I have a vivid memory of my mother teaching me how to iron pants. She showed me how to line up the seams so that all four overlapped, then ran the iron down the front of the leg to create a crease. Once the pants were perfect, we moved on to the shirt. She put the arm of the shirt around the tapered end of the ironing board. As she ran the iron over the fabric she would rotate the sleeve around so she could press every angle. From then on, I ironed all of my clothes. I couldn’t stand to have wrinkles. They had to be perfect.
Last week, I purchased a pair of Anne Taylor shorts at the thrift store for $6. They were the perfect shade of lemon yellow, and just the right length- short without being “she’s almost 40- stop dressing like a ‘Jersey Shore’ cast member”. They were a fantastic find- until I washed them and learned that the hems roll up in that really annoying way.
I look for clothes that require zero effort. If I can’t take it out of a drawer and put it on, I won’t wear it. I will go so far as to hang things immediately after they come out of the dryer to avoid wrinkles (even if I have to run the dryer three times because I keep forgetting they are in there)- but that’s as far as I’ll go.
But I really loved these new shorts. I had two other pairs that had the same issue, so I thought The hell with it. I’m going to iron! Yes, ironing has become the extent of rebellion for me.
As I pressed the hems of the shorts and felt a mild bit of enjoyment seep into my consciousness at how smooth and crisp they looked, I thought I used to be this person. I used to IRON.
I started thinking back, wondering when my appearance moved down my list of priorities. I pinpointed it to senior year of high school. I barely made it through my last year. I had the maximum number of absences possible. I slept through most of my classes. I needed a few credits to graduate, so I only went to school from 8am-noon. I worked in the afternoon.
My job introduced me to what I considered at that time to be the adult world. I worked as a telemarketer at a call center. I made $10 an hour, which I thought was a fortune. The people I worked with were all like me- they were young, rebellious, and more interested in partying than doing anything that resembled responsibility.
My workplace was a lot more fun than school, and I began to lose interest in my classes. I spent most of my evenings after work getting drunk and hanging out with friends. The morning would come, and the last thing I wanted was to get ready for school. I set my alarm to allow just enough time to put on shoes and brush my teeth, arriving in the sweats I slept in the night before.
At the end of the year, my school had a tradition of issuing predictions for the future for those graduating. My peers determined I would end up owning a company that manufactured sweats, based on my appearance and attitude those final months.
It wasn’t that I gave up my appearance entirely. I still put on full makeup and curled every hair on my head- for work. I just determined that sleep was more important than looking good for my classmates- people I relegated into the “not cool” category once I made friends at work who were older, more likely to live on their own and have the ability to get me into bars.
The real transition occurred when I started working in a semiconductor fab. If you have never worked in a fab, employees are required to wear clean room suits that cover you from head to toe. You can not wear any makeup, have products in your hair, perfume or anything else that could possibly infect the product being manufactures. We were making chips for beepers (pre -phone age), and makeup/perfume/etc could leave residue on the chips on a microscopic level.
I came to enjoy the lack of grooming required. I simply showered (I hadn’t fully hippied out and still opted for some grooming) and went to work. Since everyone else was in the same boat, I didn’t need to feel self conscious about my appearance. We all looked like ass.
During this time, I was introduced to Naomi Wolf. Not literally- that would have been too awesome to handle and my brain might have left my body. Rather, I was given one of her books, which led me to reading all of her books before moving on to a full blown feminist literature rampage.
The Beauty Myth impacted me in a way that was noticable on my physical appearance, for both good and bad. Wolf described a standard of acceptable appearance that prompts women outside of the norm to feel self conscious and unattractive- something that spoke to me very deeply. I flirted with bulimia, tried every fad diet, and took insane amounts of diet pills to try to be thin enough to fit this mold. I even duct taped my thighs to make them appear smaller under my jeans.
Wolf wrote about women defining beauty on their own terms and rebelling against societal notions that ostracize women who do not fit into a particular package. I very much wanted to be on board with this, but deep down, I also wanted to be pretty. I needed an extreme measure. I did what all crazy hippie feminists do- I shaved my head.
The five minutes immediately after shaving my head were exhilarating, as you can see from the photo above. I was free! I was sticking it to the man! I didnt need to look cute- I had principles.
Then my boyfriend showed up to pick me up for work. He took one look at me and I could see he was not pleased. He didn’t have to be seen with a principle- he had to be seen with a girlfriend who strongly resembled a boyfriend. I was not one of those tiny pixie girls who looks like a fairy with a short haircut. My appearance was butch. I am a substantial girl, and the haircut only accentuated that. Perhaps with a little makeup to soften the severity of the crop, but as it were, I might as well be showing up to work at a construction site.
I thought shaving my head would force me to get over my dependence on my physical appearance, but the opposite happened. Lack of hair made me feel very ugly, something I focused on until it grew longer. Instead of freeing my mind to focus on what matters, I became fixated on how unattractive I looked.
But the experiment has served me well in the long run. I learned that with the right attitude, I could handle any change to my appearance and enjoy it. When I had to again shave my head because of a horrible bleach job, I learned to rock each stage of the regrowth. I had done it before. I wore cool hats and eyecatching makeup when it was shorn, moved on to mohawks and pin curls when it was a bit longer. Played with every barrette, became proficient at braiding. Instead of feeling ugly, I opted for a motto of rock what you got.
One thing Wolf talked about in The Beauty Myth is using makeup and clothing as a form of costuming and decoration- a comment I took to heart. In my younger days, I owned an eclectic and amazing warddrobe. Friends would come to my apartment to look at my clothes. One day, I might show up to work as a gypsy circus performer, the next day a glam mechanic. Every day was an opportunity to play dress up. My appearance became about creating an entourage of fun characters- none of which fit a societal norm.
Now, function rules my life. My clothes are covered in fingerpaint and grass stains. I have all of ten minutes to get ready in the morning, on a good day, and my number one clothing criteria is that it is relatively clean.
But this week, when I found the yellow shorts, I also found some others- patterned, loud, green, and purple. I happend upon polka dot shirts and gold shoes. I bought it all. And a few days ago, when afforded fifteen minutes to get ready, I put on a little makeup and paired all those pieces together- the polka dots, the loud print, the gold shoes. When I left the house, I got a few glances of the “does she know those don’t match” variety, but I didn’t care. I felt sassy. And cute. And just- like myself. Like a little piece of the past was making its way into my future, and that I could look any way I wanted. Its kind of great when you can make your appearance reflect how you feel on the inside, reminding you that fashion can be fun, and expressive, and not at all about fitting in a box.