In the last four years, I’ve dyed my hair super-platinum blonde (so white that I regularly used blue shampoo), a Joan Holloway red and, a new to me, brown. It has been cut short and asymmetrical, into a variety of bobs with and without bangs and is currently long, now on its way past my shoulders (I’m having dreams of crazy-long mermaid lengths and I keep trying my hand at Boardwalk Empire updos). I’ve worn all black and grey, boyish clothes, nothing but dresses, a bright red cloche, a long faux-fur coat, La Dolce Vita inspired dresses or pencil skirts, Jean Seberg gamine stripes, a 70s huge floppy black hat, skinny jeans, wide leg jeans, Annie Hall-inspired menswear and, more recently, denim cut-offs worn with tights and heels. I wear makeup every day, sometimes red lipstick or flicks of liquid black eyeliner. I can’t be bothered with painting my nails, but I regularly paint my toenails black or red, even during the winter. I am, in short, kind of fancy.
While reading Heather’s excellent post yesterday about the ever-moving mark of beauty and youth in our culture (where the dominant message is that you, just as you are, are never good enough and there is always a product/ diet/ procedure that can bring you closer to perfection), I thought about, as I have so many times before, whether my propensity for hair dye and dramatic clothes is any different from someone who decides to put themselves under the surgeon’s scalpel. Certainly, there is a matter of degree, risk and expense that shouldn’t be dismissed, but at the end of the day, the woman who gets herself injected with Botox or gets a boob job is manipulating her appearance and expressing something about how she feels on the inside with how she looks on the outside, just as I am.
I have long thought that the willingness to spend tons of money and time grooming or getting surgery is born of a desire to control outcomes, to dictate the potentially unpredictable vicissitudes of desire and power associated with beauty in our culture. The female body is used as a symbol of purity and sex, blamed for causing uncontrollable lust and used to sell everything under the sun. If you happen to be born in a female body, it is likely you will be subjected to a high level of scrutiny — from mothers, grandmothers, friends, boyfriends, teachers and dudes you pass just walking down the street. It is no wonder to me that women are anxious about beauty and want to take control of their bodies and their presentation to the world — sometimes by opting out entirely and sometimes by trying to conform to every beauty standard that arises.
To some extent, I have tried to do both. When I began to develop breasts, at the tender age of nine, I was so mortified and confused that I went into a long period of hiding, which I documented here. I have sometimes used hair dye and clothing as armour against expectations, a way to assert that I had no interest in being beautiful or conforming. At other times, I have dieted like crazy and followed ladymag advice as though it was a secret code that could open the elusive world of beauty and feeling good about myself. In the short-term, all of those methods have worked, but none of them brought a lasting sense of comfort in my own skin.
We are taught that beauty is exclusive and rare; something that exists in fairy tales and at the end of makeovers, but the truth is that beauty is everywhere, in a variety of places, shapes, sizes and ages, we just have to open our eyes to see it. When I opened myself to the abundance of beauty in the world, it helped me find it in myself, which, in turn, has helped me relax and learn to see my body and appearance in a more balanced way. Even more, it allowed me to see my body with compassion, as a tool that supports my life. I have noticed that my experience parallels many of my friends who have come into their 30s with a new sense of respect for and security about their bodies. Most of our bodies have changed, they’ve aged or widened, some have been ravaged by bearing children, yet we still feel better in our bodies, more at home.
I still like to use my appearance as a means of expression, but I am no longer trying to express – “Please, please, please find me beautiful!” or “You don’t think I’m beautiful, see if I care! “Or “Please, don’t see me, I don’t think I can take it.” When I dress like I’m a member of The Bloomsbury Group or in Annie Hall, it is because those things inspire me. When I dye my hair, it is because I think it is fun, a way to keep myself from taking it all so seriously. I recently came across this short film on the fashion website Nowness and felt like I had found my people — women of a certain age (admittedly, a little older than me, but I’m an old soul) who are using color and fashion to express themselves rather than submitting to unrealistic or harmful notions of beauty.
It’s not a perfect formula, sometimes I lose my way and feel thrown by compliments or criticism, clinging to the one and despairing at the other. But, moving to the center of my own experience has helped me find a sense of play and grace in my appearance and moved it away from the center of my thoughts. I think the question is not whether or not we support or scorn plastic surgery, makeup or hair dye, but how we can create a world where getting dressed can be a means of expression and a woman’s power comes from more than the way she looks.