On Self-Love and Healing Why Can’t “Smart Girl” and “Beauty Girl” Go Hand in Hand?

Why Can’t "Smart Girl" and "Beauty Girl" Go Hand in Hand?

One writer on how embracing her feminine side helped her finally let go of labels.

Jennifer Li

 Jennifer Li

When I realized that I really liked my boyfriend, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would have to show him my behemoth of a beauty stash. I found myself dreading this moment—dreading the judgmental scoff that all men before him had given me. Thus, I was shocked when I showed himself my treasured collection...and he just smiled and asked me what products I liked the most. Months later, after going out to dinner and taking off my makeup, I asked him why he didn’t judge me. “I don’t really understand all of it,” he admitted. “But that’s not a reason for me to put it down. Especially when you enjoy it so much!”

In an instant, his words lifted an invisible weight off my shoulders. It also made me think: why had I carried so much shame around the things that helped me embrace my feminine side?

For all my life, I've suffered from a fear of being judged a “girly girl." I’ve avoided using makeup and avoided wearing a pretty blouse out of the fear that I would look vain and self-obsessed. I’ve been anxious about showing previous partners my vast skincare collection, lest they think that I’m high-maintenance and shallow. I’ve been afraid of buying more than one body wash at a time, in case the cashier assumes that I’m frivolous and wasteful. It feels difficult to accept femininity when it’s been conflated with so many negative stereotypes all my life.

As a Chinese-American in a small white town, my environment informed me about the different “types” of girls. There were “bad girls”, who wore heavy makeup, cared too much about attention from boys, and were unambitious. I was told that “good girls" never wore makeup, got good grades, and didn’t waste brainpower or money thinking about their physical appearance. It wasn’t said with so many words, but my mother sniffed at girls she thought were “bad girls”, and my father shook his head with grim disapproval right next to her. My mother had a particular name for “bad girls” in Mandarin—cao bao, an empty bag, all style and no substance. She aggressively discouraged me from being an empty bag, and pushed me to define myself through my academic achievements.

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Because of how the media excluded Asian-Americans from beauty spaces, my mother was one of my only role models of beauty. She never wore more than a few light dabs of rum-raisin lipstick and a spritz of perfume, and the only fussy thing about her beauty routine was just blowing out her hair in the mornings before going to work. She shied away from eyeshadow and she disapproved of girls my age going to school with makeup and tight clothes; she would purse her lips and make me promise to never be “too much”. As a child, all I really knew about myself was that I was Chinese-American, I liked to read, I was relatively smart, and I liked pleasing my mother and my father. So, I tried being a “good girl” to make them happy.

Other categories manifested as I grew older. As I interacted more with my white peers, I quickly realized something: they had preconceived ideas of what Asian-Americans were like. My “good girl” label morphed into an “Asian girl”, who watched anime, breezed through school, and laughed at the racially insensitive jokes of her white peers to fit in. I could not occupy different labels: I wasn’t hot enough nor athletic enough to be a “cool girl”, and I was too loud and eccentric to be a “nice girl”. Whenever I tried to explore my femininity through makeup, I found myself unrepresented and excluded from beauty spaces. So out of bitterness and anger, I rejected beauty. Instead, I took pride in going back to my “good girl” label—different from other girls, better than other girls. I would not be an empty bag.

As a college student, I settled into the label of “quirky creative”, who only wanted to drink triple shots of espresso and talk about niche literature. I knew I wasn’t ugly, but I resented how many men found me attractive simply because of my race, so I hid my body in bulky sweaters and jeans and I wielded my desexualized intelligence like a shield. Instead, what I found were men who said I was “different from other girls”, because I was a rebellious Asian girl who liked literature instead of STEM, which apparently was a dichotomy too alluring to resist.

Looking back on those labels angers me: society always wants to boil women down into one-dimensional ideas, never seeing women as multifaceted individuals, nor realizing the damage it inflicts upon those who try to conform. Whether it’s shaming her for being an insipid narcissist who only cares about her looks when she decides to dye her hair, or criticizing her for being an oversensitive snowflake when she points out reductive and sexist jokes from a well-liked comedian, these labels are constructed to keep women in competition against each other for the attention of men, further propping up maleness. Still, labels are tempting, in their own way. Instead of fighting to occupy space through individuality, they offer a pre-set mould to conform to. They make things uncomplicated, pleasantly mindless.

Society always wants to boil women down into one-dimensional ideas, never seeing women as multifaceted individuals, nor realizing the damage it inflicts upon those who try to conform.

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I performed my labels for longer than I’m proud to say. I played the “good girl” to please my conservative parents, and the “Asian girl” to fit in my white high school classmates. I played the “quirky creative” mostly for boyfriends and flings. But I also played all these labels for the invisible spector within me, who was always quick to judge, whether I was considering buying mascara over books, or boba over espresso. It judged me for running a very slow mile, while simultaneously judging me for even trying. This invisible spector is an insidious creature, and it goes by the name of the internalized male gaze.

