Other Girls

I have nice hair.

You wouldn’t know it to look at pictures of me. I don’t often do anything with it. I let it grow wild (I wear bangs, but only because I’m vain and hate my hairline), I never style it, I only comb it because I don’t want people to stare at the lady who looks like she just rolled out of bed.

But I have a lot of it, and it’s strong, and I can wash it with cheap shampoo and use over-the-counter hair color way too often without damaging it. It grows fast (useful for those cut-my-own-bangs tragedies), and it’s shiny without me encouraging it at all. It may not last, but my mom, at 78, still has nice hair, so I figure mine has a shot.

When I was a teenager, I tried, now and then, to play with my hair. I had this braid thing I’d do, just one thin plait, pulling hair out of my eyes and hanging down behind my ear with the rest of my unbound hair. I got good enough at it that I could do it fairly quickly. I don’t remember why I stopped.

But I can guess.

I loved dresses, too. Still do. My mom used to carp at me about how impractical they were—not because they were dresses, but because they were only a single outfit. Blouses and skirts were the way to go, she taught me, because you could mix and match; but I loved dresses, the more formal, the better. I never really got past my childhood desire to grow up into a fairy princess, my internal image of which I’m pretty sure is Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz.

Glinda the Good Witch from the film The Wizard of Oz

I learned at a fairly young age that “fairy princess” wasn’t actually a profession, which later led to a realization that magic wasn’t real, which seemed profoundly unfair and probably explains why I spend so much time constructing fictional landscapes in my head. But I never lost my attraction for All The Poofy Dresses. My one and only must-have for my wedding was a poofy dress; as far as everything else went, I’d have been happy enough in a courthouse with me in my dress and Spouse in jeans and a t-shirt. (He wore a tux. He was gorgeous.)

If you look at me—if you see me at the grocery store, or wandering through Barnes and Noble, or picking up my kid at school—you wouldn’t know this about me. I wear no makeup at all. I wear jeans and sweaters or t-shirts. I go for sneakers or slip-on clunkers. Everything is practical. (I do wear jewelry, but it’s stuff I never take off.) I’m comfortable this way, but there’s definitely, sometimes, an aspect of hiding out.

Because when I was younger, when I was full of energy and imagination and wanting to experiment with all the cultural trappings of femininity, I got the very strong message that for me there was no point in bothering at all.

And I got this message from the Other Girls.

Our culture is a funny thing when it comes to gender. In many ways we accept it as malleable, and that’s becoming more and more common. I see so many in my kid’s generation who are staking out their personal identities and choosing their own descriptors for who they are and who they wish to be. It’s marvelous, really; they’re bending the language and the culture to reality, rather than trying to bend themselves. They’ll make healthier adults than we do, I suspect.

But there’s one way that culture still seems very binary, and that’s around bullying. Boys and girls tend to bully in very different ways. It’s all around ostracizing, but on the whole boys tend to be more direct, and more physical. I understood that sort of bullying; there’s not a lot of subterfuge there. Girls, on the other hand…girls gaslight, and talk about you like you’re not there, and falsify friendship and compliment you to set you up. They make it clear, through bright smiles, that you’ll never be as good as they are and you might as well not try. And they do this with courtesy and politeness, which allows them to fly under the radar of an awful lot of well-meaning adults. (I won’t go into detail, but The Kid’s experiences have shown me that where we live, at least, none of this has changed since I was a teen.)

I learned my hair was hopeless. I learned I should never, ever wear dresses or skirts, or try to dress nicely at all. I learned that attempting makeup was ludicrous. And I learned this from the Other Girls who told me so: the ones who dressed perfectly, who had elegant hairstyles and elaborate, flawless makeup. No doubt they worked hard on it, and years of practice brought them real skill. But somehow they felt the need to explain to me that my own attempts were sub-par and I should just quit.

Eventually, I did.

