Before I married my husband, I referred to him as my partner. I thought of this when I met Alexandra Kleeman in Denver, Colorado for a reading I cohosted. She referred to the person she was with as her partner and I realized, I don’t do that anymore. I used to do it because I’m queer and it made the most sense to me to call him that. He was my partner. Not just my boyfriend, which sounded way less serious to me. But also I started calling him that because same sex marriage hadn’t been legalized yet and every same sex couple I knew could ONLY refer to their long-time spouse as their ‘partner’ and I didn’t support any kind of marriage if same sex marriage wasn’t legal. I didn’t want to get married. I didn’t believe in marriage.
Calling the man I married my husband now seems so… hetero. And for all intents and purposes, I guess I am now hetero. I am very femme, a 180 from how I used to present myself. I feel more like a woman; I used to feel a lot more genderqueer. I used to be a lot more political about my sexuality, used to identify more openly as queer. I still feel queer, but not in the same ways. I feel bisexual. There is my husband, and then there are women that I am attracted to, and the truth is I’ve slowly and certainly ordered my sexuality and how I present myself in this new world of heterosexual married life.
Now that we’re married, we spend a lot of time with other married people. For a long time I didn’t tell any of my married friends about my sexuality. It wasn’t until we went to a local strip club for my husband’s birthday that they probably realized just how queer I was. It was something I think our married friends thought of as a fun novelty, but when we showed up, my husband and I were obviously way more into it. I fucking love women. I love everything about women in erotic and emotional ways.
We don’t go to strip clubs that often anymore, and I hardly discuss my sexuality with anyone, except for one or two bi/queer girlfriends I have, one of whom is also married to a man. It’s not something I think about on the same level anymore, maybe because marriage means finally being comfortable, means not having to seek out sexual partners and think about my sexuality in ways that require me to figure out how to get laid. Dick is on tap, and my husband and I watch porn like all the time. Most of the porn we watch though is girl on girl.
My favorite thing about watching porn with my husband is spotting the fake tan. I spent a year spray tanning naked rich women for money when I was in-between jobs, trying to break into marketing after college. When I watch porn with my husband, I notice the places where the woman’s spray tan isn’t perfect. It isn’t her fault, it’s her technician. I point out the little white half-moons underneath her ass cheeks when she bends over. I point to them on screen and say, “I can do a way better job than that.”
* * *
Beauty and self-presentation have always been an obsession of mine. At 16 I became obsessed with losing weight; in college I was obsessed with presenting myself as androgynous. I shaved my head, or grew out my hair into curls and then reshaved it into a mohawk. At 22, I was already missing two teeth from throwing up my food. I had cystic acne but stopped wearing make up. My right thigh was covered in pink scars from cutting.
In a lot of ways, I loved how being unnaturally thin and having scars made me look. I felt rough, raw, full of sharp edges. I wanted to look dead, damaged, hurt. I didn’t want to embrace anything that might make me feel feminine. I wanted to rebel against it, despite how attracted I was to the female form.
* * *
I met my husband in 2009 and slowly things changed. My looks began to feminize— and by that I mean I adapted features that society views as feminine or femme. I grew out my hair. I wore eyeliner again. I started wearing dresses and imagined my life in a traditional gender role: I’m the lady, he’s the man. I’ll eventually want kids and to stay at home, I’ll clean and cook, and he’ll finish school and get a corporate job and provide. My scars faded into white. I stopped throwing up my food as frequently. I gained weight and fell in love again with my body. I learned a new definition of beauty: you know, how we’re all beautiful no matter our size or shape or what we wear blah blah blah.
When I started working at the spray tanning salon, I realized I was wrong. There, I was surrounded by another kind of beauty. A beauty I’d never had access to. I used to think it was unattainable. The truth is that it’s not unattainable. It just costs a lot of money.
* * *
At the salon, I dressed in cigarette pants and high heels. The manager introduced me to Kerastase and to laser hair removal. She introduced me to her medical aesthetician who used laser therapy to remove my acne (which “worked” as long as I continued to pay $70 every two weeks to treat it). Another woman at the salon, a hair stylist, introduced me to the world of $50, $90 haircuts, to extensions, hair as art, hair color that didn’t come from a box, Brazilian blowouts. Another woman was a professional make up artist who showed me techniques of applying foundation and eyeliner, who introduced me to high end make up products.
