Naked face politics

There is no preamble, no set-up. She simply looks at me and says:

“Mom? Why don’t you ever wear make-up?”

And I look back at her, and pause. And ponder. What do I say? It has been years—not decades, but more than a decade, more—since I’ve thought about my always-naked face. What does she need to know? What does she want to know? Should I tell her that I’m too practical-busy-lazy, that when one naps in the middle of the day with babies and toddlers, one doesn’t want to smear mascara-eye-shadow-foundation on pillows? Sort of true, maybe, except I don’t think that’s quite how it happened.

I can’t quite remember when or why I chose a naked face. Or if it was even a choice…

I could tell her it’s because I exercise in the middle of the day and I love that clean up involves nothing but the quickest of showers, a wipe with a towel.

I could tell her it’s an aesthetic thing and choice and preference, one devoid of any merit, because most of the women in her life dress their faces, and I love them, she loves them, and I want her to honour their choice. And, in a couple of years, she will long for mascara and eye-liner and blush and all those things—I wallpapered my face enthusiastically as a teenager too—and I don’t want her to, ever, think that I’m judging her, denigrating her preference of the moment.

If she was older, I might tell her that in my experience lovers always prefer the taste of naked skin to the taste of cosmetics… but no, not now, I won’t tell her that.

I could tell her I like my skin. My eyes. My lips. Just the way they are. And I like to smear on lipstick for special occasions, sure, but it gets on wine glasses and her daddy’s shirts and… TMI. Stop.

I could tell her… oh, so much. Too much. I’m an anthropologist by training, after all, and I know too much about the “why” theories for most of humanity’s quaint customs.

I don’t know what to tell her, because she’s an almost-pre-teen girl in a sick culture that warps beauty and body image and aesthetics and personal choice and turns everything into a weapon, a war, a conflict, an assault on her own sense of beauty and self and joy, and oh, why-does-raising-a-daughter-have-to-be-so-fucking-hard and oh, why-do-I-always-overthink-everything, why-can’t-I-just-say, “Because I don’t want to” and be done with it?

I should tell her… what? What the hell should I tell her?

But then, she answers herself:

“Is it because it wouldn’t be fair to the other moms? Because you’re so beautiful already?”

Flora, my most beloved child, I’ve said before I know I’m not supposed to have a favourite… but at moments like this… it’s really hard for your brothers to compete with you.

I wrap my arms around her. Press my naked face against her naked face. Kiss her. Love her. And she says:

“We’re so lucky we’re so beautiful, aren’t we?”

Flora, my most beloved. We are. You are. Hold on to this feeling as you grow.


N.B. I wrote this post before Avital Norman Nathman of The Mamafesto brought the #365FeministSelfie project, masterminded by Veronica Arreola from Viva La Feminista, to my attention. Naked face, painted face, happy face, sad face, angry face–REAL face. Real people. An aesthetic of the real, as seen-captured by the subject, without a mediating eye. That’s power. And also… play, joy. I’ve been in since Day 2. Come celebrate the reality of you with me, on Twitter or Instagram with #365FeministSelfie–or, you know what? Privately. Just for yourself. There’s power in that too.

The photos, Week 1. Do I love them? One of them is awesome. Two of them make me cringe. All of them are me.

Naked Face Politics Pin

“Please don’t give my daughter an eating disorder. But you will. You will…”

2011. Flora is six and lives in a bit of a bubble. There’s no TV—and thus commercials—in the house. No glossy magazines. The meme videos she watches on Youtube are big brother-tested and, while generally in poor taste, rarely an assault on the self-worth and identity of a young woman. She chooses her clothes among her favourite friends’ hand-me downs, and loves them because of who they came from. “Designer jeans,” to her, are an ethically troubling line of scientific research.*

She eats real food—and lots of delicious, sweet things. She never has to clear her plate. She can eat dessert first. Or never. For breakfast or in the middle of the day. She eats when she’s hungry, and does not eat when she’s not.

She loves herself.

And then, that stupid bastard, he tries to wreck it. When she’s six.

He’s not a bad man, you know. Just a guy. With a TV and without a daughter. I think he was just trying to be nice, make conversation.

This is what he said:

You’re eating a second ice cream? You are going to get so fat.

To my six-year-old daughter.

He moved on. Forgot. The effect on her? That evening, as she comes out of the bath, my six-year-old daughter looks at herself in the mirror—for the first time in her life, critically. She thrusts out her belly. And asks me:

Mom? Am I fat?

And I, who have spent much of my adult life struggling against the eating disorder and body image damage inflicted on my teenage self, I freak. But manage to hold it in, for her. And hear the story, what’s prompting this. And engage in a little bit of deprogramming. And tell her, that the next time I see him, I will explain to him why what he said was inappropriate and wrong and ensure he will never say that to another little girl again.

I figure by the time I see him, I will be… less angry. Because, you know, I know he’s not a bad man. Just a guy. With a TV. And no daughter.

But I’m still furious, seething. And so, what comes out of my mouth, instead of the rehearsed, rational statement I practiced, is this:

I understand you tried to give my daughter an eating disorder.

And he’s shocked—hurt. Doesn’t understand. Then, as I explain—a little appalled. Both at me, and I hope, at his lack of reflection? But perhaps not. I do think, however, he won’t call a little girl fat again. Or suggest she might be getting fat because she’s eating an ice cream cone.

But he hasn’t changed, he doesn’t understand. No, I don’t think I was that effective.

He’ll never do it again, because he’s afraid the little girl’s psychotic mother, who clearly has issues, is going to go medieval on his ass. As I did.

And you know what? That’s good enough. Not perfect. But good enough. That’s what I think in 2011…

Green tea (matcha) ice-cream with red bean.

2013, now. Flora’s eight and a half. A specimen of physical perfection: healthy, strong, athletic, beautiful. She kicks ass in Tang Soo Do. Does one-handed cartwheels for fun. Can outrun just about every boy on the Common, except for her big brother.

Eats when she’s hungry. Doesn’t eat when she’s not. Snacks on chickpeas. Loves ice cream. There’s no TV or glossy magazines in the house. She’s still lives in a bubble, at least some of the time.

But when she gets out of the bath tub, when she’s in the swimming pool change room—not always, but every once in a while, I see her looking at herself in the mirror—critically.

It rips at my insides.

I thought I could save her. But how can I? She has nine-year-old friends who talk about diets—who are on diets. Too many women in her life, around her torturing themselves, hating themselves. Unhappy with themselves. Passing the message on.

It’s everywhere. She’s learned “fat” is a horrible insult when thrust at a woman. She’s learned the look, shape of her body is what matters the most to too many people.

She’s not even nine yet. She still doesn’t know about designer jeans. But she knows this.

I thought I could save her.

But you won’t let me.

Inspired by Urban Moo Cow‘s guest post on Finding Ninee in the This is Our Land Series: The Greatest Gift

* My kids are brilliant. Deal with it.