As a femininst, I had learned about the theory of the male gaze, but I didn’t truly understand it until I watched Gone Girl two years ago, when Rosamund Pike’s character took down the idea of playing a “cool girl”. I remember the flush of heat that spread over my skin when she scornfully paints the picture of a “cool girl” whom her husband fell in limerence with: a woman who loves football, dirty jokes, cold pizza, drinking beer, never gets angry at her man, and is always a size two and sexually voracious. Of a woman who likes whatever her man likes, and who has spent her entire life playing some idea of a woman who doesn’t exist, summoned into reality by men who fail to see women beyond wishful fantasies. I remember shivering and replaying the scene, over and over again: her resentful fury was a balm of relief. I remember thinking to myself, “I have known this feeling for my entire life”. Through that Cool Girl monologue, I realized that I had spent my life molding myself to one dimensional labels—a lifetime of looking at other women as “cool girls” and “bad girls”, and looking at myself through the same chimerical lens. I was so used to suppressing my different facets and feelings to make people happy, because I thought that was the only way to find acceptance.

I realized that I had spent my life molding myself to fit one dimensional labels—a lifetime of looking at other women as “cool girls” and “bad girls”, and looking at myself through the same chimerical lens.

Part of this included years of refusing to admit that I used skincare for my own enjoyment, citing acne as motivation, instead of just admitting how much I liked having a collection of lotions and serums and oils at my disposal. I threw my hair in an uncaring ponytail and told myself that I loved my natural hair, as I determinedly ignored Instagram accounts full of luscious balayages and bright champagne blondes. For nearly five years, I did not buy a single article of clothing for myself, wearing only hand-me-downs and gifts. I felt a queasy churn of shame whenever I passed a mirror and thought about myself positively: being confident mortified me. And despite how I was aware of this, I still felt an irresistible pressure to appease.

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I was suddenly catching myself staring at shopping carts, trying to justify to myself why I needed a pink sweater. I don’t need a pink sweater, I told myself, I just need a sweater and it happens to be pink. I was cognizant of how desperately I tried to psyche my naturally un-athletic self up before trying to workout: this isn’t because I care about my appearance or anything, I told myself, this is only to maintain my mental health. Why did I need to justify myself even when no one was around me? Why was I even justifying myself at all?

It hit me when my father watched me help my mother with her hair and makeup for a close family friend’s wedding. I had never preened with my mother like this before; I felt like I was getting an opportunity to bond with her in a way that I had always wanted to experience. It felt good to show my mother how to dust on highlighter and to laugh over lipsticks. I felt close with her, and I was happy to share that feeling with her. It wasn’t until she left the bathroom to change and I began applying blush and curling my hair that he shook his head, screwing up his face in disgust, and informed me that I wasted too much time on “stupid stuff”.

I remember how my stomach instantly went leaden with shame, the excitement in my mouth turning to ash and vinegar. I suddenly wanted to take off my dress and highlighter, and curl up into a dark corner until I was insignificant and invisible, so small that no one could say a thing about me. A thousand thoughts shot like arrows through my mind: he had nothing to say when my mother was wearing makeup, but felt the need to comment when I did it? It was a weddingI was allowed to wear blush at a wedding. I had a justifiable reason to wear makeup in this situation and my mother had already set a precedence—and he was still judging me? It struck me then: if I hadn’t worn makeup, like a “good girl”, my mother would have insisted that I put in a little effort for the occasion. If I wore makeup, like a “bad girl”, my father would have criticized me for wearing it. No matter which label I took, I couldn’t win. It wouldn’t matter what justification I had. It would never be enough. I had feared exploring my femininity because I had only experienced my femininity through an unrealistic perspective—I was too much, I wasn’t enough, I was too wasteful, I was this and I was that. I never realized that my own gratification was more valuable than whatever respect I craved. It wasn’t until someone I cared about thanked me for showing my vulnerability and offered me respect in return, that I understood that I didn’t need anyone’s approval to enjoy feminine things. And in the end, the only approval I needed was my own.

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I’ve spent months working to accept my femininity, and I think I’ve made good progress. When the restriction in my city lifted, my boyfriend took me to my favorite (very safe) brunch spot for the first time this year in August. I savored every one of the forty minutes I spent getting ready. Maybe it was being deprived of such occasions, but I remember the satisfaction I found in patting toner on freshly-washed skin, relishing the moist-sticky glow of my skin after smoothing on sunscreen, and gleefully dipping my fingers into my shimmery-creamy bronzer. When we walked all the way in the oppressive heat to our reservation, I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so effortlessly light. It struck me later, laughing over coffee and brunch, how much heady pleasure I had taken in just rubbing some goo on my face. How many times have I refused to let myself feel that? I pondered as I chewed on a sliver of peach. Whenever I see posts online putting down young girls for wanting to play with makeup and encouraging them to put their energy into their education, I find myself wanting to shout: why can't a woman be both beautiful and educated, both glamorous and competent? Why can’t a woman be both style and substance, a designer handbag full of books and knowledge?

Everyday, I reach for acceptance. I reach for it when I wear my watermelon pink sweater, peruse my different shampoos, curl my hair for myself, or try to do 10 pushups. I reach for it when I consider chopping off my length and dyeing my hair. You’re allowed to do whatever you like with your appearance, I remind myself whenever I look in the mirror and feel a looming sense of self-consciousness and mortification. You’re allowed to pick and choose what you like, for the rest of your life. You’re allowed to care and like the way you look, and to change it if you don’t. You don’t have to justify liking things. And there are certainly moments when I forget to accept myself, when I want to throw away my makeup and jewelry and curl up in bitter shame. But that just means I get to re-realize things all over again, which never stops tasting so very, very sweet.

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