Turning 35, just a month ago yesterday, has turned out to be a much bigger deal than I was expecting it to.
There’s the well-known Patton Oswalt bit from his Werewolves & Lollipops comedy album about the handful of birthdays that you should be allowed to celebrate.
There’s only about 20 birthdays you should be allowed to celebrate. And the others? You’re wasting cake and paper…Here are the 20 you can celebrate: 1 through 9 you get a birthday. Cos you’re a little kid! A little kid gets a birthday. 10, you get a birthday. Now you’re in the double digits. Something’s different…13, you get a birthday. Now you’re a teenager….16 you get a birthday, cos now you can drive…18? Awesome birthday, cos you can buy a gun and vote…When you’re 19, you get a birthday, because it’s your last year as a teenager…When you’re 20, you get a birthday. Any time you enter a new set of tens: 20, 30, 40, 50, you get a birthday. 21, you get an awesome birthday. And then, THAT’S IT. A birthday every ten years. “I’m 26!” Great, go to work. Who gives a shit?”
In a much more self-serious way, my birthdays, for much of my life, were freighted with the knowledge that I was counting them against the years of my mother’s life.
19 when she married my father. Just shy of 23 when I was born. Just shy of 26 when my brother was born. 29 when my sister was born. 31 when she died of breast cancer.
A handful of birthdays.
My own 30th birthday was much harder than I expected it to be. I hadn’t exactly relished my 20s, so I was looking forward to finally shaking that decade off. But I found myself surprised by the sudden, encroaching dread that I was also walking straight into the equivalent of my mother’s last year alive. It felt like I was gearing up for some sort of grim scavenger hunt, or my own personal yearlong perambulation of her Stations of the Cross.
I threw myself a memorable birthday party at a local bar, and the rest of the year actually proceeded with a fairly epic amount of adventure.
I traveled around the country and to Canada, officially dedicated myself to my Buddhist practice, attended numerous concerts, experienced romance and heartbreak, received my first-ever clairvoyant reading (which set in motion my personal path to exploring my own psychic abilities), met my current boyfriend for the first time, and started playing music again.
After all of that, finally hitting 31, the actual age at which my mother died, didn’t feel like quite such a big deal.
32 was its own mild brand of unusual. I’d officially outlived my mother and had no more years of hers to compare myself against. It was like being reborn into my own life, in media res.
But 35 felt suddenly . . . serious. Weighty. Real. But not in any doom-and-gloom kind of way. It was more like taking another step toward embodying my word for 2014—BUILD. Though I hadn’t exactly felt disempowered previously, turning 35 infused me with a palpable sense of empowerment. It suddenly seemed like my ability to make my life into something magical was much more achievable, and much more imperative, than I’d previously allowed myself to believe.
As I mentioned back at the end of December, I’ve amassed a substantial collection of perfume over the past few years, thanks to reading blog reviews and books and purchasing samples from a variety of online shops.
Choosing a perfume to set or enhance the tone for my day has become just about my favorite thing to do in the morning. If I’m desiring courage, romance, comfort, playfulness, sensuality, grounding, authority, mystery, or countless other qualities, there’s probably something in my stash that’ll help me achieve the effect I’m looking for.
On days when I’m called to run a meeting at work or otherwise need to feel more powerful, I’ll choose something commanding but a little austere, perhaps with a prominent vetiver note like Chanel Sycomore or Hermes Terre d’Hermes, or perhaps something incensey like Neela Vermeire Trayee or Comme des Garcons Avignon. If I really need to amp up the take-no-prisoners attitude, I’ll opt for something almost smouldering, like Profumum Fumidus or Bulgari Black—sending out a not-so-subtle cue to stand the fuck back.
Last week I was a nervous wreck about my appointment at the bank to set up a special needs trust for my autistic sister. Though my amazing lawyers had helped me get all my ducks in a row beforehand, I was still feeling anxious about going in there alone. For days beforehand, I dithered about the paperwork, wondering if I would have all the information that I needed, hoping not to make a fool out of myself or irrevocably mess up something legally or financially.
The morning of the appointment, before I even got out of bed, I started mentally going through my roster of perfumes, making a list of the most warlike things I had in my collection. I wanted to find something that would, I dunno, strike fear into the hearts of the bankers or help me assert my dominance over this small chunk of money that felt like it had been holding me hostage. I considered all of the perfumes mentioned above and more, but nothing felt right. Nothing felt like it would possibly be strong enough.
So I changed tack. I thought maybe I should wear my father’s favorite scent, Dior Eau Sauvage. I’d worn it to his wake and funeral, both as a tribute to the little joys in his life and so that I wouldn’t ruin one of my own perfumes by forever associating it with that sad occasion. Now I was going to be closing yet another chapter on his legal affairs by taking this small bit of money he’d been able to leave for us and making sure a portion of it would be protected for my sister’s future use. It seemed like wearing that perfume might be a fitting gesture. But it too felt wrong. There still wasn’t enough me in the equation.
And that’s when I realized my fundamental error in judgment with this—I didn’t need something that made me feel more like some marauding warrior or that hearkened back to the past. I needed something that made me feel more gentle, more forgiving, more free.
Go femme. Go soft. This is your power, I heard something whisper to me intuitively.Like having one of those dreams where you discover a door that leads to a previously undiscovered room in your house, I suddenly remembered to connect to the so-often ignored power of my own femininity. I surprise myself again and again these days by bringing myself back to the simple truth that I am a woman and that I have permission to explore how that affects the way I move through the world in my body. I can allow the essence of my womanliness to inform my life and my decisions rather than fighting and fighting and fighting to form myself into some kind of sexless powerbot trying to chart my course solely by the rules and expectations of men.
So I clothed myself in a soft grey sweater dress and applied dewy, shimmery makeup, ever so slightly steering myself away from the monochromatic black shirts and black leggings and harsh, saturated eyeshadows that I’ve been gravitating to recently. And I instantly knew that my scent had to be Guerlain L’Heure Bleue.
I liberally doused myself with what remained of my small sample of the eau de parfum and almost literally could feel the tension dropping from my shoulders, my blood pressure ebbing back from its previous mission-critical spike. The perfume helped me remember that there wasn’t actually anything to fight here, that if I was presented with a question I couldn’t answer, I could just be honest about it rather than blustering along with a hedged response, hoping to save face.
The perfume also helped bring me back to the remembrance that I was unequivocally doing a Good Thing by jumping through all these legal and financial hoops—I was disconnecting myself and my siblings from my father’s toxic failure narrative that he hadn’t been able to provide for us “like a man.” I was also demonstrating for my incredibly anxiety-ridden sister that she doesn’t have to live in fear of being abandoned.
The meeting itself ended up going swimmingly. The two women helping me set up the account could not have been more helpful or easy to work with. They went to great lengths to let me know that if I needed any subsequent help, they would be ready and available to assist with whatever I could possibly need. I left the bank branch with a palpable feeling of relief, and of having reset the tone for my financial future, and my sister’s, away from combat and insecurity, and toward a place of love and quiet confidence.
Even as a young girl, I always had the sense that I was going to be an awesome old lady.
Perhaps a weird thing for a 10 year old to think, but after my mom died, my primary female role models were my two grandmothers, so that was who I spent the most time around, other than my school friends and cousins around my same age.
It’s probably telling that “woman” was not really a phase of life that I ever much considered or aspired to. It was like, in my brain, I would go straight from being a little girl (or maybe, if I really strained the limits of my imagination, a teenager) to being elderly. The whole vast range of experience of being an adult female was invisible to me.
It just goes to show how ridiculously formative family-of-origin issues can be. I was obviously surrounded by plenty of adult women—aunts and neighbors and teachers and my dad’s friends’ wives—but I never thought to imagine myself into their shoes. There was just enough distance between us that I couldn’t fathom it.
Of course, in many ways, I had already fashioned myself into some kind of juvenile burlesque of a grown woman. “Mature for her age” or “wise beyond her years” or whatever other euphemisms were used to describe the fact that, without an awful lot of consent on my part, I was thrust into the position of being a confidante for my father and a mini-mother for my siblings. Strongly empathic long before I’d ever even heard the term, I instinctively “knew” that I had to help out, had to pitch in, had to keep the routine of daily life running as smoothly as possible.
As the years progressed, it became more and more difficult for me to find much common ground with girls my age. I faked it well enough, and was never exactly lacking for friends, but there was always a weird shadow dogging me that made me question the veracity of my own emotional experiences. Getting upset about a boy or a snub from a popular girl, or coveting some then-stylish brand of clothing or shoe that we weren’t really able to afford, I could hear a whisper in the back of my mind, “Isn’t this a little ridiculous? Isn’t this kind of beneath you? Aren’t you supposed to be better than this?” So I taught myself to deny my feelings as frivolous or inconvenient.
And I know that so many other girls felt this way too! Patriarchy does not exactly allow a lot of room for displays of “girlish” emotion . . . or grown women’s “shrewish” emotions for that matter.
