But Vanity’s a Sin

Fashion is about dreaming and making other people dream. Donatella Versace.png

How many dresses do you own?

Didn’t you just go shopping?

How often do you polish your shoes?

Why are you so obsessed with where this came from and how much this cost?

I get asked questions like this more than I like admitting. And that may surprise people. We see fashion and clothing as vital parts of self expression. What you wear isn’t just about clothing your vulnerable meat shell from the elements, it’s an important part of expressing gender, race, interests and more. It sends a message when I wear a graphic t-shirt, jeans and a hoodie. It sends a message when I wear a 50s skater dress. And cosplaying shows very clearly that I obviously like being the center of attention.


Heavy. Short. Scarred.

Those are the things I have to say about myself.

But you’d likely never know that based upon how I dress and take care of myself.

I have a multi-step Korean-inspired skincare routine that takes me from clay mask to face wash to sheet masks to serums. I dress well. Many of my friends give me a hard time about how extra my fashion sense is. Recently, I’ve been stepping up my clothing for work, as well. And people have taken notice. My signature timeless style of dresses with pitch black tights have been well-documented. I like shoes and purses and clothes. I like looking good and I like attention.

But I am also hilariously insecure about my body and my looks.

I’m worried about my stomach and how short my legs are. I’m worried that my butt is too big and that my chest isn’t big enough. And despite my skincare routine, I suffer from acne, large pores and hyperpigmentation.

I take care of myself because in those moments of self-care I am aspiring to feel more beautiful.

I dress well, I value my face and I discuss fashion because it helps me feel beautiful at least for a moment or two.

I cosplay to, for a moment or two, become a character with a level of confidence that I clearly lack.

I write characters with more self-confidence than I have.

I do these things in hopes of one day being able to pull that confidence into my daily real life.

Now, there’s no conversation about vanity that isn’t also met with all of the hypocrisy of being a woman and being encouraged to be modest while also being so confident that it hurts.

As a lady, I am told to be modest and not try too hard to be noticed. But I am also shamed if I go out in sweatpants I’m told that I should “dress up just in case”. I have vivid memories of my grandmother saying that I may meet my future husband anywhere so I should always look good.

This doesn’t even begin to cover the strange junction between a woman looking good and feeling good about herself while also then being called “stuck up” or “vain” or “high maintenance” for caring about how she looks. Let’s also not forget that if I wear a low cut dress or a tight shirt that as a biological female I am “asking for it”.

The whore/virgin dichotomy that extends even to how I dress fascinates me and that applies to females as well. To women, at times, my choices for black tights, vintage patterns and low cut dresses and shirts is just as scandalous and offensive as it likely would be to one of my other Southern foremothers. I’m judged for wearing shapewear because I should “love my curves” while also then being judged for not having a smoothed out silhouette. That barely even covers the fact that people still feel the need to judge and comment how much I spend on clothing, serums, sheet masks and shoes. And unfortunately, I am not always mature enough to simply write off such comments. I’m happy to say where I get my sheet masks and where the dress was from and that only adds to the at times uncomfortable silences between “Where did you get that dress?” and “What did you do to your hair?”

It was only a few decades ago that a woman was more than mention that she spent hundreds on her hair, at least fifty to make sure she was entirely hairless and that her outfit was likely hundreds of dollars not to mention the thousands in jewelry or additional hundreds in makeup, shapewear and more. But humility is once more en vogue so mentioning how the more attractive sausage is made is now less a virtue and more a vice. The rise of social media influences has reversed some of this modesty. Now, it’s once more to spend a lot of money and time on some things. It’s alright to have brushes that cost you hundreds but your clothes should be perpetually thrifty. I’m supposed to wear little to no makeup but am also judged for letting my hyperpigmentation and dark circles remain uncovered on my face. Not long ago, an older acquaintance commented on the fact that I should wear lipstick more often.

Vanity works in a certain price bracket. It works for a Kylie Jenner or a Violet Chachki but it doesn’t always work for a social media manager who has a penchant for cameos and too much foundation. It’s not always alright for me to spend forty or so dollars on concealer but the dress I got at Goodwill equally raises concerns.


My perceived vanity helps me cope with my insecurity. Wearing a nice dress or getting my highlight just right help me feel better about how I look. When I was younger, I was told to value my looks and as I got older, I was told to value my mind. There was no middle ground. Either I focused on looking great or I focused on being a studious young woman. The idea that one is judged based upon clothing and style were drilled into me as a young one. I had a part to play and my family knew that no matter what I wore I’d face being sexualized, exoticized and fetishized: there was no room for error for sloppy dressing or anything like that. But all the while I was told to worry about how I looked and told to make sure I looked my best and took care of myself.

That all took a backseat for a while and I stopped caring about how I looked outside of costume because I was sexualized and fetishized no matter what. I’m fortunate enough to have come back into my own style-wise and hope that what many read as vanity in me just trying to cope in a world that doesn’t always value a lady with cellulite and acne scarring.

Stay beautiful, fair readership: in all the ways that word entails.

 

And Maybe Perchance to be Exotic

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You should smile more.
You’d be prettier if you smiled.

