This past weekend one of my oldest and dearest friends came down from New York City for the weekend. Amy and I have known each other since junior high school. We’ve watched each other go through all the ups and downs of adolescent life and the experimentation of our early adult years. And through it all, we have never stopped being friends. We may not always talk on a regular basis. We might go through long stretches of time where we don’t see each other. But every time we get together, we pick up as if there was never a gap, never a lull in conversation. It always just feels natural.
This, I understand, is not usual. Most people drift apart as they grow and change and explore and move into their adult personas, but Amy is one of those rare individuals who just accepts people as they are. Utterly and truly. I pointed out to her once that it was pretty remarkable that she remained my friend through some pretty outrageous stuff and she just looked at me, almost confused, and said, “Why would I stop liking you just because we don’t believe the same thing?” I really want more people like that in the world.
There is something special about people who have known you for that long. They have a picture of you that you can’t really hide from. You have no choice but to be utterly yourself. Amy has seen me through a lot. She has seen me at my best and my worst. She also knows things about me that often escape my own attention–like my reluctance to spend money on myself and the consequences thereof. I have no idea if she intended to help me out with this problem when she came to visit, but that is exactly what happened.
On Saturday we took the train into center city to walk around, do a little shopping, see some sights, and meet up with our sweeties later for a bite to eat. I honestly did not intend to spend much money. I threw out the idea that if I found a great deal on a pair of sandals or if I saw a few t-shirts I might pick them up, but I know myself and my ability to walk away from these things. It wasn’t a real threat, but I was fretting about it anyway. Corvus just said to me, “Do what you need to do.” In other words, “Spend what you need to get the clothes you need.”
Need? Wow. Need is a very hard concept for me. I mean, I have clothing, it fits me. It may be old, worn, frayed, falling apart, etc., but I don’t *need* new clothes, do I? Fortunately Amy was there to help me answer that question. The answer was, “Yes. Yes you do need clothes. Desperately.”
She followed me all over the city, made me actually try things on, suggested options I wouldn’t have considered, went in search of different sizes, and helped me find really good deals on clothes, shoes, and essentials. She even provided the gentle push I needed at a couple of points where I was close to caving in to the panic.
At the end of the day I had a number of nice outfits that would take me through the summer, and well beyond, without having spent a ridiculous amount of money. I can’t even begin to describe what a difference I felt this past week. I hadn’t realized how unattractive I was feeling. I put on my new summer dress and there is a bounce in my step. I feel pretty. Light. I feel like a girl…
Like a girl?
I have been mulling this thought over in my head all week–in between admiring what my new bra and flattering shirt do to my breasts, of course. “What does that mean?” I fretted. “Have I bought into media stereotypes? Am I embracing traditional and destructive ideas of feminine beauty? Have I traded in my feminist card for a few flouncy cotton t-shirts and a floral dress? Is the patriarchy hiding in my soft-pink pima-cotton cardigan?”
Of course I ask these questions in jest, but it did get me thinking about my own relationship to beauty, feminity, fashion, and feminism.
A phone conversation with my mom on Sunday afternoon added a further wrinkle to the topic. She was absolutely giddy over my young cousin who had shown up to a family wedding in a dress. This cousin is notorious for her dislike of all things traditionally feminine. It goes beyond the tomboy realm. For much of her life she repeatedly insisted that she wanted to be a boy. That she only liked boy things. And boy clothes. And went through a spell where she talked about “When I have a girlfriend…” before she either passed through it or learned to keep those feelings to herself. When I tell you that many of my family members are extremely conservative and very Christian Midwesterners, I’m sure you can imagine how comfortable they have been with this. Yeah, not very comfortable at all. I mean, when I finally started dating a boy and got married you could practically hear the collective sigh of relief. I don’t think they even minded all that much that we lived together for a couple of years in sin before finally getting married. I don’t think they understand what bisexual means.
