I’ve always been in awe of women who don’t give a f*ck about society's superficial expectations.
“You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.”
I gasped aloud when I first read this quote by Erin McKean (which is often mistakenly credited to famed fashion editor Diana Vreeland). I was mindlessly scrolling through one of my social media newsfeeds when a meme bearing these four sentences shifted my entire reality.
It seems like such a simple, obvious concept that I’m still embarrassed to say that until that moment, the thought had never crossed my mind. Never once, in all my years of listening to peers and adults reinforce the idea that I “needed” to be attractive to be valid as a person, did I ever stop to think, “Actually, no. I really don’t. None of us do.”
Oh, I’ve always suspected it. I’ve always been in awe of women who don’t give a single f*ck about society's superficial expectations. Women who don't waste time even balking at what other think they "should" look like have always been the kinds of broads I have deeply admired and gravitated toward.
But no matter how much I idolized gals who refused to subject themselves to this endless pursuit of superficial perfection, I couldn't break out of the mentality that I have to play this game no matter what.
Shamefully, in my adolescence, my deep resentment for women who made the rigor of “achieving” conventional beauty look effortless often bubbled over into outright cruelty toward them. I was so steeped in my own self-loathing under this idea that I was constantly “failing” to live up to this expectation of what it means to be a competent female and it made me into a disgusting person on the inside.
...And it was all bullsh*t.
I never stopped to question this idea of mandatory beauty because everyone around me did their very best to convince me that physical attractiveness is simply a requirement for women. I heard it nonstop growing up.
Older relatives warned me: “It’s important for a lady to have nice hands/hair/skin if she wants to be taken seriously in this world.” My grandmother told me about a woman she knew who couldn't get a job until she'd lost 50 pounds and how her own doctor said he would refuse to deliver her baby if she gained more than 30 pounds. Hell, even my forward-thinking Girl Scout Handbook had a badge in the late 90s called “Looking Your Best” that emphasized how important it was to keep up appearances as we were transitioning into women.
Anytime I saw a high-powered, successful woman in the media or movies, she was in haute couture, coiffed and painted for the gods, while women who weren’t obsessed with staying on-trend were sneered at and mercilessly mocked. I came of age during the era that Will Farrell played Janet Reno on Saturday Night Live, and I got the message: A woman could be a badass US Attorney General and everyone will still fixate on how she looks — a trial that men rarely undergo.
It’s no secret this allegiance to ever-changing, arbitrary beauty ideals is deeply embedded in our culture, but I genuinely never stopped to think that I could just...opt out.
Suddenly, it washed over me: I don't have to be pretty. I don’t have to be an iconic public figure like Grace Jones, Frida Kahlo, Divine, or Maya Angelou to eschew and openly denounce societal norms. It’s more radical to just be myself in a world where we’re encouraged to look like someone else — something the Body Positive movement has been preaching for years.
My first step was shaving my head. I’d thought of getting a pixie cut since I first saw Winona Ryder rocking one in the late 90s, but was always terrified to because I have thick, healthy hair that people have constantly told me was one of my best assets.
But then I recognized that a) having 'good hair' is a superficial compliment and definitely IS NOT one of my best qualities and b) it's f*cked up to feel obligated to keep my full mane just because other people wanted me to. I marched into a local beauty parlor and demanded it all to be chopped off in an only slightly less dramatic Waiting to Exhale salon-scene moment.
Courtesy of Elena Caron Photography
I lost two pounds of hair and 30 years of pressure that day. No matter how badly those around me reacted to my look (and there were criticisms eeeeverywhere, even from the people closest to me), it was the lightest and most free I’d felt in years.
So began a trend of actively seeking out what made me happiest with how I feel in my body, which was more of a process than I expected. As much as I’d like to say I suddenly threw up my middle fingers to the world and went all punk all the time, I quickly realized that I’d invested so much time listening to what others thought looked good that I wasn’t really sure what my personal preferences were right away.
I didn’t know what would make me most comfortable and happy because I’d never given myself permission to do so until then out of fear that I'd be unlovable if I stepped out of line.
I’ve made the most progress by closing my eyes, feeling my spirit encompass my body, and asking "Does this feel okay? Do YOU like this?" This mantra has been my anchor when my mind wants to wander back to its deeply-rooted indoctrination of self-doubt and self-denial. It reminds me to quit worrying about how I measure up to those around me, throw away the damn measuring stick, and explore my own aesthetic, no matter what that is for the day.
Sometimes I’m glammed up, most days I’m not, but every day I’m unabashedly myself. I don’t owe anybody an explanation or apology if they don’t like how I’m wearing my real self; those poor souls are missing the point altogether.