Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Picture Perfect: Lessons in the War for Self-Love

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Picture Perfect: Lessons in the War for Self-Love

Article excerpt

"The CEO doesn't like your picture. He wants you to take another one," my female supervisor told me with a hint of apology in her voice.

It was the second time my photo was found wanting.

I had just started as the Equal Employment Opportunity Officer at a local hospital. I was responsible for investigating employment discrimination complaints and required to post my picture and contact information throughout the hospital so employees would know where to find me. Wearing a Hillary Clinton power suit from Macy's, I had gone downtown to one of those places where you stand in front of a white screen and somebody takes your photo. I was a barefaced twentysomething and my straight black hair fell to my shoulders. I flashed my brightest happy-to-be-alive smile for the camera.

But when I showed the passport-sized prints to my boss, she told me I needed to have the photo taken by a guy in the communications department. I dressed the same way for the second photo: suit, straight black hair, no lipstick or makeup. I stood in the hospital hallway against a shiny, tan tile wall and he took multiple pictures. We finally got a good one, or so I thought, until I found out about the CEO's reaction.

"What's wrong with it this time?" I asked my boss. She didn't have an answer. From her silence, I could only draw one conclusion: I was too plain. She was implying I should wear makeup or glam it up some other way. To say the CEO didn't like my picture meant that he, and perhaps even my supervisor, found something inherently unacceptable about my face-about me. But my boss couldn't say these things to me, the person in charge of investigating employees' discrimination complaints.

This wasn't just about me playing nice and taking a pretty picture. It was about something much bigger. It was about the spoken and unspoken rules concerning how women should look in the workplace. The ways we comment on and criticize a woman's appearance even when it's irrelevant. It was about the many ways women's autonomy and bodies are infringed upon every single day.

But first, it was about my own complicated struggle to meet others' expectations and accept my skin. My color. My hair. Myself.

As a kid, I sat on the side of our aqua-green bathtub scrubbing my knees and elbows with Ajax until they began to bleed. Granny stood in the threshold of our small bathroom and looked down at me with pursed lips as she monitored my progress.

"They're too dark," she said. I cried silently because my skin was still black beneath the blood-streaked paste, because my raw skin hurt, and because I had disappointed Granny.

When I was in junior high, I learned to hide my face. Granny made me wear my Aunt Jennye's makeup to cover my acne and the dark patches around my mouth. But it wasn't just any makeup. It was Dermablend, which people with skin pigmentation diseases use to even out their complexion. Aunt Jennye, Granny's older sister, had vitiligo-white spots covered her Hershey's Kisses-colored skin.

I'm surprised Granny allowed me to wear makeup, because I grew up Pentecostal. According to the church, it was a sin for women to wear makeup, lipstick, fingernail polish, or anything that enhanced our natural appearance. Perhaps she thought God would forgive a woman for wearing makeup if its purpose was to cover up her flaws.

I stopped wearing Dermablend after an incident with another aunt. One day, while wearing a full face of makeup, I reached down to give Auntie Annie Lou a hug and got makeup all over the shoulder of her baby-blue silk dress. Everything stopped. I felt the temperature rising in my face. I just wanted to melt into a puddle of brown makeup soup and slide into the gutter.

"I'm so sorry, Auntie!" I kept saying.

"That's okay, baby," she replied.

She smiled and never mentioned it again. But covering up my imperfections wasn't worth the embarrassment of leaving my face on other people's clothes. …

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