On Wednesday afternoon, I stood in my local Sephora, glazed over. Christmas music was already playing and pounding in my ears.
“Can I help you find anything?” I was asked for the third time in five minutes.
“No…I…um…I’m wandering aimlessly.”
She blinked at me, and I looked down at the deep plum tinted lipstick in my hand, Troublemaker by Urban Decay. I probably seemed confused, and I was–just not about makeup.
I had slept for about two hours the night before. I awakened at 6:00 a.m. with stomach cramps, nausea, and shortness of breath. After spending a few hours curled up on the couch watching the news, I decided that I needed to get outside. I had to be in the world instead of lying down and fearing what it might become. And for some reason in that moment, the place I chose to go was a makeup and beauty store with bright colors, the scent of fifty different blended fragrances, loud music, and cheery employees. The world could have been crumbling, but in there it was business as usual. Maybe that was the allure of it, I wanted to see that in spite of everything that I am afraid will happen, some things will stay the same.
“Would you like to try that on?” Cheerful shop girl asked.
“Yeah, I normally don’t wear stuff this dark. I just want something different.”
After she finished brushing on Troublemaker, I looked in the mirror and was taken aback. The deep purple was vibrant and almost harsh looking, and I was surprised that I liked how harshness looked on me. Years of attempting to look as pretty and soft as possible went out the window. I didn’t want to me mild anymore but bold, wild, and enraged.
“I’ll take it.”
Emboldened with a shopping bag filled with risky cosmetic purchases, I walked in the mall looking in the eyes of my fellow shoppers. No one seemed overly upset or happy. Everyone looked far away engaging in their retail therapy, dissociative shopping experience. Everything going on out there, didn’t exist in here. In here, it’s Christmas, or a once in a lifetime sale opportunity. Scents change from fried chicken to new leather,
scented candles, men’s cologne, and back again.
“Miss. Miss. MISS!”
I look across the mall to see a man at a kiosk waving a wrinkle cream sample in the air in an effort to get me to try some miracle skin solution. His brows furrowed as I kept walking, expressionless. He would not get my typical grinning, “No, Thank you.” I am unlearning my Southern over-politeness. Southern women are taught to always smile, regardless if they are happy, petrified, or sharpening knives behind their back. This sickening sweetness is what my mother always called, “nasty nice,” where the words and the facial expressions didn’t match the intent. It’s not that we are inherently dishonest,
we are just taught from a young age to, “be nice.” It’s the default mode: Smile and be nice, and you won’t get hurt. We comply because we think it will keep us from getting hurt, but it doesn’t. Then we aren’t allowed to share our grief, pain, or anger. The world tells us to keep smiling and to not make trouble. That would be the worst thing a woman could do.
Maybe that’s why I ended up at the damn makeup store after the election. My old conditioning compelled me to try to look pretty, to be a good Southern woman, slap on some lipstick, smile, and get through it regardless of how I felt. I’ve had to tell myself for a long time that was the strong thing to do, but now, I know that the “everything’s gonna be okay,” delusion is just another story victims HAVE to believe. “Everything’s fine” kept me from feeling the weight of the multiple sexual assaults I have endured in this lifetime. If I just smile and take it, it’s all going to work out, right? If I act cute and defenseless, he’ll leave me alone, right?
In a lot ways, women are groomed to be victims from day one. We aren’t encouraged to be assertive. We are told to be nice and smile, be beautiful so we can be an ornament on someone’s arm. If we stopped asking women to smile, get over it, and think positively then they might have to fully feel their victimization. And it’s really hard for us to feel it. We resist being a victim because no one wants to claim that label. No one wants to own their own disempowerment regardless of how present it actually is. We fear that word, that label, will suck us into this deep black hole of helplessness and vulnerability that we will never emerge from. But I am helpless, afraid, angry, and hurt. How can I make my way through it all, if I cannot even face what is here right now? We don’t need to live in that place forever, but we have to open the curtains, shine a light, and take a good damn look around.
On my return trip through the mall back by the eager salesman at the kiosk, I began crossing to the other side, to avoid his gaze. I noticed my desire to shrink and hide, and I quickly swerved back over toward him for just one more chance to practice not smiling, not hiding, and standing in everything the world told me not to be.
To look a man in the eye and tell him “No.”
To not give him the comfort of my smile at my own expense.
To make trouble.
To breathe and to see myself keep walking.