I don’t feel like the most qualified person to talk about this, but I don’t know what it would take to be the most qualified. Self-esteem is the kind of thing that sucks basically for every girl, no matter what your circumstances, probably because you are constantly told you can and should be better. We get a depressing number of You Asked It questions about this, but I have too much to say to condense it to a couple paragraphs for a Just Wondering post. “Be yourself!”-type stuff isn’t effective without the exhausting breakdown we’re about to get into. I’ve split this up into three sections: wearing what you want, your physical self, and your internal self. Damn, I don’t know why I haven’t gotten my own show on the OWN network yet.
1. Wearing What You Want
People respect people who wear what they want because they wish they could be that courageous. The problem is that in order for this to work, you have to be courageous. Or at least, at first, appear to be. You don’t have to walk around singing “I Can Go the Distance,” but if you feel insecure, you can’t show it. That sounds unhealthy, but this is one of those situations where you have to convince yourself you don’t care before you start actually not caring. You have to, like, brainwash yourself a little bit.
Read interviews with people like Lady Gaga and cool old ladies who don’t give a shit if someone thinks what they’re wearing is weird—in fact, they invite it. Certain mantras will stick with you, and you’ll just have to repeat them to yourself throughout the day, on the day you choose to wear something “weird.” Healthy brainwashing, right? Here’s a gem from the late Isabella Blow, fashion editor and muse to Alexander McQueen: “My style icon is anybody who makes a bloody effort.” I typed it from memory, because this is one of my arsenal of phrases that go off in my head whenever someone is being a tool.
You have to challenge anyone who gives you a funny look with a look of your own. Or don’t acknowledge them at all, because they’re not worth it! What will happen is that you will walk by and go on with your life feeling good that nobody’s got you down, and they’ll stand there a little dumbfounded. Maybe eventually they will grow up and realize how stupid it is to care about how other people look, and to expect people to care that they care, or maybe they’ll stay an asshole forever. You’ll probably never see them again. If you do see them again, because they’re a classmate or friend, their opinion might not be worth valuing. I get that it’s hard to just cut off communication with someone, and no one wants to do that over a single incident, but you just know now to be a little more critical of their opinions or views when they offer them. You don’t have to take what they say personally.
I think most people are afraid of dressing a little stranger or cuter because they’re afraid people will think they think they’re so great. Like people will be like, “OH, SO YOU’RE ALL ARTSY NOW?” Nobody will say this if you act like it’s no big deal, as opposed to constantly checking yourself in trophy-case reflections or whatever. If anyone does say it, you look at them, give one of the more subtle “you are an idiot” bitchfaces, and say, “…No?” And they will feel like a dumbass.
What such people don’t get is that most people who like more obscure music or wear vintage clothes don’t think of themselves as artsy, they’re just exploring and trying to define their taste instead of being someone who likes whatever is handed to them for fear of being mistaken for pretentious. I don’t like the term hipster—I think it’s become so broad as to apply to basically everyone—but the defining quality is that a hipster thinks and cares about what their tastes say about them, instead of just liking what they like. And so there is nothing more hipster than a person who decides that the only reason another person is wearing a colorful dress is that they’re concerned with what that dress means for their image. It’s hipster to give a shit if other people are hipsters or not; this is why people who claim they’re not hipsters are the most hipster of all, because they’re thinking that hard about it, and caring that much about what other people think.
People are afraid of trying to be creative because they’re afraid that they won’t succeed, but who said your “success” in getting dressed has to be evaluated by other people? As long as you’re into what you’re wearing and it makes you more comfortable with yourself, it doesn’t matter if someone else thinks you’ve put together a perfectly composed outfit. Actually, the effect of your confidence will only add to how stylish your outfit seems. It’s like the best catch-22 ever.
Also, some people think that once you start dressing “weirdly,” you have to keep it up. My middle school reputation was based on wearing really crazy stuff, and whenever I went to school in PJs, some people thought I’d given in to the naysayers. If anyone said anything, I just had to shrug and be like, naw man, I’m tired today. Again, it’s about the whole people-deciding-your-image-for-you thing. Don’t let them. Make them feel stupid for trying. This might feel cruel at first, but have no shame or guilt. You have every right to wear whatever you want, and if someone is so narrow-minded that they need to get on you about it so that the world is easier for them to understand, they might need a reminder that it doesn’t work that way. They’re the ones who think so highly of themselves that they expect you to care what they think of your shoes. You’re just trying to have a good time. (Oh, and this strategy is not reserved for people who have reputations for being obnoxious and opinionated. It is not a contradiction to be nice or shy or whatever you think of yourself as, and still have to be like, every once in a while, Relax, bro, I’m just trying something different.)
It comes down to this: if you dress “weird,” kind old ladies will come up to you on the street and tell you that you made their day. And that will make your day. It’s the most delightful thing.
