First published in Daily Life, March 2016
Every big city dweller knows that nothing signals impending emergency like being interrupted during a blissful commute. When I felt a woman’s hand touch my knee on a recent train trip, I instantly scanned the carriage for a masked assailant or, at the very least, an opportunist using his captive audience to deliver a well-timed racist spiel. But when I turned to the woman in panic, she looked at me with a mix of pity and concern. “I’m not sure if you realise but the tag on your skirt is sticking out,” she said, lowering her voice so that passengers couldn’t hear her. She smoothed the fabric over my leg and tucked in the nylon culprit.
Unsolicited advice about less-than-perfect self-presentation rank high among my life’s recurring themes. I was taught how to adjust my skirt the same time I learnt to recite the alphabet, thanks to the stream of distant relatives who believed that proper sartorial etiquette was the difference between a perpetually scrappy toddler and a harlot-in-the-making. Since then, perfect strangers have chased me down to adjust a dress hitched up by shopping bags, point out an unruly bra strap and once – while I was jogging to Grimes on an especially carefree Saturday – alert me to the fact that my leggings became transparent in the morning sun. Each time, these anonymous advisors delivered these missives with zero regard for my personal space and the gravity of a profound favour for which I’d obviously thank them later. Each time, their advice missed the mark when it came to correcting my sloppy attempts at grooming but managed to burst my happy bubble with the jellyfish sting of shame.
As anyone who’s read The Beauty Myth will tell you, our world conflates a woman’s looks with her value but this also extends to the way she presents herself to the world. We’re supposed to aspire towards Alexa Chung’s lithe frame and Jennifer Lawrence’s chiselled cheekbones, sure, but we’re also meant to berate ourselves for leaving the house with unkempt hair, showing up to a party with a ladder in our stockings or unconsciously flashing our underwear when we’re running for a bus or laughing uncontrollably – irrespective of our genetic jackpots. This is why caring less about techniques for applying smudge-free mascara or leaving the house with socks that don’t match rather than oh, I don’t know, the lifespan of your fern collection, often feels like failing femininity rather than evading its many traps.
In a May 2015 blog post, academic Sarah Bernstein suggests that we mock those who wear maxi dresses in public because women have been historically expected to look comfortable without ever being comfortable. “Getting rid of the corset didn’t mean we stopped policing women’s bodies […] What we really did was not so much ‘free’ ourselves from the corset as internalise it,” she writes.
And shockingly, this blueprint for what counts as polished is difficult to quantify and impossible to sustain. Reach for the red lipstick and you’re too sexy to be taken seriously, and throw out the Frizz-Ease and you’re too slovenly to be credible. Flaunt your obsession with grooming, however, and you’ll attract the vitriol reserved for Kim Kardashian. Like Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak in the new Steve Jobs movie, be a man in rumpled chinos and grown-out mop and you’re a lovable genius, too devoted to work to care about anything so shallow as your appearance. If you’re a woman of colour, your chances at finding stockings to match your skin tone or straightening your hair without chemical relaxants are about the same as spotting a man on public transport being coerced to shine his shoes.
In a December 2015 essay for The New Inquiry, Autumn Whitfield-Madrano writes about how receiving a compliment from a man about her neckscarf felt as uncomfortable as receiving a catcall because of the way it keeps patriarchal surveillance of women’s bodies alive. Next time a stranger attempts to primp my outfit or tuck in my tag in public, I’ll step away and look at them with indifference. I like to move through the world with happy and messy abandon. And the way I choose to present myself is entirely up to me.