How Riot Grrrls Shaped My Beauty Philosophy

I’m not trying to be beautiful because that’s what someone decided girls are supposed to do.
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I’m not trying to be beautiful because that’s what someone decided girls are supposed to do.

When I was just a wee bairn, my understanding of feminism was very limited. I thought of my folk-music-loving mother, her liberal arts college classmates from the 1960s, maybe someone who looked like Judy Collins on the cover of Hard Times for Lovers, bra burners, the entertainingly hairy women in The Joy of Sex (yes, I found my dad’s copy), and the women on the cover of Our Bodies, Ourselves. In short, I thought feminism was something that had occurred in the past, and I learned about it solely while snooping through my parents’ things.

By 1989, I was right at the edge of puberty and had moved to a new city, which is just a horrible combination of events for a girl aged 12. I felt unsure of myself and all the gangly, zitty things that were happening to me. 

At the same time, a perfect storm of pop culture and personal experience began to accumulate. My older brother started college and began sending home cassettes full of alternative and college rock. Motley Crüe and Tesla gave way to Fugazi and The Stone Roses. I read Sassy religiously and learned about ‘zines. I finally convinced my father to buy me a pair of Doc Martens from Wilson’s Leather at the mall because that’s the only place I could find them.

My older brother’s hat (I’m a Mets fan) and no makeup

My older brother’s hat (I’m a Mets fan) and no makeup.

By eighth grade, I saw myself as “eccentric” and “not popular with boys.” Just the same, I had a few friends and managed to keep my head above water. My ugly middle school memories could have been so much worse, and I appreciate that. However, one defining moment sticks out to me. 

While climbing the stairs to our next class, a boy grabbed at the back of my friend’s jeans. As I watched him grope her, I could see the shame on her face. “Hey, I don’t think she asked you to do that!” I yelled at him. He said something to me, I can’t remember what exactly. The basic message was, “You have a big lesbian crush on your friend because you can’t get boys to like you,” or some such. Rolling my eyes, I turned to my friend, ready to ditch the guy, and her expression said it all: “You’re embarrassing me.”

I can’t remember the exact order of events. I just know that somewhere in my 14th year, things came together in my head: my friend saying with her eyes that she’d rather be handled by boys than raise a fuss and appear unattractive, my picture of Kurt Cobain (a proud feminist, not female nor folk singer) smiling out from my locker, a boy calling me “alternative” in the same tone of voice you’d use to tell someone they have a turd stuck to the back of their pants, my dad telling me that boys like blonde hair and why would I ruin it with Kool Aid, Kathleen Hanna singing about standing up for her girlfriends and not staying quiet like a good girl. I embraced the idea (as much as a teenager could) that I would not dress to please or appease others. Imagine a tamer, more eloquent, “It’s my body, I do what I want!”


For those who may not be familiar, the Riot Grrrl movement was born in the early ‘90s as an underground, punk rock music scene and activist subculture. Bikini Kill, fronted by Kathleen Hanna, and other bands such as Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy confronted issues such as domestic abuse, reproductive choice, sexuality, racism, and the patriarchy. Within the scene, women produced their own fanzines and art as a way to create a voice that had been ignored in punk culture.

As I read more, listened to more music, and talked to other kids, I learned more about myself and what kind of person I wanted to be. I might have been spending my after school hours playing field hockey rather than making my own ‘zine, but that Riot Grrrl ideology stuck with me. Even when I was listening to the Carpenters or Prince, I was a Riot Grrrl at my core.

Kathleen Hanna, Olympia, WA, 1993, by Alice Wheeler

Kathleen Hanna, Olympia, WA, 1993, by Alice Wheeler

Third wave feminism emerged during the same period and challenged the second wave’s definition of femininity. Without getting into a major essay about the history of feminism, I will point out that third wave feminism not only broadened its scope to address the experiences of women across race, class, and sexual orientation, but it ushered in a brand of “girly” feminism. Femininity and sexual expression became tools to fight objectification.

Personally, my look became a mix of under-groomed tomboy and exaggerated “kinderwhore,” neither of which my family especially appreciated. One day, I would wear a dress from the thrift shop with knee-high stockings. On another day, I might wear men’s jeans and a tee without appropriate undergarments. I’m a little bit Kathi Wilcox, I’m a little bit Carrie Brownstein.

That dress was in heavy rotation (the coat was something I wore for “spirit week,” if I remember correctly).

That dress was in heavy rotation (the coat was something I wore for “spirit week,” if I remember correctly).

In the same year, I decided to shave part of my head.

In the same year, I decided to shave part of my head.

I wore little makeup. I preferred a bare face and I didn’t learn to pluck my eyebrows until college. Sometimes I might wear dark lipstick or nail polish. Sometimes I’d shave my legs. I’d cut and dye my hair willy-nilly. 

I try to put a little more thought into my choices these days, if only because I’m too tired to change so often.


I could have drawn up a tutorial about Riot Grrrl makeup. I could have suggested a drugstore eyeliner that mimics the ones we used to burn with cigarette lighters before we smudged them on, but y’all don’t really want to see a closer-to-40-than-to-20-year-old woman dressed in her high school costume, and besides, the Riot Grrrl didn’t have a look so much as she had a philosophy. (I do know a good eyeliner, though.)

I don’t wear baby doll dresses or ringer tees anymore. Or wait--I might, but not all in the same week. I no longer shave my own hair or dye it blue. I do enjoy a nice matte lipstick and purposely undone hair, of course. What stays with me, however, is this idea that I can use makeup and beauty products to express myself, or fix perceived flaws, or to feel a little livelier because that’s what I want for myself. I can decide to not use them at all.

I’m not trying to be beautiful because that’s what someone decided girls are supposed to do. I can want to be sexy. I can want to have sex without feeling obligated to just because I look a certain way. I try to make decisions about what I buy based on what I think will be pampering, pretty or fun, and not based on my insecurities or “what men like.”

Ultimately, I am my talent and my intellect and my choices. I can still voice my opinion and stand up for what I think is right. What I look like isn’t everything, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun with it.