Red lipstick, skirts, and dresses make Jenn Leyva feel comfortable in her body, confident, and feminine. So she rocks it all any chance she gets.
I didn’t used to know how to wear makeup. This is not to say that I didn’t know how to apply colored creams and powders to my face to alter my appearance. I could do that well enough. I didn’t know the logistics of makeup. How do I maintain this aesthetic without letting anyone see me put on makeup? No one could see me putting on makeup because that would somehow ruin the illusion, and the point of makeup was the effortless illusion. I remember putting on powder to matte my greasy face in a bathroom stall, hoping that no one would catch a glimpse of my secrets and feeling guilty for taking so long in a crowded bathroom. I remember refusing to meet my dad’s gaze after he commented on the “war paint” I slathered on my face. I remember when the girl who sat next to me in chemistry asked if I wore makeup. It could have been a lovely compliment or she could have questions about where I got my mascara. Instead I sunk in with shame and self-loathing and said meekly, sometimes?
I thought femininity was a crushing agony over the presentation of a body without the lived experiences of that body (though I wouldn’t have used those words). In order to be “proper women” (or at least women that abide by the rules of gender we’ve created), we have to learn to minimize our bodies. Crossed legs. Small and delicate to not take up too much space. Barren armpits and legs (and pubes). No facial hair. No mention of a period, let alone sight of blood. No sexual pleasure, with exceptions made for the appeasement of men. Chub rub, acne, and other skin ailments fought in private. Normative femininity is based on a fear of the female body. It banishes the body while simultaneously putting that body on display, fit for public consumption.
After years of agony, torturing myself by trying to put myself into an ever-smaller box of “acceptable gender,” I found another way. It’s called femme. Femme is a queering of femininity (and, to be clear, a queer identity adopted by more than just cis-women, which is a term for women who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth). It’s a femininity that is about being a subject instead of an object. A femininity that’s accessible to all bodies. A critical femininity.
I learned to make peace with my body and claim the aspects of femininity that felt powerful and welcoming. I have hair—lots of it! And now I let it grow wild. My armpits are fluffy and committed. I sometimes shave my legs, but it’s up to me. I take up physical space. I sit in a way that is comfortable, sometimes with legs tucked under or splayed out. I let my body do what it wants and needs, and that means it’s fat. And please don’t tell me that I’m beautiful and I shoudn’t say things like that about myself. I don’t have time to listen to your nonsense; I’m too busy glorifying obesity.
To an outsider it may not look all that different, but it feels different. I gave up pants about a year ago. I still own a pair of jeggings, but I can’t remember the last time I wore them. I wear skirts and dresses now. The clothes I used to save for special occasions are clothes that I wear everyday. I wear clothes that demand your attention. I’m a fatty wearing a mini skirt and a crop top. I gave up heels because I think they are literal torture. I respect femmes who rock heels, but it’s not for me. This is a contortion of femininity that feels comfortable and inviting, but still challenging and energetic. I’ve picked through femininity and chose to keep the parts that give me strength and power.
It’s about more than just me. I stand up for other femmes and actively fight misogyny. I listen to those who don’t enjoy the same privileges I do, and I pay attention to race, racism, and white supremacy. I notice how products there are made for and marketed for women of color, particularly with darker skin. I notice the ways in which the same behaviors and aesthetics are praised in white femmes while disdained on black women. (This article from Clutch is a great example.) I notice how I am complicit with racism, and I continue to dedicate myself to anti-racist work.
My femme is also critical of the consumerism that so often defines femininity. I sew things, choosing to alter a garment instead of buying a new one. My favorite dresses are ones that have been handed down to me. I cherish them because I am taking on the rich legacy left within every garment and am giving them a new chapter in my life.
Halfway through writing this I was unhappy with everything. I was (and still am) missing so many important parts of what femme means to me. Femme is too important to mess up. So I took a break. I painted my nails, put on a new outfit, and applied the most decadent matte red lip, paying special attention to precise curves at the center of my top lip.
I know most people think lipstick is trivial. But why can’t lipstick be important? The ritual of putting it on, pressing my lips together as I look at myself in the mirror, feeling my lips rub together with a thick coat of my favorite lipstick. The way I draw attention to my mouth and how it highlights my words.
Now this is what femme is. It’s a way to stop and reboot, to center my experiences and center myself in my body. It’s caring for myself because, as Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
I look at my painted face in the mirror, and I guess my dad was right. This is war paint.
When Jenn Leyva was 16, her dad told her that he’d buy her a car if she lost weight. She cried, finished her calculus homework, and is now a New York-based fat activist and recent graduate of Columbia, where she studied biochemistry. She authors Fat and the Ivy, a fat blog about social justice, feminism, science, health, and fa(t)shion.
Photo of the author by Gary Barnes