Sunday was a day to do laundry, groceries, go to the gym and the beauty salon, which occupied a good 2 hours of the day. Barbie did not have time to read the paper.
When I arrived at the salon, my plan was to get a simple mani-pedi, however, the Vietnamese girl doing my pedicure had other ideas. “You get waxed now” she instructed me with an encouraging smile and “and threading, too. We make you look young”. This was completely unsolicited on my part but the promise of youth through threading was too tempting to refuse. As I sat obediently while she ran the two threads over my eyebrow area, upper lip and chin, I heard the same refrain repeated to the other women in the salon: “We make you look young”. For those unfamiliar with threading, the two threads are quickly twisted to rip a number of fine hairs from the hair shaft repeatedly and the sensation is akin to being poked with dozens of small needles simultaneously. It is a kind of torture that is tolerable at first but becomes increasingly unbearable as the process continues. “Just a bit more” the girl said brightly, “We make you look young”. By the time she was done, I was suitably smooth and put up no resistance when she said I should get a flower painted on my toenail. Lest you think that this extreme grooming is easy or cheap, let me assure you it is neither.
However, there is part of me that says, women are kind of lucky we have this ability to transform ourselves with a little store-bought hair, nail enamel and make-up. We can fool the casual passer-by even when the bloom is off the rose. Having lived in South America for many years, I observed first-hand the penchant of Latin women to wear make-up, skirts and heels for any and all occasions: certainly for the office and in most cases to buy groceries or meet a woman friend for coffee. When I first moved there and encountered it, I was scornful and uninterested in changing my practical sweatsuit attire for skirts and high heels when attending a birthday party for 3 year-olds. But that version of ubiquitous femininity slowly seeped into my consciousness. In truth, this Barbie did not spring into being from a tabula rasa; I had had years of experience applying petroleum by-products to my face. For some reason, I thought things were quite different back in Canada, my homeland of modern values and no gender stereotypes.
One of my friends commenting on the Barbie project said that she had learned that feminism vs femininity is not an either-or proposition. The fact is, this whole issue is so complex it makes my head spin just to think about it. I am far from an expert and wasn’t around when feminism meant burning your bra nor was I in the workforce when a female powersuit was de rigueur; my generation was bequeathed the “women can have it all” theory of life. According to this utopic vision, there are no set gender roles and both women and men live in perfect and seamless harmony, both working full-time, raising kids together and keeping house while serving up healthy, organic home-cooked meals. It looks to me like that same edenic view prevails today. Feminism might be a non-issue, were it not for the fact that one of the few ways to actually live this dream is to have full-time domestic help, which is way beyond most people’s budget. Here in North America, people have to choose: one spouse pours more energy into work and the other into the home. Sometimes they trade spots but inevitably, choices have to be made. Ironically, in South America where domestic help is cheap (for all kinds of reasons I don’t need to explain), working women actually do get to have it all. Femininity in the Barbie image – I should stress among the wealthier social classes – is not equated with being submissive and ditzy. The most powerful women in positions of responsibility in banks, government and industry are always groomed to a T.
I do not deny that Latino culture is still a very macho place and that brings its own set of problems, never mind that you would not be comfortable there if by any chance you happen to be outside the “male-man wanting his female-woman” definition of gender identity. However, the years I spent there did make me appreciate how good it feels to use a little assistance to play up your assets and splash in the fountain of youth for just a while longer. I am going to have to leave for another day some of the other tangents that spin out from this: whether men can do or are doing the same thing; whether it is unimportant for them and money and power are the only perfume they need to win in the mating game; what this means in terms of our inevitable advance to the time when no amount of assistance is going to perk up the wilting rose; whether there is something inherently demeaning in women grooming themselves to fit an uber-feminine image or whether this is simply an expression of personal style. At the very least, it is hard to say it is completely irrelevant.
And on that note, I will say goodnight for today – with a few photos of my office Barbie outfit on the sunny streets of Toronto.