My girlfriend Heidi has a great sense of style. It is theatrical, creative, and always original. I met Heidi when I was eight years old and have had a chance to observe her personal developments and self-presentations grow and change over three decades. Our friendship has always included a strong element of the silly mixed in with the beautiful. We would dress up for high school dances together in classic regalia as easily as we would put floral shower caps and boldly colored wigs on our heads to entertain ourselves as we walked around our neighborhood. Now, Heidi works as an artist model in one of the most theatrically dressed cities in America, becoming the basis for the (Kim Bernadas’s Terpsichore) in New Orleans after Katrina. She is slender, tall, and striking with platinum hair and large dark eyes framed by long, elegant lashes, and often adds to her already statuesque appearance by wearing heels and hats. Heidi, moreover, creates hats in her avocational role as a milliner. It is, in short, always a striking surprise when Heidi walks in the door.
Over the weekend, Heidi and I had an opportunity to go to the opera together. Playful as always, Heidi showed up for the event in elegant tuxedo-inspired couture, complete with a handcrafted fascinator and (drum role) a very finely, penciled in moustache. She looked truly stunning, and we enjoyed the night together as a lovely couple. We laughed over the moustache, but more or less would have forgotten about it were it not for the looks people gave us. Some were genuinely appreciative, others merely curious, and yet others, specifically random men, had the great audacity to say something to her, like, “you have a moustache.” It was sufficient to inspire Heidi to try it again the following day as we popped in and out of shops and restaurants on the street, and sure enough, some guys felt obligated to tell her about face.
What does this mean, I have been wondering, and why have I been so unsettled by the commentary she and I have received? On one level, I have been aware that we may be perceived as a same-sex couple. This phenomenon I have been aware of since we were children. Close female friends, who laugh together and sometimes link arms when walking, especially in the USA, seem automatically to evoke in the public imagination a suspicion of lesbianism. I found the suggestions in high school puerile and irritating, but now I find them imposing and reflective of a deep intolerance of inter-women’s shared energy and joy. But, to be fair, Heidi was wearing a fine, little moustache, which, if nothing else, did broadcast androgyny in Heidi if not couple-hood between us. And, yet, here’s were my radar pings even louder. Why not androgyny? What was it to the passers-by and would-be commentators if we were a couple, or if Heidi always blurred gender presentations in her dress?
I have found myself more and more perplexed that any random man (and we only received male feedback) feels entitled to advise openly a strange woman (or, for that matter, a known one, or even more, anyone at all) on how s/he should look. One stranger man at a bar, who was openly critical of her style and verbal about it, even dared ask me why I was so charmed by my friend. When I ignored him altogether, he patronized me with, “Are you ok?” like a date fishing from his girlfriend for an explanation about her sudden moodiness.
The most striking comment that we heard was perhaps the most benign. A seemingly non-judgmental waiter announced to Heidi, “You have make-up on your face.” Yes, she did. And, so did I. And, so did, I am pretty sure, every other woman in the elegant hotel café where we were sitting. The difference was that my liner was about three inches higher on my face than Heidi’s. How could a single, modest, arguably attractive alternative choice in the placement of decorative pigment cause so much a stir?
The funny thing, as I thought more about it, is that real facial hair on women is treated with cosmetic hostility. It is tweezed, lazared, pulled, bleached, shaved, electrocuted, powered, and waxed, even while fake, playful moustaches have become for handbags, t-shirt designs, textiles, and giftware. What made Heidi’s moustache dangerous was that it was elegant, nonchalant, and worn in the context of female companionship. It was quiet enough to be truly ambiguous, possibly serious, naturally donned, and therefore, really, potentially disruptive because:
It crossed gender lines in an uncomfortable way for some;
It suggested women enjoying each other independently of “real” male attributes;
It was a female appropriation of a typically male facial choice;
It was an alternative approach to female beauty performance;
It did not answer whether we were gay;
It was non-normative.
In the end, our weekend with the eye pencil experience has given me great new insight on costume and perceptions of social placement and acceptability. What is more, what for us was a weekend of some curious looks is for many a daily experience. Disruptions of gender normativity, however banal, are chancy, not because they are merely different, but because they risk disordering power and placement, cues for social interaction, and reproductive real estate. And, my dear, that is truly unacceptable for a proper lady!
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.