Eastern Philosophy, Jenn is really just a kid whose whimsical wonders aid her in stumbling into the most unsuspecting places for answers. She wants you as her friend: www.facebook.com/jennifer.umberg!

Editor: Sarah Winner

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