Nevertheless, perhaps this is why I longed to project myself into an early old age. Even though my own grandmothers were hard-ass bitches in their own ways, I still though of them as essentially mild, beyond reproach for their occasional outbursts of frustration. They’d seen it all and then some, so if they were mad at us—or at anything—surely they had a good reason for it. But they were also representative of surpassing softness and indulgence and mirth.
My childhood vision of what I’d be like as an old lady was probably something like the Chinese figure of Budai, the Laughing Buddha, all giggles and potbelly. There’s freedom and wisdom to be had in this guise, of course—but I know now that the sweetness of it can only come after genuinely experiencing, feeling, and learning from the extravagant messes of being a woman, through and through, first.
Like many women who were teenagers in the ‘90s, I overplucked my eyebrows.
I remember I was just shy of my sixteenth birthday when I first attacked them, after reading an article in Seventeen magazine about how best to shape a perfectly formed arch.
There were instructions for how to achieve the proper angle, by using a pencil to indicate a line from your pupil to the midpoint of your brow, but I certainly wasn’t that methodical about it. I found a small pair of tweezers from a cheap Swiss army knife (seriously–my femme skills have always left a bit to be desired) and just started thinning everything out.
Photos of my mother from when she was a teenager and in her early 20s likewise show her with…unrealistically shaped brows, shall we call them. And, I have to wonder, if she’d still been alive when I decided to take matters into my own hands, if she would have discouraged me from doing so. Or if she would have taken me to a salon where a professional might have been a bit more gentle with the approach toward reshaping them. Or if, y’know, she at least would have recommended I use a slightly nicer tool for the job.
But, since I’d committed to the endeavor with my typical never-look-back, never-say-die attitude (I didn’t want to admit, even to myself, that I was terrified of looking like an idiot or that I didn’t know how to do something or even that I was completely in the dark about the so-called right way to be a girl), I just kept tweezing and tweezing and tweezing. Alone in my bedroom in the evening after school or on the weekend, I would stare into a mirror and compulsively try to straighten everything out, which of course usually only made matters worse.
None of the older women in my life ever said anything to me about it. Maybe they didn’t notice? But, I kind of doubt it. I was simply left at sea about it, as I was in so many other areas of my life.
Throughout my twenties, I always had the nagging thought in the back of my mind that I would need to have a professional help me fix my eyebrows, as best as could be managed after so many years of overplucking. My fear, though, always got the better of me whenever I would seriously think about going anywhere. I rationalized that it would be too expensive or too painful, but I was really most afraid that I’d be laughed off the premises — for the unruly state of what was left of my natural brows or for the lamentable way that I’d maintained them, I’m not sure.
I was equally afraid, though, that my oddly shaped brows were secretly earning looks of derision from fashion snobs and other beauty-conscious women that I knew or ran into on a regular basis. With something as unavoidably visible as one’s eyebrows, about the best I was able to do was draw them in a little more evenly with dark brown powder, but it wasn’t like I could exactly hide them (like one can do with most other undesirable flaws).
But for all my perception of myself as a worldly, sophisticated aesthete and intellectual, I knew I would dissolve into a puddle of shame instantly if anyone were to look askance at or make an oblique comment about my grooming. I know the secret twinge of shameful identification I feel when I look at an older woman with ridiculously shaped or drawn-in brows and think, “my god, is that how I look to everyone else around me?”
I eventually got up enough courage to have my eyebrows threaded at the little “Perfect Eyebrows” salon in the Century Shopping Center at Clark & Diversey. (The first time I tried to go, I tell you the truth, I got so scared that I turned around before I even entered the shop and left the building altogether. Reader, I was 33.) The woman who runs the place is completely no-nonsense, and the Yelp page for the business is full of praise for her quick treatments and low prices. I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences there, and though my hair grows so fast that I’m often left with bristling caterpillars on my face on the in-between weeks when I can’t make it for a treatment, my eyebrows do, in general, look a lot better than they used to.
I’ve had to make peace with the fact that I’ve probably done permanent damage to the way my eyebrows will grow in for the rest of my life. I will continue to look longingly at my friends who have perfectly full, Jennifer Connelly-style brows and envy them for their teenage foresight in not messing with them.
There continues to be a gap between how I see myself and how I live my life. When I think of my aspirations to be a world-traveler, and then look at the reality of how infrequently I’m on a plane these days, I have to reckon with where I’m leading myself astray. Is the miscalculation in the dream, or in the reality? The same goes for my physical presentation. If I have the desire to look a different way, yet achieve the effect only haphazardly, is the failing in my effort or in my attempt to effect the change in the first place?