At first, I felt like an imposter, like I was hiding a secret past, that I was attracted to women, that there was a more masculine side of me, that I wasn’t a Real Girl™. My boss had worked for Estee Lauder in NYC. She was beautiful, blonde, in her 40s with the skin of a 20 year old, had a gorgeous husband and a kid. She once said to me, “The best way to stop aging is to prevent it as early as possible.” After that she gave me my first glycolic peel.
* * *
It was a very feminized, very straight world. I wondered if I should discuss the realms of sexuality. How that interacted with how I presented myself to the world. I imagined the women I worked with backing away from me towards the door, 18k gold bracelets dangling on their wrists as they turned the knob to leave.
* * *
At first, working with an all-female staff was great for my self-esteem (or so I thought). Every time someone said, “my hair/skin/outfit looks terrible today,” another coworker would come back with “it doesn’t! Your hair color is amazing and your skin looks great, so don’t worry.” I had never met women that were as nice or as terrifying to me.
We pushed each other to do our best on grueling, busy workdays. Often someone would offer to buy lunch or coffee for me if they left on a break, so I would return the favor and do the same. I wondered what would happen if they knew I liked women, if it would be like high school. In high school I never officially “came out,” I just dated girls. We’d hold hands in the lunch line, sit on each other’s laps. Sometimes, people would yell at us. People who weren’t part of our social circle would often comment, “Gross!” And even call it across hallways, stretching out the “o” into “Groooooooss!” long enough for everyone to hear. If someone I didn’t know thought I liked girls, it was an automatic assumption that I wanted to sleep with them, too.
I didn’t know the women at the salon that well. At 23, I made three basic assumptions about anyone that came into that salon:
1. They had money or came from money, even if they were working there (this turned out to be false)
2. They were probably popular in high school and had zero struggles with mental illness or their sense of self (if anyone can accurately judge this about others I’d like to know)
3. They were beautiful, feminine and true to themselves, and I was not.
That is to say, I felt and sometimes still feel like a temporarily embarrassed beautiful person. Like I’m ugly right now but I’ll be beautiful later. I was hiding a past with eyeliner I barely knew how to use. I felt like, even without these people knowing I liked women, or my problems with self-presentation and beauty, they could just sense that I was an outsider. Merely a service provider. And I thought talking about my sexuality or complications would be one more thing that would make that world less accessible to me. I wanted it, and I don’t know if it was because it was a way to erase the acne scars of a terrible past I didn’t want to acknowledge or a way to deny myself. Like laser therapy, make up and lip injections were a new way to utilize the desire to destroy and change what existed into something else. Something new. But this time, instead of making myself look raw and harsh, I wanted to be polished and tumbled into a new pretty gemstone. Something people could look at and enjoy.
* * *
The clientele at the salon were beautiful in a way that only money could buy. I was constantly comparing myself to them, dreaming of a world in which I made more than $8 an hour. The women I spray-tanned looked ready for a photoshoot every single day. They had glamorous hair extensions, expensive dye jobs, skin like you see on magazine models, acrylic nails, designer clothes. They regularly participated in a type of self-grooming that was too expensive for me to maintain. At the time, it gave me a goal: Get Rich, Become Beautiful. We charged $48 for our tans and women came in every week to have them refreshed. I figured that I could one day purchase, learn, practice and then master that type of beauty. All it took was money.
* * *
My husband says I get more beautiful as I age but the truth is that beauty is a skill and I got better at it. Here is a list of things that made me feel beautiful and the cost of each:
Professional hair color $90
Acrylic nails $25
An expensive black eyeliner ~$15
Good foundation $40
A variety of make up brushes $30
False lashes $7 a pop
Hyaluronic acid lip injections $550
Laser genesis $70 for spot treatments
Six grueling months of Accutane courses $758 a month for a total of $4,548
Six skin pen procedures to get rid of acne scars $350 per session
PCOS medication (to keep acne under control) $4/month (thank god for generic medications)
Porcelain tooth crown on front tooth $2,000
Instagram filters lol like .99c or whatever
Spray tan $48 plus tip
* * *
In the private rooms, I got to know the women I sprayed. We offered small stickers for clients to put on their skin so they could see the difference in the color afterward. If a client wore lace, the fake tan would show up underneath and the woman would have these strange but beautiful designs on her thighs and hips.