2. Liking Your Body/Face
One of the most insightful things I’ve ever read about eating disorders and body esteem in general was a comment on my blog a while ago that I regret being unable to find now. The writer was saying that most people think girls want to be skinny because of Hollywood and Vogue. This girl wanted to be skinny because she wanted to be a protagonist.
She didn’t expose herself to mainstream fashion magazines or TV; she was interested in art films and books and indie music. But no matter how alternative the movie, the protagonist was almost always skinny. And wanting to be a protagonist means wanting to be someone, as most people do. Apparently, your story is only worth hearing, you’re only someone, if you’re skinny—it’s like, the blueprint of a human. Once that’s down, you’re allowed to be as interesting and protagonist-y as you want! Apparently.
No matter how much people our age have been raised on girl power and believe in yourself and you are beautiful, ignoring the beauty standards of the culture we live in is close to impossible. And as this lady pointed out, these standards and expectations exist outside mainstream culture like reality TV and tabloids; they exist in punk and indie cultures, in “artsy” Tumblr cultures that are all about looking like a fairy, but only if you’re a skinny white girl. I often find myself guilty of the “Everyone should love their body!…EXCEPT ME” mentality, where you believe in body acceptance on a theoretical level, but are still hard on yourself about conforming to those standards. You know they’re bullshit, and you know you’re worth more than your looks, but you still can’t help feeling guilty or anxious over something like your weight or proportions or whatever thing is left on the constantly updated to-do list handed to us monthly by way of magazine headlines. Like, OK, say I got my “bikini body”—next month I’m going to learn that my eyes are way too far apart, then that my chin is a little too floppy, until I need to start ranking my earlobe shape on a 1-10 scale.
I think a big reason many girls shy away from calling themselves feminists is that they’re worried they won’t be able to live up to this idea of a Strong Woman, and that there’s no room in this club for anyone who isn’t 100% comfortable with herself all the time. You can totally be a feminist who has insecurities. Feminism isn’t about pretending we all feel like Wonder Woman, it’s about being honest when we don’t, and having the conversation on why that is.
Thankfully, lots of this conversation is online, along with lots of just general support and inspiration and whatnot. Yeah, I’m talking about not caring about what people think, but it is comforting to know that some group of people somewhere will welcome you for dressing in weird clothes. The body acceptance tag on Tumblr will bring you to lots of body acceptance blogs and fashion blogs. They’re for everyone, and I think it’s healthy to check in whether you feel like you really need it or not.
Also, now that we’re all teeeeeenz, it’s a bit late to undo some of the Photoshoppery we’ve been raised around and grown to see as normal or desirable. But it helps to surround yourself with images of women who aren’t like the ones you typically see in tabloids or on TV. Images are powerful, and it’s only when I find myself looking at certain fashion magazines or Tumblrs that I feel myself once again grow insecure about how I look. Most of the time I’m in my little bubble of Enid Coleslaw, Frida Kahlo, Lena Dunham, Patti Smith, Cindy Sherman, JD Samson, Grace Jones, Fairuza Balk, Gabourey Sidibe, and Kathleen Hanna. It is so, so important that influential female people and characters who are not conventional, in their looks and/or personality, exist. Pop culture, and just images, make a huge difference in how people think, and watch Miss Representation if you’re not sure you believe me.
But what if you don’t want to live in a bubble? What if you don’t want to totally reject the majority of our culture and live in a John Waters gang of outcasts, forever plagued by your secret desire to read Cosmo? What if you want to enjoy tabloids and reality TV and looking at shows from Fashion Week and photos in Vogue, but without letting the beauty stuff get to you? I think as long as you are discerning, you can totally be a part of that. But when you catch yourself thinking, God, I wish I looked like that, you have to remind yourself that the person in that ad is heavily Photoshopped, or sat in a makeup chair for three hours, or both. It’s not about pretending you don’t feel that way and keeping it all down and putting on a Strong Woman face, it’s about being honest with yourself when you start to feel this way.
And, the disclaimer: I am thin and white and able-bodied and I generally fit our culture’s beauty bill. My confidence, self-esteem, whatever, still goes up and down. (THANKS HORMONES, AND NO YOU WILL NOT BE GETTING A BASKET OF MINI MUFFINS FROM ME ANYTIME SOON.) Which brings me to…
3. Liking Your Brain/Personality/Soul/That Stuff
Prettiness is not only about being physically attractive. There’s a prettier kind of personality, you know? More smiley, more agreeable, charming, less likely to challenge someone on what they say or call them out for being an asshole. And because our culture, for a long time, associated girl with feminine with pretty, but not smart, there’s a message out there that you can only be one or the other—pretty or smart, feminine or funny, Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton. Mindy Kaling wrote in her book that she has dealt with having to decide whether to be pretty or funny her whole life. There is an episode of 30 Rock where Liz is upset that Jenna, the prettier/thinner/blonder/dumber actress gets all the attention for a line Liz wrote. Pete reminds her that Liz is a writer, not a star, and this is what she agreed to.
