Yesterday was, as swarms of optimistically half-dressed people trying to find space at porch and rooftop bars can confirm, like real spring. It was a similar day two years ago that I moved into a 4th-floor walk up in Hoboken, New Jersey. The 2-bedroom with exposed brick and blessed with in-unit laundry was above a nail salon, down the block from a 24-hour diner, and across the street from the bus stop I would take every day to Manhattan. Some days I didn’t like it; didn’t like the fellow commuters in their 20s who seemed both younger and more put together, didn’t like the yuppie families who never moved their strollers out of the way on the sidewalk. Sometimes I just resented not living in the city, worried my co-workers were thinking less of me as the only non New York State resident or annoyed at myself for falling short of my dream of a cooler Lower East Side life. But it was home. I hesitated to call it that, especially when the relationship that made it home was destabilized, but it was. Though I haven’t lived there in any real way since November, I had to leave it for good yesterday.
Time and time again I’ve said and written that my obsession with skincare is a way of micromanaging my whole exterior life. A blemish or a wrinkle is a flaw, and if someone catches one flaw they might just pull the whole thing apart. I’m deeply afraid of aging because that, too, skews the calculations. The world is more forgiving of young women, and my brain is already something that comes with disclaimers. The more placid a surface I can create, the harder it is to pin down my actual age, the less people will be tempted to look behind the curtain. My corrosive personality takes up so much space that I don’t have room to make physical mistakes.
I’m not a Pretty Girl, because from a very young age you either are or aren’t one, and I was not. Being a Pretty Girl is really just lines of input from your mom, your friends’ moms, your socialization as a girl, and your various privileges that you receive and compute to form the right output. In a vacuum it may not always translate to beauty, but it affords a sense of security. My mom, a great beauty who countless people have fallen in love with, is also not a Pretty Girl. And neither of us can spin those loves into confidence or assurance that we’re lovable. It all just bounces off.
Like countless people who have had to live any amount of time presenting as female, my relationship to my appearance is made up of my actual connection to my own body and my awareness of others’ connection to it. This is how I can begrudgingly acknowledge that enough people find me beautiful even though I hate myself and sometimes look in the mirror and think everything is angrily and badly put together. Knowing you have the ability to be beautiful but not being able to reap any personal benefits from it is a unique pressure that you can’t talk about because people find it obnoxious. Anyway, it’s there, and sometimes I wonder if people who were never told they were any of the superlative adjectives feel more free to let their partners see them with bad skin, to eat a big meal in public, to just get dressed and walk outside.
A writer I like explained once that she relies on language as a way of preceding and apologizing for her body and the space she takes up. It works the opposite way for me. I’m such an awful, vain motherfucker because I feel like my face is the only true apology, the only consolation prize, that I can wedge between the world and someone who has surely already worn our her welcome.
I have recently gotten very into Lana Del Rey – her decidedly not training montage material even dominates my running playlist. I’ve been aware of the siren with the 1,000 yard stare since she hit the scene in 2011 but avoided her, maybe unintentionally, for six years. As someone who runs in an unapologetically feminist circle, Lana Del Rey is not exactly on message. Outside of my bubble, Lana’s conceit is likewise out of tune with the zeitgeist. The current image of stars like Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, and Ariana Grande generally espouse agency and confidence. Although their songs can deal with tumultuous relationships, the message that wins out is almost always self-love and self-care. Lana, on the other hand, is often subsuming herself in the shadow of a man. Her (very internally consistent) world of dangerous, negligent men, affairs, and sugar daddies isn’t something I aspire to. But here’s the thing – it still speaks to me and my life much more than dozens of girl power creeds. It may be bad feminism, but damn if it doesn’t resonate with me.