My process was like this: introduce myself, set up the room with a kabuki brush, a wet hand towel, a dry hand towel, a blow dryer and an air gun. Leave the woman in the room to get undressed.
Then I’d knock on the door. “Are you ready?” I’d ask. Most of the time, the woman would be waiting in the corner. I’d walk in, close the door. Here in the room there’s a shower head, a drain in the floor, dark tile along the floor and walls like a giant shower. The client would stand there, underwear on, no bra. Generally she would issue a warning to me before I got too close, especially if she was older than me, pointing out her deficiencies and flaws, judging herself before I could judge her.
At least once a day, I’d walk into the tanning room and before even saying hello, a woman would say, “I’m so fat.”
Or, “I’m old.”
Or, “I’m sorry I have stretch marks.”
Or, “My breasts are saggy. I have children.”
I felt like it was always some reiteration of I’m sorry for being imperfect. I’m sorry that even after buying beauty over and over again, I don’t feel like the kind of beautiful I’m supposed to be.
I would always come back with encouraging remarks, very typical retail responses like, “Oh honey, you’re not fat/old/saggy.” Sometimes it was awkward. Sometimes I lied.
We all lie, maybe.
There is this pervading cultural sense that women lose value as they age. A marketing tactic of the salon was the hyaluronic acid in our tanning solution, which was “scientifically proven to prevent wrinkles!” and other typical anti-aging promises. The basic message being that this bought-and-paid-for-beauty is good for you! Keeps you young! I feel it. I feel the pressure to be a “hot wife,” to look under 25, and I’m not even 30 yet. Every time I do something to my skin, the ongoing project, I marvel at how smooth it slowly becomes. How I am reversing the last decade-or-so worth of acne damage. How magazine-pretty I am trying to be (I will never actually be magazine-pretty). I think about how good my skin will be if I just keep getting these treatments. I am a temporary embarrassed beautiful person. It’s okay that I’m ugly now.
One woman came out of the tanning room, delicately wrapping her sticky tanned arms around me. Her eyes started to well. I worried that she would ruin the tan on her face.
“Thank you,” she said. “You are so encouraging.”
It was a kind of power I hadn’t experienced before, the ability to make someone feel good about themselves, if only on the outside. It took a kind of trust to be that service provider. These women were entrusting me to make them look good, so I had a responsibility to serve them in that way. When my coworkers reassured me about my own insecurities, it made me feel so good. Like these beautiful people think I’m pretty? It was the same effect.
* * *
A lot of the tanning salon clients were mothers. They were also nurses and accountants, lawyers, housewives, Denver socialites, beauty queens, weight lifters, and sometimes all of those things at once. They were entrepreneurs. They were dancers, body competitors. They were also strippers - soft women with bruises on their thighs and arms.
There was a regular stripper I loved. She always seemed to be high on benzos and had fake breasts that hung so wide, her pale skin was stretched thin across the sternum. Abby* had been a stripper for 14 years, and would often be late to appointments or come in for an hour or two just to talk. She was my favorite because she was so openly flawed, and she seemed so honest. She always brought her Jack Russell Terrier with her and would tell us about her life jumping from home to home, sometimes living in her SUV. She told me about her chronic back pain from dancing. She would do her makeup in the salon and show me the ways she covered up her own cystic acne, a side effect of all the painkillers she was taking.
“Elle, you have to try this laser therapy clinic I go to in Lone Tree,” she said to me during one of our spray tan sessions. I’d watch her put on lip liner and gloss afterwards, just over the lips to make them look slightly bigger. I’d watch her cover up the ice-pick acne scars on her skin with high-end makeup. “I get lip injections but I try not to use it too much.”
I felt like she was sharing her beauty secrets with me. She told me how tanning helped cover up the bruises from hitting the pole and evened out her skin tone.
“Under UV lights no one can tell how bruised you are, anyway,” she said.
“Then why get tanned?” I asked.
“Because all the girls do it,” she said.