Have you thought about losing weight?
You should wear make-up more often!

You aren’t married yet? You should get on that!

My hair is kept short. I’m plump, to say. I’m short, quite petite at maybe 5’2’’ on a good day. I’m a nerd, an otaku. I love uniforms. I sew, I cosplay. I write, oh stars, I write. And I list these things for one simple reason: for all of my quirks and interests, there are aspects of me and so many others that are acceptable to some and deplorable to others.

There’s a certain beauty to being raised Southern. Things that are simply aspects of life for many Southern women that were once points of ire from our Yankee friends are now oh so en vogue. The fact that I sew, I clean, I can bake: thanks to Pinterest are now seasonably fashionable. Cooking, sewing, baking were for many Southern women just tools for survival. We had to learn to do those things, even now in the age of take out and misandry we maintain the old traditions that many saw as little more than patriarchal suffering as an art. I never saw cooking, baking or any household art as punishment: the beauty of feminism is that as long as I want to do it, it’s more than allowed and I love a world where I can bake a cake from scratch and still maintain my degree.

The dark skin that I have such a complex relationship with happens to be either fetishized or just seen as a marked departure from the common hegemony of classical depiction. When I traveled overseas, I remember being the center of catcalling and comments because of my looks. Not just that I was an American but an African-American with a “full” frame. I didn’t mind them: even in the US I’m seen as “exotic”: I scarcely like admitting how many times I’ve heard “I’ve never dated a black girl before.” as if somehow outside of more melanin that I was somehow different from another girl.

I started cutting my hair short when I was 12. In a Mulan-esque rebellion against a father who kept my hair long, I started cutting my hair shorter and shorter. At its shortest, I could have passed for male but I keep it now just past my ears and I start to get anxious when my hair begins to touch my neck. In the past, short hair was needed: it kept lice away and that’s what wigs are for if you wish to continue to luxuriate in the lushes of long hair. I resist make up for the most part and you can read more about that here but I tend not to wear a lot of make up. In any other era, such a move would be the hallmark of feminine modesty and chastity.

Being petite for many cultures has been the standard of feminine beauty. Being heavy was once a sign of wealth. One could afford enough food to put on weight. Beauty standards for years emphasized and put praise to women who were full in figure. We did not start to savor a thin waist until fairly recently in the history of humanity.

I could list sources forever but I rather tell you a personal story about a chance meeting a very beautiful lady. I was in the Vienna Museum of Natural History. Among the dodos, Tasmanian tigers and the jaw of a very impressive prehistoric creature there was a cloak and dagger-like room. In it was a tiny figurine. She is old but doesn’t look a day over 1000 and she is lovely: the Venus of Willendorf. She’s a small, plump figure dating back centuries. She’s said to be a fertility goddess to a long-gone culture and I got to see her and in her I got to see a body that, well, looked more like mine. Her size was meant to show abundance. She was meant to be carried around and despite her small stature, she’s a real looker if you ever happen to be in Vienna, Austria. But if you were to see a woman now that looked like her, that looked like me, how many people would turn their noses up to her looks?

So let’s tie all of this together, but to do that, I’ll have to tell you all another story. When I was in high school and in all of my Japanese culture-loving wisdom, a few friends of mine and I decided to fill out omiai. These marriage applications were very common in Japan and forced people to, with the help of a matchmaker, list out all of their possible traits and flaws. I “updated” mine again in college and here are selections from my personal application.

Petite, very intelligent. University educated. Comes from a good family. Speaks multiple languages. Has debt, but good debt. At risk for some health issues but overall sturdy American girl.

In the right eyes, my somewhat stoic nature when presented with something interesting in a book or in an audio format. The fact that I can sew. The fact that I can cook. To the right person, are marked signs of favor or tacky throwbacks to a bygone era. Even by old Southern standards: I’d be quite the novelty. A small woman who is a domestic goddess but also of immense intellect that could be the pride of any household of the treasured pearl to any husband’s crown.

Now, by now, you may be asking:

Now, that was lovely, Amanda. What in the hell do you mean to gain by saying all of this?

What I hope to gain in this exploration of the fragile standards of beauty is simply this: understanding.

Think of how many times just in American history that standards of beauty changed from loving pale skin to adoring a beach tan. From staunch and strict segregation to the romantization of interracial relationships. And think of how culture’s influences changed how we see ambitious women as either harlots or literally demonic in the case of the story of Lilith (which if you’ve never read, seriously do that. I’ll wait.) The woman who would be pharaoh was so hated in her death that her successor defaced her monuments to deny her an afterlife. And literature and other pop culture revels in the mythical fall from grace for female characters. Think of the women whose ambition simultaneously is attractive and lethal. And even me as a woman who has been called “passionate” and “knowledgeable” by some can also be “intimidating” and “loud” to others that rather judge me on the first glance.

Women, men, people: we’re all lovely in our own special ways and we’re all still human in the most mortal ways. Our traits, habits, likes and dislikes can in one culture be understood and respected and in another exotic and wild.

So own your looks and know that despite your culture and the ire of others: you’re spectacular in your own special way. Standards of beauty change but individualism still matters most of all.

Notes for further consideration on the topic: