Thursday, May 17, 2012

Some More Thoughts on Being an Unfeminine Female in Taiwan

I wrote a longish post on this awhile back, but thought the matter deserved a bit more.

A friend recently put up a post for her own circle about identity issues - dressing in a more feminine way and then being angry at the idea that if she did so, people would notice and comment, and how it forced her to think about her own reactions to women who dress in a feminine way. That's her post and not public so I won't go into it more.

But it got me thinking.

I only rarely wear makeup and the most feminine I get is the occasional long skirt (long so I won't have to wear tights or hose). You will NEVER see me in heels. One time when I did wear makeup for a work function, one of the women from the office (Taiwanese) said it looked good and implied heavily that I should wear it more often. I smiled, thanked her, but said quite firmly that I would not be wearing it more often - I didn't find it necessary and in Taipei's humid weather, it was really quite uncomfortable (and I use a light hand and wear expensive mineral makeup). I just don't like how makeup feels and won't subject myself to it unless I want to, at my discretion. I certainly won't wear it because other people think I should.

The thing is, my coworker's comment really bothered me. I had tried to reply nicely but firmly, and I wondered a bit at why, after she said it, it chafed at me so much. Why did it matter to me that this woman, whom I don't even like, mind you, thought I should wear makeup more often? I'd already decided not to, so who cares?

After my friend's post, I realized why it mattered: because we live in a world where women are expected to go to such lengths, to look certain ways, to do certain things. Her comment was an endorsement of these expectations. It was a signal that she bought into this set of ideals and that, by saying it to me, that I should, too. Which implies that these expectations, to her, are right - when I happen to think they are wrong. It signals that, whether or not she realized it, she had felt something was lacking with the old me, enough so that she felt it was OK to imply as much. That I was not quite "right" for refusing to follow the rules. That I should conform more. That I wasn't fine before.

We are judged on our appearance, more so than men. Nobody will say anything, usually, if a woman doesn't wear skirts, heels or makeup. I don't blow-dry my hair - really, I air-dry it! Even in Taipei! - and nobody says anything.  A woman who does do those things (especially the shiny hair, heels and makeup) will get advantages that I won't. She just will.

Society expects these things of women and there is a downside to not following those rules. I've felt it myself. I do feel I have more to prove than a "pretty" teacher - I have to be good because my looks won't save me (not that a pretty teacher is necessarily a bad one). Of two women of average or roughly equal attractiveness, the one wearing makeup with her hair looking nice and in feminine clothing is going to get more attention - more so in Taiwan, I think, than back home where there is a subset of guys who prefer ungirly women. The woman in a pretty skirt suit is more likely to be taken to a sales meeting than the one in comfortable "office pants" and a regular top, possibly even if the latter woman is more capable. The neighborhood obasans will pay compliments to the polished girl and cluck their tongues at the one who flouts the rules, regardless of how accomplished the latter is - again, more so in Taiwan I think.

This seems especially true in Taiwan. Interestingly, I've noticed a greater polarization here - women who wear no makeup and dress plainly, if not outright unflatteringly, vs. women who are down to there and up to here in bling 'n fake lashes and heels with fringe (which to me is just asking for a broken ankle, but hey). Back home I see more of a continuum.

As much as I love Taiwan, I can't lie: despite all the makeup-less women in flats and weirdly constructed shirts I see on the MRT, there are greater expectations of women's grooming and beauty. There are stronger social cues as to how women should present themselves. There is a social reward for looking more "feminine"...and yet even stronger drawbacks. As with the USA, I feel that in Taiwan there's a societal expectation of feminine grooming and beauty, and you get a cookie, a "sit! sit!" Good girl!" treat -for adhering to it, while at the same time, people don't take things that are feminine, or women who act very feminine, seriously. All the high-level women I know - the directors, the CFOs, the general managers, the BU heads - are remarkably not feminine save for one notable example. All the office girls - the xiaojies who get male attention - are. Nobody takes the office girls that seriously, and yet, if they all stopped wearing makeup and put on pants and flats, they'd be castigated socially for it.

It's like a big ol' trap: you have to look feminine, if you don't we won't pay attention to you socially. But if you do, we won't take you seriously. So have fun looking pretty and not being taken seriously, ladies!

What bothered me about this coworker's comment, then, is the implication that she's OK with this total fucked-upedness. And, by extension, that there are women who are still OK with it, who support it and will defend it.

Which is their right, but it bothers me.

7 comments:

J said...

It's because there are women who are willing to take it that it gets perpetuated- so yes, it should bother you! That's how power works, not buying people off or threatening people, but by making people subjugate themselves even when it's not in their interest.

Alex Noriega said...

hey, I think I saw you today at the Yongan market mrt station ... was that you? I wanted to tell you that I read your blog and that I really enjoy it!... but I'm shy :) it was weird to recognice you from your photos here.

Jenna Cody said...

Alex - yes, it probably was me. I was out that way yesterday and both exited and entered Yong'an Market station. I was probably lost in my own little "thought world" though so it might've taken some effort to get my attention! I'm weird in that when my thoughts are not completely somewhere else - which they often are, I've gotten very good at the mental check-out - I make eye contact and smile at people, even random strangers, but when I don't it's like a bull barging through a crowd, horns out. I think a lot of foreigners who see me on the street have caught me in the latter state and assumed I just "ignore" other foreigners. I don't - when I'm being like that I ignore everyone!

But...thanks!

blobOfNeurons said...

implied heavily that I should wear it more often

I'm curious. How does one imply heavily that another should wear makeup more often? Wouldn't it be easier to just say it outright?

Jenna Cody said...

One makes loaded comments like "You look so GOOD with makeup, that color is a really nice one for you, you look so professional, it's a very polished look for you, I didn't know you owned such nice makeup" etc etc.

Clearly you haven't been a woman on the receiving end of this sort of heavy implication. At the risk of making a sexist comment, I feel that guys tend to be much more direct ("Dude that shirt looks like crap") and don't have the same social expectations of grooming, so you don't hear it. But you don't know heavy implication until you've heard one woman judge on another.

Jenna Cody said...

One makes loaded comments like "You look so GOOD with makeup, that color is a really nice one for you, you look so professional, it's a very polished look for you, I didn't know you owned such nice makeup" etc etc.

Clearly you haven't been a woman on the receiving end of this sort of heavy implication. At the risk of making a sexist comment, I feel that guys tend to be much more direct ("Dude that shirt looks like crap") and don't have the same social expectations of grooming, so you don't hear it. But you don't know heavy implication until you've heard one woman judge on another.

blobOfNeurons said...

I feel that guys tend to be much more direct ("Dude that shirt looks like crap") [...] But you don't know heavy implication until you've heard one woman judge on another.

I see what you mean, although I feel that oftentimes the most "direct" statements are made by women speaking to men. ("You look better in X. You should wear X." "Y doesn't look good on you. Don't wear Y." and of course "Why are you wearing Y? What happened to X?") It's generally not harsh judgment but it is given in a rather straight-forward manner.

I didn't know you owned such nice makeup

Ah, I don't know why but this example really strikes a chord.