FINDING LIBERATION IN SPARKLE EYESHADOW
Despite my feminist mother’s best efforts I’ve always loved the colour pink, makeup, frills, sparkles, flowing scarves and anything and everything girly. She raised me to be strong-willed and independent; a woman who believes in her worth, isn’t afraid to voice an opinion and values her intelligence. Someone who can use a power drill, change a fuse AND kill her own bugs (admittedly with some reluctance and shrieking as far as the bugs go). But although my mum tried hard to raise me outside of girly stereotypes, apparently they were innate in me. As soon as I could, I chose pink and glitter.
In high school I was still all about dressing up. I changed my hair colour almost weekly and played with makeup and fashion in the typical teenage experimental journey of self-discovery. I started playing electric bass when I was 15 and I distinctly remember the day I realised that if I wanted to play with any seriousness I would have to sacrifice my long fingernails - usually painted black or red - and the small metal rings I was wearing through tips of them (it was the 90’s ok!?).
As I started working outside my high school bands, I began to see how I was being perceived by the (generally) older men in the jazz world I was growing up in. I received my fair share of sexist and inappropriate remarks, but retrospectively the comments that seem to have had the longest lasting effect on me were those about my girly appearance. Being regularly referred to as the “little blonde girl on bass” made me want to do anything I could to blend in with the boys; whatever I could to be seen as a bass player before being seen as a girl. So for a long time I did just that. I wore black loose fitting pants and long jackets. I didn’t make much effort with my hair. I intentionally wouldn’t wear makeup, telling myself that the guys in my bands didn’t have to worry about any of that, they just had to turn up and play.
The desire to visually blend in with the guys grew into an invisible armour I created, an effort to protect myself from the comments that were left unsaid. I felt like every time I walked into a new situation; a gig with a new band, a jam session or a rehearsal with musicians I didn’t know, I had to prove myself and come at it with a professionalism, seriousness and intensity that would shatter any doubts people had about this “little blonde girl” the moment they had them.
Before I moved to the States to study I had the great pleasure of touring New Zealand with Steve Smith (the great fusion drummer). At the end of the tour his wife, who had come along for the trip, pulled me aside and said, “You’re a great bass player but you really need to figure out a ‘look’, then you’ll go far”. At the time I was incredibly affronted by this, annoyed that she would assess my fashion efforts alongside my bass skills, implying they were of equal importance for the success of my career. And more importantly, I felt this was something that wouldn’t have even occurred to her to say to any of the male musicians on the tour.
My protective armour solidified around me and, looking back, it ended up being far stronger than was probably needed. Feelings of needing to prove myself because I was a girl were certainly warranted some of the time, but I ended up with an intensity that began to turn me into the very type of judgmental musician I was trying to protect myself from. And it’s hard to be creative and musically open-hearted when you’re barricaded behind a thick wall of self-protection.
As I’ve grown older and more confident in my musical abilities I’ve felt this armour slipping away, and in the last few years I’ve let more of my inherent girliness back into my life. I have a rose gold waterfall phone case, I chose the sparkle finish for my in-ear monitors, and I spend time dressing up and putting on makeup because it makes me feel good about performing and being on stage. I do believe, now, that part of a live performance is the visual element. That people come to a show to hear something great but also to be entertained by what they see as well. And yes, for me it’s often sparkly, glittery makeup because after all these years I still find a great deal of pleasure in the things that sparkle and shine. (One day I’ll match my eyeshadow to the sparkle finish p-bass of my dreams.)
Though most people I meet in the industry and on the road are awesome and totally respectful, occasionally I still feel some doubt or judgement when meeting a new male engineer or crew member for the first time. Men who are maybe still locked into the antiquated mindset where women don’t play rhythm section instruments. The difference is that now I’m better at depersonalising it and more confident in my own experience. So when an engineer second guesses me, perhaps suggesting I don’t know where the line-out should be taken from my rig or something similar (that I don’t think happens all that often to my male counterparts), I smile, trust in the knowledge I have of my gear, and (usually) keep my cool. Knowing that he’ll eventually figure out I was right about the line, and that there isn’t really much to be gained by getting overly annoyed at the situation.
Letting sparkles back into my life has been a liberating experience. It feels like the long letting go of a breath, held in for years. I still have my insecurities and doubts, but I don’t worry any more about whether I look too girly to be taken seriously. I know it’s not my problem and if someone is holding on to that kind of silly stereotype the best thing I can do is crush it musically, sparkle eyeshadow and all.
Photo: at the Grand Ole Opry in the Women of Country Dressing Room, performing with Brandy Clark.