In reality, of course, plenty of women are both smart and pretty, funny and feminine, etc. This is why pop culture needs more strong female characters. Not like, I’m a superhero and I’m supersexy and STRONG and my boobs look really good in this catsuit but oh wait I’m totally two-dimensional. Like, multifaceted, with many layers. Like, you know, human. Can we get a list going in the comments of characters like this? Mad Men is great because its women are just as multidimensional as the men. I love Lena Dunham for writing characters like this. I love the characters of Ghost World and Dreamgirls and The Royal Tenenbaums.
When it comes to becoming the person you want to be, you have to know who you want to be first. And it’s hard to know what we, as girls slash women, really want. I may want to look a certain way because I know it will get me respect and people will pay attention to what I have to say. But I don’t really want to look that way, I “want” to look that way because it’s what they want, and I’ll benefit somehow, but I don’t know who comes out on top in the end.
The root of your confidence in all three of these not-caring-what-people-think subtopics is knowing that you, ultimately, believe in everything you look like or do or say, whether someone else challenges you on it or not. But that is a lot of pressure and responsibility! Because you probably don’t know what exactly you want—and we’re all young and human, so there’s no rush—you will probably find that you don’t believe in everything you ever look like or do or say. Someone might criticize you, and you’ll think about it, and you’ll agree with them. This is fine. It’s all part of figuring out what makes you feel most like yourself and, in turn, most comfortable with yourself. Nobody is perfectly consistent, and anyone who expects people to be that way is just trying to make the world easier for them to understand. This is what we call laziness, and not the awesome kind where you eat a lot of stuff and watch TV.
Just be wary, when you get down on yourself, of where the negativity comes from, especially if that place might be society or culture or whatever. I mean, I can’t even get started on all the fuckedupedness with the mixed messages we get about sexuality. We’ve all seen Black Swan, right? Trying to be innocent but sexy but purity rings but grinding at homecoming will make a lady bonkers. You’ll have visions of Winona Ryder hiding in your kitchen. I am a big fan of Winona Ryder, but I don’t need her hiding in my kitchen.
Besides: everyone else is too busy worrying about themselves to worry about you, so you don’t need to be concerned with what they might think. If you’re worried because of what you think, of yourself, that brings us back to two paragraphs ago, to self-respect. Again, you don’t need to be a completely complete human right now. Or ever! That’s what makes you human.
There will be bad days, where you feel like complete shit. Eventually it gets easier to recognize—somewhere between the point when you’ve been following a fight in YouTube comments and the point when you cried because you saw the VHS of Aladdin that you walk by every day sitting on top of your TV—that you are having one of these days. When you recognize this, spend the rest of the day being nice to yourself. There’s nothing you can do but get through it and know that you’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll just be different. These are the days when you need to have some humility about the fact that you’re sitting in bed watching pirated episodes of Sonny With a Chance and eating peanut butter out of the jar.
“Self-esteem is for sissies. Accept that you’re a pimple and try to keep a lively sense of humor about it. That way lies grace—and maybe even glory.”
— Tom Robbins, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates
This mindset is comforting to me in a way “everyone is beautiful!” is not. I don’t want to believe that I should be concerned with being beautiful, I want to believe that I can be comfortable with myself even though I’m also the kind of person who follows everything that comes out of my mouth by cringing and questioning my own mortality. Yes, I get a little sad when I remember I’m too neurotic and too sarcastic, and that I choose to be loud or quiet at all the wrong times, to be a Sofia Coppola character, but also too vapid, too easily amused, to be as cool as Daria. But I’m not a Sofia Coppola character, and I’m not Daria, I’m me, and I want to look and act like me. And I’ll define me for myself, and it can be, like, this whole other thing that exists outside of body types and comparisons and references. I just wanna like what I like and do things I enjoy and have solid friends and be too busy experiencing this grand old thing we call life (holy SHIT where is my call from OWN) to worry whether I’m allowed to or not.
It’s easy to let your mouse slip to your webcam in a moment’s boredom and start wondering what’s so wrong with you that you can’t even get your eye makeup right, or realize you’ve been brushing your teeth for 10 minutes because you started staring at a blemish in the mirror. It’s inconvenient to seek out communities and role models who make you feel good about yourself when there’s all this other crap all around you.
It will always be harder to get to be someone who doesn’t care what people think, but that’s why you’re a tiny little awesome warrior for even trying. And isn’t that kind of exciting? Go forth, tiny warrior, and conquer. ♦