Women kind of have it rough, don’t they?
To start off, let me say that women in other cultures have things much much worse than we in the Western World. I know that. And I know men have a whole slew of their own problems and pressures. I know that, too. But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the particular paradox of the pretty vs practical girl. So let’s set everything else aside for the moment.
Women who don’t care about clothes are often called butch, or seen as dirty, undesirable, or unfeminine. And that sucks, because no one should have to primp and preen if they don’t want to.
On the other hand, women who DO dress and primp and preen are seen as vain, high-maintenance and air-headed. They just can’t win! It’s a veritable mire of social tripwires that often leaves someone insulting someone else out of a bizarre mixture of self defense and self superiority, no matter which side a given woman is inhabiting on a given day.
I’ve definitely been on both ends of that spectrum, and it is with some chagrin that I recall myself shrugging and sticking my hands in the pockets of my cargo pants. “I just dress for practicality,” I’d say, half defensive, half derisive. “I’m just not that kind of girl. I don’t know about all that girly stuff.”
There’s an element of pride to that ignorance, mixed with a kind of awe. I can’t say that I speak for everyone, but I’ve seen it in others just as I’ve seen it in myself: I don’t know how to dress up and be cute. But then again, I don’t really want to, do I? Or maybe I do, secretly. But it’s all frippery. Why aspire to shallowness? I’m not trying to impress anyone.
It. Shouldn’t. Be. That. Complicated.
But it is.
Biology being what it is (sexual dimorphism’s a bitch), and the human desire for approval and acceptance, mixed with our drive to form groups defined as much by who isn’t like us as by who is like us all conspire to make the basic activity of putting on clothes incredibly complicated. And it probably always will be, especially since our identities are inextricably tied to our image. Even the most self-sufficient and self-contained person cares a little bit about what others think about them, whether in the context of clothes or not.
For a while in college, like most people, I was trying to find some kind of identity. Unconsciously, of course, but definitely trying. And I went through a series of friend groups until I met people who (among many other things!) called me beautiful. And that was a good feeling. I’m not trying to suggest that my identity came from other people, of course: but it was a neat idea, a novel idea, something that I hadn’t thought about before, and something that I rejected at first. I’m not pretty, I’m smart! I’m not pretty, I’m strong. I’m not pretty, I’m useful.
Why are these generally considered to be so mutually exclusive in our society? There’s a growing collection of voices that don’t think this should be the case, but it’s still such a mainstay in our lives. I think, ironically, that “nerd” literature and visual media are partially to blame: authors and scripwriters have spent a great deal of time and effort promoting the “plain innocent virginal girl next door” as the highest virtue. On the one hand, it’s supposed to be looking past outward beauty. On the other hand, I know plenty of amazing, beautiful and intelligent women that are insecure in themselves, and are actively waiting for someone else to swoop down and doll them up, like always happens in those stories. It’s like they can’t be an active part of their own image — that would be too shallow — but still want to dress up now and again.
I spent a really long time rejecting the entire idea of beauty, and that’s no good: because I was so aggressive about my lack of makeup, lack of fancy things, lack of whatever, I ended up feeling like that if I wore makeup or shaved my legs or even washed my hair, I’d somehow be betraying the strong, independent woman I wanted to be, and would end up being a hypocrite for not practicing what I preach.
I also swung too far the other way for a while, chasing some stupid ideal while being unwilling to actually spend the money and time it takes to chase it properly. My halfhearted attempts at being beautiful at all times just felt unfulfilling, and set up this expectation of being the prettiest girl in the room. Which, news flash, there’s no such thing. It’s a matter of taste, attitude, and momentary group perception, and if you depend on that positive feedback you’ll just end up a wreck.
Ultimately, natural is beautiful — I haven’t given up on that ideal in the slightest — but sometimes it’s fun to play pretend.
At this point, I think I’m pretty good at just being myself for myself. I dress up when I feel like, I wear makeup when I feel like, I skip showers when I feel like and I stay in my pajamas all day when I feel like. And I know that there are people who think of me as pretty shallow, and there’s people that think of me as pretty lazy and even dirty. And I suspect there’s even more people who think of me as a dumb pseudo-hippie trend chaser. And sometimes I get really down about my appearance. But I’m working on it, and most days I think I can truly say “screw you, I’m being pretty today,” or “screw you, I’m not being pretty today.”
It’s a good feeling.