So anyway, this poor kid has been bombarded her whole life with messages that she needs to be more feminine. Every decision she makes–about what to wear, the activities she participates in, the friends she has–everything–is scrutinized and commented on. And now in her teenage years, those messages are sinking in. Fast. I am kept informed about her attempts at using makeup, curling her hair, wearing dresses, high heels–the whole nine yards. I know she needs to explore and experiment, but I am angry at my family for not just giving her the space and room to become who she is.
I know my own relationship with how I look, who I am, what I think, and the way I express myself was partially formed in response to the world around me. I mean, there is a basic personality component that goes into who you are, but many of my expressions throughout my adolescence were reactions to and against the boundaries, definitions, and input I received from my family. She needs her own boundaries to push up against and react to in order to begin to solidify her own thoughts and ideas. But I feel for her, because whether she wants to wear the dress or not, it will always carry with it this commentary from her family, the church she attends, her schoolmates, the media, etc.
And I can’t help myself. When they bring these things up, I am constantly reprimanding them for giving her praise for “being a girl.” As if there aren’t a million ways to be a girl. Have we learned nothing? And why is so much of it about how she looks? I am very conscious when I deal with her about being careful not to do the same thing they are doing, but from the opposite direction. I don’t want to discourage her from anything she wants to do and explore–even if it is dresses and makeup and high heels. I just want her to be comfortable. To feel like herself. To be happy with who she is. A dress isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s all about how it makes you feel. In the end, she’s a smart kid, and I really trust her to reason through all the messages she’s received and come up with her own approach to the world that she can feel good about.
I guess at the end of the day, we don’t live in a vacuum. Our ideas are not entirely our own. They come from the culture we live in, the messages we receive from our family, friends, lovers, schools, government, etc. The key is critical thinking and awareness of how certain messages (both positive and negative) influence us. There is nothing inherently wrong with me feeling beautiful in a dress. But there is something wrong with translating that into a message that says every woman needs one to feel beautiful, or worse–that how they look is more important than who they are or what they think.
This past week there was a rash of posts all over the blogosphere linking to an article in Newsweek, which profiled a group of geeky, smart nerd girls. Hot, geeky, smart nerd girls. The article is called “Revenge of the Nerdettes,” and don’t even get me started on the diminutive “ette.” What is so special about them, apparently, is not that they are smart, but that they wear high heels and makeup and short shorts or something like that, while they do smart, engineering things. LAME!
As I said above, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being beautiful, wearing makeup, putting on a dress, high heels (although I personally think those are the patriarchy’s worst invention ever). I am all about women being who they are and being smart, but why is there so much focus on how they look? Why aren’t we just talking about how smart they are? Why do we have to convince everybody that, “Hey, they’re smart, but it’s okay, they’re still girls. See? They like high heels!” Maybe it’s because the wave of feminism I rode throughout high-school and my early adult years was so fixated on destroying ridiculous and harmful notions of beauty and getting rid of the objectification of women, but I am not excited about this.
I want someone to focus on smart women, not their penchant for lip gloss and shopping. And while we are at it, it would be nice if it weren’t such a big shocking deal that there are women in engineering, math, science, and technology. I get that it is, because right now this is simply not an area women are encouraged to excel in. And I don’t want to be a big, overly serious jerk about the attention these women are getting, because younger women and girls need people to look up to. But why do they have to get the message that how they look is also going to be on the table? Be smart girls, but be careful not to end up like those ugly smart chicks. Is that really progress? Am I hopelessly outdated here? Do I need to learn to be excited about anything that gets more girls and women interested in traditionally male-dominated professions and industries? Is this a sign that things are changing–that you can be anything you want to be as a woman who is smart and intelligent? The answer might be yes. I mean, I love a hot geeky woman as much as the next person. And I think that having sexuality and being in control of it is critical to true equality. So maybe I need to be more excited about this than I have been. Food for thought.
There have been a number of other related ideas floating through my head on this topic, but this has gotten much longer than I intended. I think I’ll save a few of my other questions and general musings for another day…