Feminism behind closed doors

April 03, 2000|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

A feminist conference seemed the ideal place to catch women where so many stereotypes about them exist: the public bathroom. You've heard the jokes before -- about the endless lines, the gossip, the manic primping, the inability to enter without an entourage.

But for many women attending the Feminist Expo 2000, which ended yesterday at the Baltimore Convention Center, there was minimal vanity.

They seem to agree that beauty and bathroom regimens are private and should not be held up as a yardstick for how seriously a woman takes feminism or herself.

"A lot about feminism comes down to free will," says Spenta Kandawalla, 22, a student at Miami University of Ohio, as she washes her hands. "If women are making themselves look how they want to look, that's fine. That's feminism in action."

But are you a different feminist inside the restroom than you are outside? And does any concern with appearances diminish the feminist identity?

"You can wear a dress and wear makeup and have long hair and still be a feminist," says Nicole Dillon, 24, of Queens, N.Y. "I don't feel like any less of a feminist because I wear makeup."

Dillon, a volunteer at the conference, pulls her shiny brown hair into a ponytail. She's wearing light peach lipstick and a hint of eyeliner. Dillon says that some feminist acquaintances have criticized her for wearing makeup.

As far as we observed, concealer and lipstick made only an occasional appearance. Combs and brushes came out frequently, but no marathon mascara sessions were taking place and no multi-tiered makeup kits were removed from purses. In fact, many women didn't even carry handbags into the restroom.

The lines were manageable, considering practically the entire building was filled with women, and the sink-side discussions were mainly about the last seminar the women had attended.

And most did not enter the restroom in packs.

"As an independent woman, I hate group things," Dillon says. Not only is she annoyed by the myth that women can only go to the bathroom in packs, she's also annoyed by the very notion of a woman's room. "More women should go in men's restrooms," says Dillon, who adds that all bathrooms should be unisex.

That's exactly what was happening at the conference.

"I spent most of the weekend in the men's room because the lines here are too long," Kandawalla says. But she attributes the lines to the sheer volume of women, not their dawdling.

You won't find Jacquelyn Humenik, 20, preening in front of the mirror. She doesn't wear any makeup at all.

"I just don't feel it's necessary," says the University of Richmond student. It takes her 20 minutes tops to get ready in the morning. Her mother's nagging her to wear lipstick when she was younger contributed to her anti-makeup stance.

You could say Humenik, who has a bandanna tied around her head, has got the natural look down.

But the "natural look" is a myth in itself, says Cathryn Hughes, 20, a member of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance at the New College of the University of South Florida. It's a matter of "how much can you put on to look like you haven't put anything on."

She takes pains to perfect her short, spiky blond hair. And with her eyebrow ring and multiple earrings, she seems more into piercing than beauty products. But Hughes says she's not caught up in the glamour game. Still, she's convinced there are secret primpers in the crowd.

"When you catch someone at it," she says, "it's funny."

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