Powerlessness and Physical Beauty

Well folks... sometimes things don't go the way you want them to. You can try and try, but sometimes, sh*t just don't line up, and you have to make a choice: do I keep trying to change this? Or do I let it go and go on with my life? Sometimes, you gotta take the second one.

Have you ever had to watch a friend self-destruct, or stood by while a parent married someone awful and then let them destroy him or her, or watched a relative drink themselves past the point of salvation? Yeah. It's a nightmare, and it's one we all, at one time or another, have to live through. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about, and maybe you know what it's like, during the weeks or months or years leading up to that realization that you'll never be able to save someone from themselves, or be able to contain the damage a mistake you made wrought, or change someone so that relating to them is easier for you. During that time, when stuff is falling apart but you can't stop it, sometimes you feel helpless and guilty, and that's a terrible combination. Think Atreyu trying to pull Artax out of the Swamp of Eternal Sadness: "Don't give up!" And the damn horse gives up, and you're left to grieve your loss, the one you both are and are not responsible for. You led Artax into the Swamp, but once Artax had given up there was nothing you could do or say to save him. You're forced to watch as something you love dearly sinks slowly out of sight while you cry and plead and haul on the reins until it's gone.

Where's a luck dragon when you need one?

I noticed, as I've said before, a correlation between feeling angry and wanting to break the experiment. But in the tumult of the last few weeks, I noticed something else: the more helpless I felt, the stronger the urge to go buy stuff became.


As I've gotten older, I've become more and more comfortable with claiming my power in the world. I apologize less, put up with less b.s. in the name of keeping the peace, and feel far less inclined to buy clothes that I feel are trendy but uncomfortable. Basically, I feel more comfortable in my skin, more capable, as the years go by. But I felt small and powerless as Artax sank into the mud, and I reeeaaaally wanted to go out and buy a bunch of new clothes and makeup. I even found myself looking for makeup to buy at CVS, just to feel better. I gave myself permission to break the experiment, because this, I reasoned, was an emergency.

But then, while looking at shelves and shelves of reds, mauves, greens, browns and whatever else, the darndest thing happened. I suddenly thought to myself: "I only want to buy this because I feel bad. But if I spend this money, all I'm doing is changing my physical appearance in a way that no one will notice in order to make me feel more in-control of my life-- and I'll be out $12."

Suddenly, I had absolutely no desire to buy anything. Once I'd named the monster, all its power was gone. I walked out of CVS with not a damn thing I didn't need.

Is there a correlation between women being in an inferior position in Western culture, and our desire to be "beautiful?" I may not be able to make that guy quit creeping me out, or avoid the sense that I need to overcompensate in the board room because men just don't take me seriously (don't fight me on this, I know because I worked at a corporate law company in NYC), but by golly I can do my makeup really well, and I can dress so that I'm using my beauty to get what I want anyway.

Is this true for you? I think it might be for me.


Support and Self-Image

Things have calmed down finally, personally and with school, and I find myself feeling much better.

Another reason occurred to me regarding why I wanted to retreat into makeup and "hotness" while my personal life was in such an uproar: MF has been my biggest supporter in the experiment. If nothing else, I know the most important person in my life thinks I'm beautiful, and that gives me the guts to explore. Having that support backing me up made me so much more secure, and when it was shaking a little I got scared again.

Fortunately, now that things are calmer I can venture out onto that limb again with less fear. This evening some peeps are coming over to hang out in the hot tub at our complex, and I was all ready to relax with them... and then I realized that I couldn't let them see me in a bathing suit, and I'd have to cover my head. Hmm. I could have worn a shirt and skirt with a bathing suit underneath and a ball cap, but... seriously? This saves me from comparing myself to... whomever. Saves me sucking in my tummy, as if anyone cares whether I have tummy fat. So I'm missing out on hot tubbage, but I'm also missing out on an opportunity to tell myself I'm not thin enough.

