She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power – Adrienne Rich
A few years ago, I posted this selfie on Twitter.
I was annoyed by a Vidal Sassoon ad campaign that connected “styled” hair to a good selfie. My tweet went something like this: @vidalsassoon behind every good #selfie is a woman who refuses to connect selfhood to her hair.
I took the photo after I’d finished 35 uphill minutes on an elliptical machine. My hair is unbrushed, unwashed, and full of sweat. I’m not wearing any makeup.
At the time, I thought my selfie was funny and a little bit brave. It meant I could be real. It meant I could present my face the same way men do every day –– without augmentation. It meant I didn’t care if people thought I was ugly. But the truth is there’s a part of me that still cringes each time I look at this photo. There’s a part of me that feels messy and ashamed of my mess. There’s a part of me who fears being ridiculed for my bare face, or for publically presenting an unadulterated version of who I am.
My mother wore makeup until the day she died. Even without makeup, she was a truly beautiful woman. But she tied her self worth to how others perceived her beauty, and she taught me to perceive myself the same way.
When I break these rules, I feel like I’m violating a fundamental code of womanhood. I feel like a failure because of all the beauty standards I inherited from my family and culture, and also because I lost my mother just a few weeks after I turned 21. She died at the moment my life as an adult woman began.
I had no one to shop with on the eve of my college graduation, no one to call to talk “outfits” with before my first job interview, no one to ask if my hair was too short or my lipstick was too dark or too bright.
I had to figure it all out on my own.
This week, I facilitated a dialogue on my campus. A week before the event, my friends started asking me what I was going to wear. They offered to give outfit consults or to lend me professional clothes. But I hate suits, even pantsuits. I hate the word “blazer.” I feel like a fraud in clothing that’s designed to hide my female body. I prefer dresses, especially dresses with wild and colorful patterns.
In the end, I decided to wear a safe black dress Carl picked out for me and a jade necklace I bought during our last trip to New Orleans. I wanted to focus on the substance of the dialogue. I did not want to think about my clothes or how I appeared to others. I wanted to feel comfortable.
But an hour before the dialogue, I started getting nervous. Was my lipstick too bright? Was my dress too casual? Too low cut?
I found two female colleagues and asked them my questions. They relieved me of my doubt. One gave me a hug. Another let me use her office mirror to fix my hair, then she ran a lint roller down the back of my cardigan, which was covered in dog hair.
Even though my mother has been dead for almost 15 years, I still crave her approval. I still look for her in other women. One day, I hope I will look to myself first.
My thinking about female selfhood and beauty is motivated by the amount of time I spend at the gym –– in mixed gender exercise classes where women are encouraged to become powerful in our bodies, and where we literally exercise our power.
For me, these spaces are one place where women are affirmed in resisting narrow beauty standards. At the gym, we sweat. We have bare faces and messy hair. We run. We climb. We lift. We bike. We get strong.
My mother was once strong, too. After her transplant, she began jogging on a treadmill her cousin bought her. She competed in two U.S. Transplant Olympic Games held in Columbus, Ohio and Salt Lake City, Utah.
These competitions were a way to publically reclaim power over her body in the wake of chronic illness. But in the last months of her life, she lost that power. She suffered stress fractures in her feet after walking barefoot on a beach. She needed a wheelchair to run errands.
Other mothers expressed panic when they saw my mother confined to a wheelchair. (Their daughters shared this panic with me.) My mother’s aging and diseased body could just as well be their own. I do not fault them for these fears. I often harbor the same ones.
Like my mother, I exercise to reclaim power over my body, and this is why I felt compelled to tweet my workout selfie to Vidal Sassoon, and why I still need to be in-your-face about my post-workout face.
When I exercise, I condition my body and break down my female conditioning. I become more fully myself, more fully alive. I become a woman who is a little less self conscious, a little less approval seeking, a little less afraid, a little less worried about her clothes, her makeup, her hair.