Women Do Not Owe You Beauty
“Remember, Girls,” Mrs. Mead said. “If you want to be taken seriously in the workplace, you have to wear makeup.”
It was my junior year. A home economics teacher, Mrs. Mead’s lesson that day covered job preparation and professionalism. The focus had transitioned to physical appearance on the job.
“Blush and lip gloss goes a long way,” she said. A smooth foundation to cover acne. Smooth eyeliner. Neutral eyeshadows. “And don’t forget the lipstick.”
Just make sure not to go overboard, she said. A perfect balance would be necessary, whatever that meant.
A biological female teenager with serious self esteem problems, I felt lost.
I’d have to wear makeup forever if I ever wanted to be taken seriously?
I didn’t like makeup. Mom didn’t wear it. Sister did on special occasions but not regularly. My sister-in-law did my makeup for graduation. YouTube self-help videos got me through prom and winter balls.
Mrs. Mead went on to tell all the girls in the class everything we would have to do if we wanted to land or keep a job.
We needed to wear pretty blouses and skirts, she said.
Heels were favorable but flats could be permitted.
When we aged enough to have grey hair, it would be necessary to dye it. Greying hair and discolored roots were unprofessional.
My natural self would never be enough.
When it came to the boys, Mrs. Mead shrugged.
“Comb your hair,” she said. “Keep your beard clean, sport nice pants and a nice shirt, and wear deodorant.”
That was it.
It would be a lie to say I sat there in surprise. I didn’t. I knew the double standards placed on women. Growing up a girl, I learned early on the differences in the way boys and girls were treated.
I wanted short hair. Mom said no. Girls had long hair, she said.
I wanted to wear pants to church. Mom put me in dresses.
I wanted to wear a tuxedo to prom. Mom put me in a long glittering gown.
Joining band, the director pushed me toward playing the flute or clarinet. I didn’t want to play either. I liked the idea of the saxophone or drums or the trumpet. But even instruments had been stereotyped for gender. We settled on the French horn.
As a young child, I often ran around shirtless. I felt ashamed when I made it to an age — still as a child — where society demanded I wear shirts while boys of the same age didn’t.
I wasn’t in puberty. I didn’t have a chest. I didn’t understand how my body could be sexualized. I still didn’t know the biological differences between male and female sexes.
Yet even in my lack of understanding, I felt shame. Something must have been wrong with me to need to cover myself when the boys didn’t. I knew the words boy and girl, but not what separated us.
Why did it have to be like this?
Mrs. Mead’s words stuck with me into early adulthood. I later discovered I was transgender female-to-male but continued to publicly present female for my own safety.
I hated makeup but I wore it. I needed it to be a professional, I thought.
I began to dye my hair almost regularly.
I tried to wear heels but couldn’t balance myself.
At work, while my male coworkers dressed in simple shirts and pants, I worked in overdrive to piece together presentable, stylish outfits. Oh, how I wanted to wear a sports jacket or suit and slacks.
Skirts and blouses were a step too far so I bargained with myself to wear feminine sweaters and black skinny jeans.
I budgeted time in the mornings to put on foundation and eyeliner. My acne demanded it. If I didn’t wear both, the men at work would comment on how “tired” or “sick” I looked.
I never managed on how to style my hair so I always tied it back in a clean, tight bun unless a special occasion demanded I look “pretty.” Pretty girls wore their hair long, I had been told again and again.
The powerful women in movies were beautiful, after all. Beauty was a necessity to live as a professional woman.
The prettier I made myself look, the easier things at work went for me. I even tested it. It didn’t matter if how I dressed remained professional. If I didn’t have my pretty girl face on, things didn’t tend to work out in my favor.
I had to be a pretty girl if I ever wanted to be taken seriously.
It exhausted me.
When my brother died, I lost the desire to be a pretty girl. It didn’t matter anymore.
Life became something short and fleeting, and I had wasted so much of my own to be something I hated.
I dreaded waking up in the morning. I secretly prayed I wouldn’t wake up at all.
Painting on the makeup was painting on a mask. The hair, the clothes, all of it was a disguise to fit into this stereotype of what I thought I had to be.
So I stopped.
I bought the pants I wanted. I switched to vests and jackets. I bought men’s cologne and men’s deodorant.
I threw away most of my makeup and only kept what my mother or sister might want.
I chopped off some of my hair at first, then later all of it.
After encouragement from friends after 27 years of living as a pretty girl, I finally started hormone replacement therapy.
Pieces of the mask I built up over the years are now breaking off, piece by piece. Someday, it will all be gone. I look forward to that day.
My transition is not related to the conditions that were placed on me when raised as a woman. I did not choose to become a man. I am a man. I always identified this way, even as a child.
Yet being raised female, I experienced the standards placed on women at work. As a closeted trans man, I continue to experience them. I’m just more apt to ignore them now.
Recently, I fell back into that pretty girl mask. I tried to interview for a job I needed. The pressures of the workplace had me painting my face again, a full mask of makeup.
I replaced my clothes with the feminine ones I had so despised. I thought I needed it to land the job.
I had to present as pretty as possible, especially now that my hair is shaved in a masculine style. I feared the hair alone would ruin any chance I had at the position.
Despite a full resume and raving recommendations, I didn’t get the job. And I think that’s for the best.
Like my close friend said: If I felt the need to present as someone I wasn’t to work there, then it was probably not a place I should have been working.
Thank you, Mariah.
Women can want to be beautiful but they shouldn’t have to be beautiful.
Whether a woman fits into someone else’s condition of beauty should never measure her chance of success in the workplace, or anyplace else.
I’m still learning not to use it to measure my own.
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Cassius Corbin is a poet, fiction writer, photographer, and full-time journalist from rural Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter @cassiuscorbin, Instagram @sixfeetrooted or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.