In unrelated news, I worked out reeeaaaaally hard today, in large part because I think it's helping! I haven't lost weight, but my arms look better and so do my abs (or, they look better underneath the extra flesh). It feels good to exercise control over how I look in ways that are also good for me, vs. spending money I don't have on cosmetics.


Anger and Self-Image

This week, MF and I have been fighting, and it's effected the experiment in very unexpected ways.

It's been the kind of fighting where you're so upset that you just keep making it worse every time you talk, so we've been talking less. No fun. I started sleeping alternately fifteen hours at a time, and then not at all for three days. I couldn't focus on anything that didn't involve distracting sounds and images, and I craved human contact but found myself on the edge of rage and tears alternately every time someone asked me how I was doing. In short, I was so angry and sad that I couldn't do anything but be sad and angry.

I wanted to put on something that made me feel sexy, make myself up, and do my hair so badly that I thought about it almost as much as I thought about throttling MF. I mean, I felt like I needed to get all hottified and be looked at (or feel like I was being looked at). It was during this period that I finally caved. I used concealer and lip/ cheek stain when I went to class, and no one noticed but I felt so much better. I also did my nails, which was comforting too. I alternately dreamed about miscarrying a child, and having hair down to my elbows. I bought a dieting journal for the first time in my life, and have pretty consistently used it.

I think this is interesting. Does it mean that spending a bunch of time on how I look is a valid coping mechanism, or that I bury my anger in hotness? And the dieting thing-- I've never done that before, but I felt a powerful urge to exercise (no pun intended) my anger somewhere, and I channelled that into control over my body. Are anger and the self-punishment of adhering to impossibly high standards of beauty related? I ended up coping by working out really hard and drowning my pain in dancing as well as bending the experiment (and there may have been some alcohol in there... bad, I know), but I got through it without reverting to other, less healthy coping mechanisms which I continually felt the desire to engage in. I won't tell you what that coping mechanism is, but some people stop eating, some overeat. Some get totally wasted and get hurt, and some sleep around. Some get high on whatever, others hit people and get arrested. These are all ways of dealing with the kind of rage that it physically hurts you to contain it, and they're all ways of hurting oneself. I wanted to self-destruct... and every time I had that urge I went back to the gym.

Was this a healthy way of dealing with my anger? I felt great about what I'd accomplished, but is it ever a good idea to "punish" yourself?

I haven't been updating lately because my resolve, in the midst of all this conflict, is faltering and I didn't want anyone to see it. In New York, I caved when I was going out to a bar to see a friend who is pretty into image, and I couldn't stomach seeing him again for the first time in two years looking all washed-out and stuff. (See, in NYC you don't "not wear makeup" when you go out at night. You just don't, and I didn't know any of these people except my friend and one other guy.) So I used concealer, blush, eyeshadow and mascara. I felt a million times better, and I think I was trying to make myself more comfortable, not impress anyone. Once again, I don't think it's possible to separate out my motives exactly.

So I'm struggling, and I want to deal by concentrating more on my physical appearance than my emotional pain. It is what it is, I guess. At least MF and I are edging towards peace, and I suddenly feel like taking off the nail polish again.


I am going to polish my nails.

I've had a really hard week-- lots of stuff going on emotionally, and I'm totally stressed out about YET ANOTHER midterm. I feel like I JUST FINISHED the midterm for this class! I have a migraine that just won't quit, so tonight, while I study frantically, I'm going to paint my nails to make myself feel better.

I don't particularly care about whther or not this upsets the experiment, because I'm totally bummed, dammit, and I want to paint my nails! Also, I've found something out recently (I feel like I say that a lot): there's a lot of pressure to conform to the popular ideal of "beauty," but you know what? It's more myself looking outside myself for validation than it is a knee-jerk reaction to external pressure. It's just as much me as it is The Man.

Blue or deeeep red? Hmmm....


Twitter ate my integrity

OK, not really. But I haven't been on Twitter yet because I don't want to encourage myself to externalize every single thing I think, say and do... but writing a big, long post each week requires a lot of background every time I want to tell my readers about something I experienced. I think Twitter is appropriate here.

