I don't remember a time when I wasn't a feminist. (Of course, I didn't always know the word, but it's hard to understand such concepts when you're toddling around to "Free To Be...You And Me.") My parents raised me to believe that women could be doctors, or plumbers, or anything else they wanted to be. By ninth grade, I was wearing pro-choice T-shirts despite having yet to even hold hands with anyone. In college, I applauded Men Against Sexism workshops, plunked out bad Bikini Kill covers, and took back the night. No surprise, then, that I interned at Ms. and loved every minute. If this all sounds very Feminist.com, it should — years ago, I helped code the site.
Then I became a beauty editor.
I know this might seem like an incongruous career choice, but hear me out. Yes, I'd read The Beauty Myth, and I knew about retouched ads and their maddeningly unrealistic standards of beauty. At the same time, almost surreptitiously, I gravitated toward makeup counters, fascinated by cosmetics' ability to transform the way a woman "spoke" to the world. Wearing bright red lipstick signaled a very different message than wearing bubblegum-pink lipstick, and it was these cultural messages that I tried to decode.
Becoming a beauty editor felt surprising, but it didn't feel wrong. (Should it have? I still wonder about this, clearly.) Besides, third-wave feminists had already (successfully, in my view) argued that wearing lipstick didn't mean you couldn't also campaign for equal pay. I'd paid attention to Gloria Steinem because of her ideas, but after meeting her, I realized that she was also uniquely stylish — proving that the symbolic raised fist of feminism could be well-manicured, too, if a woman wanted it to be. (And if she didn't, well, that's okay, too.)
Despite some stereotypes of us as a legion of Elnett-huffing ding-dongs, beauty editors are intelligent. You need to be, if you want to understand why vitamin C can be unstable in skin care, or the difference between nanoparticles and microparticles. I'm not an anomaly as a beauty editor who's also a feminist, either. Many of my beauty-editor friends lionized Kathleen Hanna and can quote bell hooks with the best of 'em. And, one of my fellow Ms. interns, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, has a blog (and a forthcoming book) about beauty's role in our society, The Beheld. Over coffee a few months ago, we noted the curious coincidence that both of us are fascinated by beauty: how it's constructed, who "gets" to be called beautiful, and all of the questions and contradictions that we explore while writing about it.
On a similar note, it's interesting to note that writing about a softer "women's topic" — despite it being a complex and broad subject — means that, in some people's eyes, I must be a little bit dumb. (I think these people imagine that my job involves getting daily blowouts and massages. I should be so lucky.) That's the only thing that makes me feel small and angry, because it is such a sexist assumption. Don't think that's a real phenomenon, or that pink-collar sexism no longer exists? Please. A guy who covers sports for a living can make (and has made, à la Keith Olbermann) the transition to political analysis, but I have a very hard time believing that a beauty editor could do the same. She might have the smarts, but the opportunity? Let's just say I'm not waiting for MSNBC to call.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that being a beauty editor is in itself a feminist act. Nor am I claiming that the industry is perfect — there's still a lot we need to do to move beyond the tall/thin/young/Caucasian beauty standard that still dominates, to name just one issue. But I like what I do for a living, and what's more, I like the opportunity to change the conversation around beauty. I want to live in a world where every woman looks in the mirror and likes what she sees. Where she can get dolled up or can go makeup-free, and feel confident about herself either way. Where we smash the old meaning of beauty, making it something to be defined on a woman's own terms. We're not there yet, since progress doesn't happen overnight — but it does happen. And I want to be there when it does.
Your turn: Is there such a thing as a bad feminist?
Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Berry/Rex USA.