Face and Body

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A recent painting. More on my website jngaio.com

As much as I possibly can, I am invested in avoiding the industries and cultures that cultivate dissatisfaction with one’s physicality and mortality.

When I was 16, I remember I had already absorbed the message that in this barely blossomed youth, I was at the peak of my desirability. I clearly remember feeling like it was all downhill from there and by 21, I was already becoming “less hot”. Holy fucking shit, what the actual fuck? This was before social media, this was before the easy availability of porn, Instagram and YouTube makeup tutorials. How must young women be feeling now? You could not pay me to be a teenage girl again, I feel an intense protectiveness towards the ones I encounter now and have to be careful not to let it affect my behaviour towards them in a fashion that might be patronising.

At 34 years old, I feel hotter and more connected to my body and sexuality that I ever did when I was younger, yet I know that I attract less attention from men than I did when I was a teenager. Though I am far more sexually active and confident than I was back then, I do not have the physical attributes of youth that increases the likelihood of street harassment, unsolicited messages and unwanted conversations with older men on public transport. I do not mourn the loss of those things, nor do I feel myself to be lacking in sexual opportunities (though as a kinky, submissive masochist with a penchant for violence, my pool of truly compatible lovers has always been on the narrow side) and in fact I am far more satisfied with my appearance than I was back when. Also, as a sidenote, as I age I receive significantly more attention from queer women, a fact which I am tremendously chuffed about!

But I am defensive of my confidence because I know how easily it is shaken. I only need to stumble across one of the many Instagram accounts of slender teenagers who have hundreds of thousands more followers than me simply for their pretty selfies and I am reminded of our culture’s obsession with youth and a specific sort of beauty.  I only need to skim through a fashion magazine while I wait at the doctor’s office, or sit through the movie previews in a cinema where in 2019, women still have far fewer speaking roles let alone anything with substance… and I am reminded of what our broken culture values in women.

When I was younger, I was already painfully aware of how fleeting my cultural currency of desirability was and it left me feeling despondent and distrusting of the attentions and flattery that I received. During times when I later played into the world of youth obsessed appearances, this did some psychic damage. A couple of years back, I was the submissive to a Dom who ordered me to wear makeup and dress in more conventionally attractive ways and emotional masochist that I am, I accepted the challenge. However, this required my engagement in worlds I normally avoided, shops I had never entered before, tutorials on makeup to laboriously transform oneself into someone more youthful and I started to notice, more and more, what “hot” women looked like and how they cultivated this.

The results were an emotional mixed bag. On the one hand, it was actually thrilling to gain insight into the alchemical magic that is the ways in which clothing and lipstick can transform us into something seductive and more then human. Learning how to wield the war paint that is makeup was thrilling and as a queer femme I developed a long-lasting love for the powers of shimmering pigments and smoky framed eyes.  Yet becoming familiar with what my Dom found attractive required an acute intimacy with mainstream male desire and it made me painfully aware of my aging with a sickening sense of myself as disposable. Within a culture that fetishizes female youth and beauty, we women have a very short self-life.

When my relationship with that Dom ended, I realised how relieved I was to no longer be required to expose myself to the brutality of an image-centric industry. Though I had discovered much about my sexuality and a certain sort of power in representing myself as hyper-feminine, the regular engagement with and concern for my appearance’s adherence to the heteronormative male gaze was ultimately a major cause of anxiety and compromised self-esteem. When one values and prioritises their art, their friendships, their sexual and romantic connections, their spiritual development and education… these are things that can only increase over time. But beauty, as defined by our narrow standards, is fleeting and the attempt to hold to it too tightly wreaks havoc on one’s mental health and sense of self.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to look good, there is nothing wrong with teenagers putting on makeup, taking selfies and looking generally amazing on social media, a healthy dose of vanity and self-love is a lovely thing in my opinion. What makes me feel protective of these girls is when the only thing on their social media is those photos. If the attention they receive from the world is solely based on their looks and beauty, I cannot help but sense that this must fill them with a profound sense of anxiety and perhaps set them up for the aging process to only be traumatising. After all, if our value is heavily invested in our looks, what happens when time snatches our beauty away? And of course this only speaks of the experience of young women who are able to look conventionally attractive in the first place, many don’t and never will which further deepens my conviction that our obsession with female beauty is emotional violence against women. All women.

To age in comfort is a privilege and I am lucky to be able to keep myself within a bubble of community that values many things beyond physical appearance. I am lucky that the compliments I receive most regularly revolve around my honesty, my vulnerability, my open mindedness, my compassion and my art. This means that when lovers compliment me on my sexiness and beauty, I am able to receive some enjoyment from the compliments instead of only experiencing the fear of unavoidable loss as the years reveal themselves in the shifting landscapes of my face and body.

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