It feels inappropriate – a teeny bit blasphemous to admit – but I’ve always wanted to be beautiful. It’s an admission that feels at once a little vain, narcissistic, somehow deeply unfeminist, but also… quite trivial. Of course I want to be beautiful. Everyone wants to be beautiful even if nobody really admits it. I can’t precisely define for you what I mean by beautiful, other than to say that the kind of beauty I want is aspirational, making it undefinable and unattainable. So then, what’s the point?
Whether or not we like it, the way we choose to dress and present ourselves has cultural context and sends a message. The women in the House of Representatives knew it when they chose to wear suffragette white to Trump’s State of the Union speech. Steve Jobs (and Elizabeth Holmes) knew it with their minimalist uniform of Issey Miyake black turtlenecks. Lady Gaga knew it when she put on her meat dress or McQueen armadillo heels. Terms like “tech bro,” “girlboss,” “Wall St. banker,” and “hipster” all conjure up very specific images – a hoodie over a Google tshirt, a sheath dress and pair of pointy-toed pumps, a conservative suit and tie, a flannel shirt and a man-bun. Whether or not we like it, we often define people by the way they look.
I find that the coming and going of trends reflects cultural change in a fascinating way. Scrutiny and criticism of fashion is anthropology. Just to give a few modern examples: after the 2008 economic recession it became gaudy and tasteless to broadcast your wealth through display of bold designer logos, fueling the rise of equally expensive though much more subtle “capsule wardrobes” of “Scandinavian minimalism.” The normalization of wearing yoga pants outside the yoga studio exploded into the mainstreaming of athleisure, a perfect fit for the modern man or woman who prioritizes comfort on the go, and who doesn’t have time to change in a busy schedule that includes the gym, the office, and the grocery store. Just yesterday a friend asked me when and how wide-legged pants had become ubiquitous. Skinny jeans have been in vogue for a while now, but all trends are cyclical. Plus, there’s been a recent movement towards women dressing for personal comfort rather than for the “male gaze” (see the rise of the wireless bralette and granny panties and corresponding decline of the Victoria’s Secret aesthetic, the popularity of menocore as embodied by the shapeless sack dress, etc.).
So, this obsession with beauty. I’m tired of women’s fashion at once being dismissed as a frivolous interest and at the same time decried as a deliberate tool of sexual manipulation (of men)*. First of all, the truth is that women dress more for other women than for men. It’s a not-so-secret form of social signaling that most men manage to remain oblivious of. Secondly, women are obsessed with their appearance because, well, in our culture appearance matters. A lot. Beautiful people are seen as more desirable (duh), but also more trustworthy, competent, and are generally more highly valued in society. We even equate beauty with moral worth. Notice how in fairy tales the princess is always young and beautiful while the witch is an ugly hag? So why shouldn’t we want to or try to be more beautiful?
Everyone curates their wardrobe to curate their image. And even those who aren’t trying are kind of trying. Deliberately choosing comfort or practicality over fashion and style makes a statement as well. This is something I think about a lot as a graduate student in a STEM field. My wardrobe, physique, and presentation appear on a surface level unremarkable, hiding the fact that I am obsessed with fashion, fitness, and makeup/skincare. My work (lab) wardrobe follows a dress code of long pants, close-toed shoes, and nothing that I wouldn’t be too heartbroken over if it got a bleach stain or acid-burn hole. The dress code exists for safety reasons, as well as practicality. And while plain jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt satisfy the dress code, I find it all a bit boring on myself (I will say that some people can wear the hell out of a basic outfit, but not me). Yet I come up against this idea that interest in fashion is superficial compared to much more “serious” interests like STEM field studies. And then that must mean that if you dress with any more care, formality, or style than the status quo or bare minimum required by your workplace that you are wasting your time/effort/money on frivolous pursuits**. We live in a society that pressures women to be beautiful, while simultaneously belittling them for caring about it. <Mumbles something about the patriarchy>.***
I know that caring about external beauty doesn’t necessarily make someone shallow. I’ve just spent multiple paragraphs outlining the ways in which thinking critically about beauty is, well, actually pretty deep. There are many complex reasons for my wanting to be seen as beautiful. Sure, part of it is attracting the opposite gender. But most of it is wanting others (of both genders) to take me seriously. Or perhaps I’d like to project that I’m clever (glasses), laid back (casual clothes), put-together (well-groomed), edgy (piercings), whatever. The craziest part of it, is that despite all my efforts to conform to a standard of conventional beauty I have no idea whether or not I’m seen as beautiful. Sure, I’ve had people tell me I’m beautiful, but is it any more than flattery when it’s coming from my mother, my best friend, or someone trying to get me naked?**** I can walk past anyone on the street and (subjectively) judge whether or not they are beautiful. But I can also stare endlessly at my own reflection in the mirror and not have a clue. The ironic truth is that I’m more comfortable now with myself (inside and out <pats self on back>) than I ever have been before, yet all those insecurities are still there. I know that conventional beauty standards are not defined by people like myself, and I know that it’s unhealthy to be too obsessed with my appearance. I know that it’s completely toxic to compare myself to others (especially those edited and curated images that are everywhere on the internet). But none of that awareness or ability to intellectually critique unrealistic beauty standards translates to me caring and less and wanting any less to be beautiful.***
So why write this blog post at all? I’ll admit that this is the dozen-th draft of some version of this post that I’ve written, and I still don’t know if I’ve said anything of value. But I have always placed value in having those slightly uncomfortable conversations where I’m willing to come out and say (publicly, here on the internet) that I can’t be the only one going through something, and that the more discussions we have, the more we understand one another and the less alone we feel. I’m still trying to reconcile what it means to accept myself and also accept that I’ll never stop wanting to be some unattainable standard of beautiful (or smart, or likable, or successful, etc.). I get the feeling that it will be a lifelong struggle. But I still think that the discussion is worthwhile. So the next time I tell you “nice shoes,” tell me why you picked them. I’d like to talk about your shoes for a bit.
*It also doesn’t help that there’s a huge double standard in the relationship between age and beauty/desirability between men and women. We still call George Clooney and Harrison Ford sexy, but Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren are “elegant.” Men age into sexy. Women expire out of it. So god forbid women should try to take advantage of our youth/beauty (because aren’t they really one and the same?) while we still have it.
**Another interesting observation I’ve made is that my coworkers will often browse personal things on their laptops during work breaks (it’s a pretty lax environment), but I feel a little judged for online shopping during my lunch breaks or work breaks late at night, whereas no one ever says anything about the guys blaring sports games from their computers. The boss has even walked by and stopped to chat with the guys about who’s winning the soccer match. I feel like spending time on traditionally male interests like sports is not penalized, or even more gender-neutral interests like reading the news is fine, but I get judged for browsing clothes online or reading fashion/makeup blogs with obvious feminine imagery. Or maybe it’s all in my head…
***Quoted and paraphrased Contrapoints a couple times here and there. She’s brilliant.
****This is NOT a reason to NOT pay people compliments though. Some people suck at accepting compliments, but everyone should still compliment each other more. It’s nice.