The next time I got my own spray tan, I noticed how it covered up the fading scars on my thighs. For $48 I made the skin and scars blend together in a single, even color. Abby knew what she was talking about. I felt close to her, even though I hardly knew her. It was strange to be in that environment. It felt like a kind of love, a place I didn’t have to be afraid.
My skin was now less broken out due to laser therapy treatments, and I was getting glycolic peels regularly. I was wearing MAC makeup to cover up any acne that still existed, had learned how to wing my eyeliner better. My hair had been dyed professionally for one of the first times in my life and was Kerastase-smooth from a Brazilian blowout. I was spending much of my paycheck to look this way, to look like the other women who worked in the salon, to participate in this expensive grooming ritual.
* * *
It’s been about four years since I’ve worked at the salon. Since then, I have not stopped this project of beauty. I use Aveda hair products religiously. I make more than I ever have and spend more of my expendable income on beauty than I ever have. I go through periods where I never see my real nails. I have had my lips injected twice and I will do it again. I have considered plastic surgery.
I think it’s anyone’s right to modify their body however they please. As a desire to get tattoos replaced my immediate desire to cut myself or purge, so has dying my hair or making other immediate changes to myself in order to quell an internal feeling. If I look in the mirror and think “dislike” I can just spend money to make it go away, however temporarily. I recognize that this is a luxury I have slowly developed with the onset of more income. At the same time, I like it. I both like and dislike that I spent $350 a pop on micro needling appointments to smooth out the acne scars in my face. Sometimes I get scared about the obsessive way I feel about my lips, about perfume and makeup. About presentation. It reminds me of my eating disorder. But then I wonder if it’s just morphed into these new habits. The first time I got my lips injected, I felt high. I had never felt so immediately feminine, so in love with my reflection in the mirror. I have 16 tattoos and nothing has felt as good as the first time I got my lips injected. It’s easy to see how it can become addicting. I had to talk myself down, make myself remember that I believe in bodily autonomy. I had to reframe the situation and tell myself I do it because I want to, not because I think I have to. In a sense, that makes it different from self-harm, from the things I did to myself when I hated myself or thought I was ugly— because self-harm was about an immediate reaction to a need. You can’t really reframe self-harm in a way that is socially productive, easier for others to stomach. In a way beauty can be a type of self-harm or a type of violently grabbing back your bodily autonomy that is socially productive.
I married my husband for a multitude of reasons. One was that I really wanted to start thinking about having a family and marriage seemed like the smartest and safest way to facilitate that. I often think about my bisexuality now in terms of where it will fit in the future of my life. Of course I’ll always be attracted to women. Will I one day be a queer working mother, a queer stay at home mother? Are these identities I can live up to or fit in with? What if I go to prenatal yoga classes with other moms? I’ll be thrown back into a world not dissimilar from the world at the salon. I’ll be around women all of the time. What would happen if I met a woman I could fall in love with? Will I feel the same as I used to, as a queer sliding themselves into a straight world because now I look, how society would say, straight? I no longer believe that how I look personally dictates my sexuality outwardly. How do I manage those attractions while also being married to my husband and being bound to a heteronormative life? Does my life now have to be heteronormative because I am married? Does being femme-presenting always have to mean heteronormative?
We are taught to scrutinize ourselves but also others. We are taught to be ashamed of changing ourselves physically even when we have the tools. We are taught that to hold up beauty as a virtue is bad. It’s shallow. Women who spend an inordinate time on themselves are presented by the media as hollow, self-interested, self-loathing. Working at the salon was the perfect intersection to examine women that society deems as shallow and see the ways in which society was wrong, how I was wrong about my own assumptions of beauty that is bought and paid for. It was also perfect for understanding my own femininity and what that meant to me. How it doesn’t always mean I have to look and present as feminine in the ways that I was taught to.
Even though there is a deep, fucked up part of me that will always crave a type of perfection that I can’t attain, buying beauty has actually allowed me to loosen the reigns a little on self-presentation.
When I sprayed Abby, she would say, “Honey, don’t forget under the breasts,” and lift them up for me. She would talk to me about blending the tanner so it looked realistic. Then she’d bend over, her ass right in my face, to make sure those tiny half-moons didn't show up underneath her asscheeks. I’d blend it for her, making sure I perfected the parts of her that even she couldn’t see.