Wednesday 17 June 2015

Art and Identity

I'm still fascinated by the Rachel Dolezal case although I really dislike speculating on what her home life was like. A family of four white people--as Rachel apparently has a white natural brother-- attempted to raise four black children in the USA, which is in fact a very controversial thing to do, Rachel apparently first learning about black hair from styling her black baby sister's hair....

Meanwhile, media response is doing a see-saw between "Rachel is Outrageously Wicked" and "Rachel Can Be Black if She Wants."

I can hardly wait until my US-born dad arrives in Edinburgh, so I can ask him what he thinks of the whole mess. He may be too clever to say anything, however, but just laugh merrily at the media circus around it all.

Interestingly, although my father and all his family were American for generation after generation, the immigrants marrying into pre-revolutionary war families, I have never felt particularly American. Naturally I could pass for American, as to the British I sound American, and I can describe Rolling Prairie, Indiana in excruciatingly boring detail. Naturally I know a lot about the USA from the news and took "American History" in high school. I even have rights to American citizenship, but getting it would entail my father doing a lot of paperwork and signing forms, etc.  And, of course, that would be a sock in the eye to my identity as a Canadian, for a strong theme in Canadian identity is not being American, just as not being English is a strong theme in Scottish identity. Interestingly, B.A. could pass for English, and once he was attacked by an anti-English Scot on a train. ("Keep yoor bluidy offensive English voice DOON!")

Despite the stern rebuke of Saint Thomas Aquinas, I coat my face with paint all the time. Unlike most women in Scotland, I do this not to look darker but to look lighter, which is to say, more cream and less strawberry. I deliberately give the impression that I am less pink than I am. I also employ tricks to make my eyes look bigger and my eyes bluer. And I wear bright red lipstick as a tribute to the film stars of the 1940s and 1950s, whose glamour I wish to emulate. My lipstick expresses an old-fashioned attitude towards femininity, and if I hoodwink everyone around into thinking I have never thrown a left-hook in my life, where's the harm?

(Feminist: The harm is that you communicate the idea that women are weak, attention-seeking and always welcome sexual advances, you throwback.)

Because I love costumes and read a lot of advice on the topic online, I dress for swing-dancing in outfits inspired by the conventions of the 1940s. I don't think this is fooling anybody, although it does at least suggest a commitment to swing-dancing.

Women use clothing and make-up as expressions of our own or assumed identity all the time. The only man I know who has ever accused us of actual lying with our make-up is Saint Thomas Aquinas. Saint Thomas More was so disturbed by women's artifice that in Utopia (I believe), he suggested that carefully chaperoned fiancés have a look at each other naked before they marry.

Susan Brownmiller went so far to say in Femininity is something we do more than that we are. I don't buy this, but I do think what we wear on our faces and bodies is an expression of our identity, even if it is an identity we assume.

Yesterday I took a pencil and drew the front of the Historical House. Today I will take liquids and powers and paint "Seraphic Goes to Swing-Dancing" on my face. Whereas I will leave my drawing behind me, I will take my painting with me and turn it into a live performance I might call "No Matter What Happens I Will Smile For Two Hours Straight." Instead of  being myself, the married middle-aged writer, I will be Smiling Girl Who Studies Polish And Is Pleasant to Dance With.

Of course, disguising yourself as an attractive, carefree, cheerful young woman who studies Polish and is pleasant to dance with may get you into a spot of social bother, as I pondered last week when someone asked for my phone number. The first time I debuted in Edinburgh circles as an attractive, carefree, cheerful young woman who is pleasant to dance with, a resident American took a shine to me and pumped my pal for information. Naturally she told him at once that I was married, which was apparently a shock.




Well, where do we draw the line? When are we authentically playing with identity with our clothes, hair, make-up and facial expressions, and when are we simply lying?

UPDATE: Holy guacamole. I have discovered how to continue to experience life as a Single woman insofar as a happily married woman can ever do that: sitting around hoping men will ask me to dance. It is, of course, Single life on a very small and limited scale, and it's over as soon as I get up and go home. But there is a point where sitting there, smiling, just feels like.... AAAAUGH!


  1. I never wear makeup unless physically forced, but it's more on the lines of "couldn't be bothered with that nonsense" than honesty or identity. :P

  2. "But there is a point where sitting there, smiling, just feels like.... AAAAUGH!"

    You're telling me.

    Look, I love make up. I look like a heroin addict if I don't wear at least some. Men who say that they prefer women who don't wear make up have obviously not seen a woman not wearing make up.

    Perhaps Sts Thomas are against make up, but I must say I don't really care. What annoys me no end is that men can look good by taking a shower and putting on a suit and I can't look good without at least 450 chemicals on my face. And an extra 557 chemicals in my hair.

    I draw the line at fake tan though. That stuff's horrid.

  3. Wait a did men ever find women attractive before we all started wearing make up???

  4. Well, nobody except hookers was wearing make-up, so they didn't know any better. Middle-aged women had to rely on having sacks of cash if they hoped to marry (or marry again). So I would say, "natural beauty of the young folk" and "sacks of cash."

    I wonder if men would look better to us if they all wore make-up? Ugh, no. Probably not. Maybe wearing make-up is something else women do to emphasize that we are not men.

  5. I don't think men would look better to straight women if they started wearing makeup. I'm just wondering how it is that they don't seem to need it -- do men have naturally better skin than women do? Perhaps men's skin is tougher, and so it withstands environmental damage better? I have seen men whose eyelashes are just perfect, and I just think, why, God, why?

  6. Heather in Toronto18 June 2015 at 14:56

    It's not that men have naturally better skin, it's that we are hard-wired to associate female attractiveness with youth because female fertility correlates so strongly with it. So we want to make our eyes look bigger and our skin look softer and more even. Men don't experience the same drop-off in fertility as they age, so losing the youthful glow they had at 17 (or at least would have had if it weren't for the acne and adolescent angst) doesn't reduce their appeal. In fact, I'd hazard that it says to our hind-brains "Look, I have collected enough experience to show that I am strong and clever and therefore would be a good provider and defender for your young!"


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