Once upon a time, when I was but a tiny home-schooled darling, surrounded by the harried, tight-lipped matrons that stood in as advisers for my first forays into femininity, I was decidedly unsure about my place as a woman in this world. On the one hand, I learned much from my mother, who is and always has been an indefatigable romantic. She introduced me early to fine perfume, glossy magazines, and silky dresses, and I adored every moment of those first peeks into what seemed a mysterious, grownup world. Yet, despite these positive experiences in my youthful feminine sphere, I hung back at the edge of adolescence, not quite able to fully immerse myself in the world of the Woman.
Because, behind the pleasant and beautiful frivolities that were offered to me as a girl, I could sense a deeper cost. The community I grew up in was exceptionally conservative; many of my girl friends where not allowed to cut their hair, wear pants to church, or listen to contemporary music. No woman was allowed to preach in my fundamentalist Baptist congregation, and very few young girls even attempted a college education, instead resigning themselves with varying degrees of contentment to early marriages and domestic duties. And as much as I loved the trappings of femininity, the rich scents and stories that swirled just out of my reach in old books and movies, I knew that I was unwilling to be a true woman if it meant giving up myself.
At seventeen, I began my first year in a moderate Evangelical college. Despite this institution’s conservatism in the eyes of the greater world, it was, to me, an eye-opening experience. One of my first professors was a loud, brashly intelligent Catholic feminist, who turned all my ingrained presumptions about the nature of gender and sex on their ears. I dipped into feminism carefully at first, terrified of the new ideas and freedoms that came with it, but eventually unable to hold back. There were many late night arguments with my mother, who had lived through the thornier, more combative days of second wave feminism, and felt rejected by its adherents in her chosen role as a traditional housewife. I perhaps encouraged her paranoia by staying true to the pattern laid out by Women’s Studies Stereotypes Everywhere; I cut my hair very short, changed my wardrobe from skirts and sweater sets to jeans and t-shirts, eschewed makeup, and tried my very best to leave what I saw as the inherent weakness of femininity behind me.
But as sincere and exhilarating as my desertion was, it could not last forever. I fell in love, as even good feminists do, with a man. A man who supported me in both my angry ragings against the patriarchy and my far quieter, more clandestine evenings spent poring over perfume blogs and studying (as academically as I possibly could) old feminine archetypes like the courtesan. And I was confused. I didn’t know that I could have my freedom and my rouge yet, sure that if I gave in to these niggling desires for beauty, for luxury and delight, that I would be betraying the hard-won freedom that I had been fighting for since I was baptized into a faith that had little room for me outside the kitchen and the nursery. I was afraid of becoming the negative stereotypes of Woman that had been repeated to me for as long as I could remember. Vain. Weak. Earthly. Deceptive. Fatally misguided Eve, with a little bit of the Babylonian Whore thrown in. In the end, it was perfume that saved me.
Because perfume was such a tiny, private weakness. It didn’t change how I looked, and thus (at least in my head), avoided the problem of catering to The Unfair Ideals Of Women In The Media that I was hearing so much about. What harm could it really do? I was (and continue to be) a contemplative introvert, so there were few to notice my fragrant dalliances from day to day. I found that, through perfume, I could explore whole new personas without altering a jot or tittle of my actual appearance. Guerlain’s Shalimar turned me momentarily into a disarmingly playful but guileful temptress. Through the magic of Estee Lauder’s Beyond Paradise, I could be an exotic, warm island goddess for pennies a spray. And the soaring, unbounded beauty of Jean Patou’s Joy undid me completely.
I began to research queer theory, drawn to the idea of the Femme, a individual who plays her femininity as a game, a joyful dance of authenticity and masquerade. I secretly pored over interviews with the delightful Dita Von Teese, enticed by the idea of a woman whose taste in lingerie was matched only by her business acumen. I made a brief foray into the patchouli-scented reaches of the more mystical, magyckal feminists who went on about goddess force and ancient rhythms (although I left long before succumbing to dreadlocks and drum circles). I wrote a comprehensive term paper on the Madame du Pompadour, that plump, pink locus of French Rococo. And I kept smelling perfume. Expensive, lush fragrances from Amouage, that conjured visions of a great dame of the Opera, holding court amongst her many admirers. Warm, delicious scents from Ineke, that surrounded me in comforting layers of tonka bean and orange flower during afternoon study sessions in the local coffee houses. Searingly sensual tuberose perfumes by Robert Piguet, that smelled alarmingly yet intriguingly of carnal experiences I was just beginning to understand. And I stayed a little bit longer in this teasing world of beauty, batting away the indignation of a thousand imagined suffragettes. “Not yet, I just want to smell one more.”
Eventually, through a seemingly endless process of mental gymnastics that should have been over far more quickly than it was, I realized that femininity and feminism were not ideologies at war with each other, but rather counterpoint systems of thought that I could harmonize as my intellect and experience led me. As my boy was quick to point out, feminism was supposed to create space for me to be myself, whatever I wanted that self to look and feel like. And so, I was at long last spit out of the roller coaster ride of my gendered confusion, simply a person again. A person who loved the fall of heavy, hand-stitched lace on a custom corset. A person who exulted in heady, French perfumes and attended fashion exhibitions. A person who was, against all odds and most of my own expectations, remarkably happy.
Though I still call myself a feminist, and continue to write about and discuss gender, sex, and society, I do so now on my own terms. I have long given up my fear of femininity, although I still prefer the connotation of the Femme, someone who plays Woman with a wink and a smile. Someone whose self expression is defined along internal lines, instead of external constraints. Someone in love with the body and the brain, the sensual and the contemplative. Someone like me. After all, the world will always be a wild, dangerous, confusing place. But somehow, through the beautiful trifles, the pleasurable luxuries of life, delight often carries the day. Through a fine meal, a classical aria, or a pair of tailored trousers that evoke confidence with the swish of quality materials, I can hold the sharp edges of many harsh realities at bay. Like innumerable women before me, I make my magic with a stroke of color, a gracious word, or even a dab of perfume, which, tucked behind the crease of my ear, whispers delightful, wise, wicked little secrets to the woman I grew up to be.