It took me twenty years to get here, but I sit before you today as an outspoken, media-critical feminist who devotes far more time to intellectual activities than perfecting my appearance. While many women choose to devote time to both, I’ve found that the balance is difficult to achieve. I feel the most uplifted and empowered when I ditch beauty rituals and instead focus on doing things that require my internal strengths – empathy, compassion, intelligence, and determination. These qualities exist independently of my physical attributes and I prize them above all else.
Let me take you back to my high school years: at age 14, I hardly resembled the person I would grow to become. When I show my friends pictures of my freshman self today, they literally cannot believe it is actually me. I straightened my hair every day, slathered on an excess of liquid foundation, and worshipped my eyeliner (that wound up making me look like a raccoon on a daily basis. Cute right?). I didn’t know how to properly apply make-up, but the bigger issue was that I believed that I was not beautiful without it. I had to cover every pimple, every imperfection – or I wasn’t fit to step outside of my house.
The pressure of high school had a lot to do with this – I knew that many of my peers prized the kind of “look” that I was aiming for, and if I ever wanted to be popular or liked by dudes I would have to do my best to look like the prettiest girls in school. In 9th grade all I wanted to do was fit in. I was still the smart and quirky girl I’d always been, but my physical appearance did not reflect this. I just wanted to look like the other girls at my school, and more than anything I wanted to be pretty.
I spent my early high school years worrying about nearly everything possible in relation to my appearance, from my weight to my acne to my hair. I spent fifteen minutes every morning applying make-up and thirty minutes straightening my hair, and the time it took to get ready for school took precedence over eating breakfast (talk about mixed up priorities). Some days I didn’t have time to do my hair and so I left it natural, and although my friends assured me that it looked great that way, I felt insecure on those days.
Despite my stringent beauty routines, my self-esteem was horribly low. Like so many girls, I fell into the trap of comparing myself to others, constantly. I was part of a youth group where I always felt like I was in competition with other girls – who would have the prettiest dress? The best hair? The cutest hook-up buddy? It was like my life was a beauty pageant. And although I was intelligent and successful in school and had amazing friends, I still obsessed over being pretty, as if everything that I had was not enough until my appearance was perfect.
When I look back on these times now, I realize how awful and unhealthy my obsession with beauty was. As high school went on, I slowly began to care less about my looks and focus more on actually living. I began to drop certain aspects of my beauty routine and in doing so I felt immense relief and freedom. I stopped straightening my hair and wore it natural almost every day. I ditched the eyeliner entirely and wore just mascara and foundation from time to time. My body image concerning weight was still on the rocks, but I worked through it and (thankfully) never put myself through any seriously self-destructive weight loss attempts.
I began to realize that all of the things I did to look a certain way were not for me – they were for others. They were for boys who I had crushes on and they were for the catty, judgmental girls I was surrounded by. I wasn’t doing any of that for myself, and that’s why dropping my beauty rituals empowered me. I came out of my shell and began to dress more like the quirky, weird hippie that I am. I wore things because they were comfortable and I liked them, not because they were cool or in-style. I began shopping in the men’s section and developed a particular love for all things flannel. And throughout all of this, I maintained my friendships and had several casual relationships that went well enough considering my inexperience. Not that it in any way determines my worth, but many of my peers still found me to be very beautiful – sans make-up and all. More importantly, I knew that I was beautiful – and even MORE importantly, I knew that beauty was not my most important quality.
Going to college sealed the deal for me: I took my first women’s studies class and learned about feminism. I learned about media literacy and how to be critical of the beauty industry. I saw beautiful women who never wore make-up or did their hair and dressed how they liked, and they radiated a confidence I had never seen. I stopped wearing make-up entirely for a time, and then occasionally wore mascara when I went out. I never straightened my hair and sometimes didn’t even bother to brush it. My sophomore year I made the decision to grow locks, ceasing to condition and brush my hair entirely. I decorated my locks with beads and charms and rejoiced in the fact that I no longer had to waste time “doing my hair.” I let it do its own thing and I love the way it has turned out. Of course I still devote time to hygienic rituals like showering and washing my locks, but I spend far less time in front of the mirror than I used to.
Ditching beauty rituals empowered me because I realized that there are so many other things I have time to do when I don’t waste minutes in the bathroom. Instead of spending half an hour on my hair, I use that time to read, write, or make myself a delicious breakfast. Spending less time in front of the mirror means that I have more time to spend interacting with others, making friends, and learning about the world around me. That’s how I see it, at least. I don’t mean to criticize women who do prize beauty rituals – only to assert that I am healthier and happier without these routines. Especially as an activist and (hopefully) future social worker, I know that there are so many other things to worry about besides whether or not my hair looks perfect. I would encourage all women, young girls especially, to prize their inner strengths above all else and not let chasing beauty take time away from living your life.
You are beautiful – but you are so much more than that.