SO. See the link at the side, or find me: ModestyExp is my username. Happy reading!


I Still Miss Makeup

I went to CVS over the weekend, and much to my chagrin, I found myself walking up and down the makeup aisles, actually considering whether I could make myself up just once and not tell anyone. I'm also still consistently dreaming about having long hair again, and the dreams usually consist of me styling said hair and playing with it in various boring ways. I'm tired of TME. I want my old life back, even though TME been a good thing for me to do.

WTF is going on here? Well, I can think of a few possibilities.

  1. Fun: God forgive me, getting dressed up is fun for me. Using styling products, busting out the flatiron or big giant round brush, trying on a ridiculous shade of eyeshadow... I love all that crap. I know that for some women it's not fun at all, but for me, I like it-- so there may not be anything insidious or wrong about my missing it.
  2. Solitary practice: Without a group of friends to hang out with who are also covering their hair, arms and legs and eschewing makeup (like, if I belonged to a faith community where this was the case), it may be harder to resist temptation. I don't know what "beauty" looks like in any context other than Western popular culture, and I wonder if the cumulative, constant exposure to the dominant definition of "beauty" is starting to wear me down. In other words, as time goes on, it gets harder and harder to deal with standing out because I don't have a group of women who use the same standards I do. (This isn't to say that there aren't individuals who don't wear makeup or have super-trendy haircuts outside of faith or other social groups, but that they're coming from a place of not liking makeup or hair stuff for their own reasons-- which is different from enjoying all that, but making a choice to stay away from it, like I am.)
  3. "Like a man": Part of the framework for this project has been a desire to see, if only a little bit, what it's like for men, who don't have to do all the crap women often put themselves through just to look "polished." The thing is, I don't identify with images of men that I see-- I identify strongly with straight women. I am not a man, I see myself as a very feminine sort of lady, and no amount of hair covering or barefacedness is going to change that. If I felt like a man in a woman's body, that would be different... but I'm a woman, in a woman's body, and I've always identified that way. 
  4. Culture vs. Nature: I hate to sound so cliched, but at this point I'm pretty sure that it's impossible for me to separate the "me" that exists without social pressure and the "me" that I've crafted in response to it. I can't find the "me" that would exist if I had never watched TV or movies, or seen the women around me all gussied up all the time, because I can't divorce myself from my environment. If it had been possible, I wouldn't like makeup etc. at all, because when I was growing up I had no access to any of that. I was raised by my dad, and he was militantly anti-pop culture. This meant that I wasn't allowed to pierce my ears until I was 16, couldn't ask for styling products or even a decent blow dryer, I couldn't even wear nylons or shave my legs unless I was going to be onstage singing or something... dad raised me, as much as he could, to resist the popular definition of femininity. I wasn't even allowed to watch TV other than Animaniacs and Star Trek: TNG. If anyone were to hate "girliness," it would be me. And yet, I don't. In fact, I love it. All of it.
Could it be that makeup and hair and cute clothes are something between an artificial crutch and a part of my personality? I can't say what role the beauty industry plays in the lives of other women, but this project has always been about exploring my own insecurities and assumptions, not finding some overarching thesis statement about why popular images of feminine perfection are evil. How I dress now, how I don't do my hair... this isn't me, either. That's not to say that there's no merit to it-- it's just not quite me.

I just don't want to be 50 and still holding myself up to the beauty standards of 20-year-olds. I don't want to look in the mirror and beat the crap out of myself because I've gained weight, like all women do unless they really kill themselves, as I get older. I don't want to be running on the treadmill of rich, white beauty until I die, or go blind.

I want to be able to accept myself, while living in a culture that is built on dissatisfaction.

This week I will be in New York City, the epicenter of Western culture, beauty standards and all. This should be interesting. I lived there for 2 years and change back in 2007-2009, and I wonder if I'll feel different being there without all the makeup and trendy clothes... while surrounded by makeup and trendy clothes. I dunno. We'll see, and you'll hear about it!