There’s a bit of a struggle I see on the internet these days, all around trying to empower girls. There’s GIRLS CAN BE SCIENTISTS and GIRLS DON’T HAVE TO SETTLE FOR BEING PRINCESSES which turns into WHAT’S WRONG WITH PRINCESSES and PRINCESSES CAN ALSO BE GOOD AT SCIENCE and I get all that, I really do, but it’s predicated on this idea that somehow traditional, super-feminine, poofy-dressed female beauty is devalued, that women who enjoy that stuff are somehow seen as frivolous or lesser because of it.

But here’s the thing: super-feminine, poofy-dressed women aren’t devalued because they’re super-feminine and poofy-dressed. They’re devalued because they’re women. Those of us who aren’t super-feminine and poofy-dressed? We’re just invisible.

Humans are, I think, a hierarchical species. We’re not quite dogs, but we do like to run in packs, and we do like to have some power. In some cultures, the easiest way to define power is to find someone to exercise power over. It’s easy to defend the princess trope as one that shouldn’t be denigrated; it’s easy to point out that princess/scientist isn’t a dichotomy. We knew that back in the 1970s, too.

But it wasn’t misogyny that made me Not Like Other Girls. It was Other Girls.

I’m not entirely unlike them, as it happens. I still love dresses, and even though I don’t wear makeup I love indulging The Kid at Sephora and seeing what she’s learned from the beauty bloggers on YouTube. I love that she has the nerve to experiment and develop her own style, and that the kids in her school aren’t a deterrent.

She has mermaid hair. I’d have loved mermaid hair at her age. I never would have tried it; the Other Girls would’ve made my life hell and taken every bit of enjoyment out of it.

I can’t take all of elementary school and high school and all those people who persistently, repeatedly told me I wasn’t part of the pack and turn around and view their 2019 equivalents as some kind of oppressed class. I can’t. I spent the 70s and 80s being told they were better than me because boys would never look at me. Now they’re better than me because makeup makes them better feminists? Please.

The lesson here, of course, is that in my day the Other Girls weren’t Other Girls because they knew how to dress and do their hair. They were Other Girls because they were assholes. That there’s an association in my head with perfect makeup and jackassness isn’t the fault of perfect makeup, and I do get that.

But we all know princesses can be scientists and warriors. (We’ve always known this; Princess Leia didn’t come out of a vacuum.) We also know they don’t have to be, that it’s OK to be an ordinary person, princess or not. But after a lifetime of being told I don’t measure up because I don’t know how to present myself perfectly…maybe the acknowledgement that not-princesses are just as valid, that you’re no less valuable if you reject the stereotypes than if you embrace them, is not such a bad thing.

The misogynist Not Like Other Girls woman is the flip side of the Fake Geek Girl, and to be honest I’m not sure people like this exist outside of poorly-written TV and movie scripts. Reality is much more complicated, and yes, it makes me angry to be told I’ve internalized something awful just because I side-eye the Kardashians. Beautiful women who know how to do their makeup aren’t persecuted, and before you come after me for saying I’m happy being not-that, maybe consider if they’d have stuck up for me when we were both fifteen.

We’re all important. All of us. Even if we’re not princesses at heart.

And if I’m wrong? At least I’ll always have my hair.

2 thoughts on “Other Girls

  1. Sorry, but I’m really jealous of your hair! I have fine, thin hair that never measured up to the 70’s ideal of long and luxurious. I have always wanted thick, long hair but never was able to grow it. I want mermaid hair! Guess I’ll always have to be that geek with not gorgeous hair!

    1. I hated my hair in the 70s. I never could get it to do that Farrah Fawcett flip! And I always wanted it to be red instead of dark brown, which is probably why I started coloring it as soon as I could.

      Mermaid hair is gorgeous, but if you go for the intense colors it fades pretty quickly. And it’s time-consuming: they had to strip her hair first and do the color in two layers. Took about 4 hours, but even now that it’s faded to pastels she loves it. (But yowch, it was pricey!)

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