I spent this past Friday volunteering in my aunt’s classroom at her elementary school. Going with her required me to wake up far earlier than I am used to, which meant that the last thing I was concerned about was my appearance. However, I put on my nicest pants and threw on a professional shirt. To be honest, I was worried more about arriving on time than anything else, due to my perpetual history of tardiness.
About an hour after I got there, I was sitting in an exhausted trance in an undersized blue chair when I heard a chorus of whispers filling the classroom. It wasn’t until I heard the loud groan of the word “Ewww,” that I lifted my head.
Apparently, most of the girls in the classroom were asking their fifth grade, male counterparts if I was pretty, and their responses were not so positive. I made pretend not to hear them as they commented on my short hair, furry eyebrows, and tired, pale face.
However, after about two minutes of this, I found myself growing increasingly more insecure and excused myself to the bathroom. I looked at myself in the mirror.
As a disclaimer, I have never planned on writing about looks or appearances, because, for the majority of my life, I never thought that it was really worth discussing.
But, as I was looking at myself in the mirror in the elementary school bathroom, I started to wonder how strong the patriarchy was with this situation; that I, a grown-ass woman, was made insecure by a group of fifth-grade boys.
They were overpowering me with their perceptions of beauty, probably ones that they have learned from television or the Internet. Granted, the opinions of these 10-year-old students did not upset me. Rather, it was that the standards of female attractiveness had extended to such a young age. It was starting to feel helpless.
I was a paraprofessional for a middle school class this summer, and I met a beautiful eighth-grade female student who confided to me that she had been hospitalized for an eating disorder that school year. She told me that all of her friends were skinny and pretty, and that it was hard to believe that she was attractive in the way celebrities look. Besides telling this student how much I admired her for her strength, and reminding her that her body is just a case for her soul (that elicited an eye roll from her), there was not much I could do.
There are people my age who are struggling just as much as this young student was. Insecurity is not something that just disappears with age. It’s hilarious and accepted to Snapchat your friend a picture of your four chins at an unattractive angle, but nearly sacrilegious to go on a date or out to a bar without 30 minutes of preparation to look "presentable."
If you look at it objectively, it just seems like an overly confusing and altogether unnecessary game to play. And if you're like me, and perhaps a little exhausted, it’s easy to quit this game prematurely.
In order to create any sort of outward change, it's important to understand and sit with our own opinions and perspectives as to what we feel beauty is. By doing this, we are better able to distinguish both what we value and how much we value it in a person.
I went through a period in my life where I chopped all of my hair off because I did not want to feel “pretty” anymore, mostly because growing up, I was told that long hair was beautiful, like Tova Benjamin writes about in her article.
I wanted to wear asexualized clothing and detach emotionally from any sort of romantic situation because I wanted be seen as an actual person, as opposed to somebody with boobs and a nice face.
Tavi Gevinson expresses this idea in her really good article. But then, over time, I came to realize that by doing this, I was only letting society/the patriarchy/whatever win. Who canreally determine what is feminine, when it comes down to it?
I can be incredibly feminine and beautiful without having long tresses and perfectly lined eyeliner. You best believe that you can, too.
It would be one thing if it was just something our generation is doing, but it’s a whole other thing for it affecting people younger than us, who are still determining and crafting what beauty is in their eyes.
That day in class, a quiet fifth-grade girl could have heard her male classmate outline in what ways I was not pretty. And, in return, she could have committed it all to memory, taking serious note that perfectly maintained eyebrows warrant male approval. That makes me worried and, ultimately, powerless.
So, my call to action is to tell you, readers (regardless of gender), to do you. Go braless or bare-assed, or treat yourself to that new MAC palette and wear the shit out of it. By doing you, unapologetically, somewhere the wheels will begin turning and perspectives will begin to shift. And with that, I am pretty sure that there will be a fifth-grade student, somewhere, who is going to benefit from it.
Originally appeared in The Odyssey, reproduced at the request of the author.