But rather than stay wedded to these black-and-white distinctions, I’m trying to find a way to blend them a little more seamlessly, to approve of where I am right now so that I’m not shocked when I arrive somewhere else in the future and haven’t become a different person entirely.
Do you know what’s actually probably the single most detrimental thing to my self-esteem?
The fact that I think I’m actually pretty awesome.
It’s a classic case of opposing forces: my occasionally crushing self-doubt and self-loathing set off against the narcissistic self-regard that fancies I’m not only rather brilliant but dead sexy to boot. My self-consciousness about my self-regard then turns in on itself as I attempt to tone down its intensity, adjusting it too far in the other direction, finding myself suddenly dialed back to the point of utter lack of self-worth.
Nowhere does this conflict get played out more clearly than with my simultaneous attraction to and avoidance of selfies. (Not that the internet needs any more think pieces about selfies, but.)
My mom was a fairly talented amateur photographer, so, as the oldest child in the family, I’m lucky to have scores of beautiful photographs of myself as a baby and young child. My father was always obsessed with documentation, so he was hardly ever without a video camera of some sort in his hand (silent 8mm back in the ’70s, camcorders thereafter). So, from a very young age, there was no shortage of ways for me to get used to seeing my own image. As a natural born ham comfortable being the center of attention seemingly from birth, it’s not like I exactly shied away from the spotlight either.
As I grew out of the adorable-for-the-sake-of-being-adorable phase, I grew into the awareness that achievement would get me attention. So, there came more photos of me at school plays, concerts, awards ceremonies, and the like. And on the heels of all that, there was the teenage exhilaration of just being alive, man, which garnered more photos taken by friends at odd hours, or in odd situations, all of us hugging and grinning and pulling faces full of equal parts glory and stupidity.
In my early twenties, before a summer spent studying abroad in London, I made sure to buy a nice enough point-and-shoot camera to record my adventures there. Though totally untrained, I had a good enough eye for framing and detail (perhaps hereditary, perhaps due to many long hours watching movies as a film studies major) that my photos came out pretty well, and it wasn’t long before I found myself, even back in the States, incapable of leaving the house without a camera in my purse. After finally getting a digital camera some years later, I twice committed myself to photo-a-day projects (you can see the first year here, and the second year here).
Though my affection for the tableaux and the people that I captured in these many years of taking pictures was completely genuine, there was the sneaky, shadowy part of me that always wished I was in the frame too. Not because I needed to be reminded that I had participated in any specific event; I have a good enough memory not to need photographic evidence like that and was a dedicated journaler for many years besides. No, I reasoned that if I wanted to show people how much I loved them by photographing them looking beautiful, then, if someone loved me and thought I was beautiful, they would naturally want to return the favor.
Self-regard has never been a problem for me, but self-love is a different beast altogether, and it very rarely occurred to me to turn the camera on myself. It was inconceivable that I could photograph myself through the same kind of lens of love that I turned on my friends; it felt necessary, in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate even just a few years ago, that someone should want to turn the camera in my direction and shoot me from his or her perspective. That would be the only way to get a valid photo of myself looking wonderful.
I have plenty of these kinds of photos, of course. I’m not exactly lacking for lovely photos taken of me by other people.
It’s the voraciousness, the desire for parity simmering not so quietly under the surface, that stands out for me now. In my loneliness, I wanted to see myself through someone else’s eyes so that I could have some sort of assurance that someone was looking at me with something like love, or perhaps even seeing something in me that I hadn’t previously been able to see myself.
I would quietly take photos of myself sometimes, in my bedroom or in the bathroom at a restaurant, but in the pre-Instagram, pre-Facebook days, these photos mostly quietly lived on Flickr, without my necessarily drawing much attention to them. They just felt like part of the fabric of the world that I enjoyed documenting, and I felt like I was getting away with something if I happened to come away with a photo that felt like an accurate representation of how I wanted other people to see me. As quirky or cute, or, more likely, cuter than I thought people gave me credit for being on a regular basis. (“Take that! I am cute! See!!”)
As technology started to make it easier to both take self-portraits and to show them off online, I caught myself feeling judgmental of the people I knew who seemed to take a little too much advantage of this capability. Like, who gave them permission to just blast their faces all over the place? And, isn’t it somehow unseemly to basically admit that you want people to look at you? I mean, it’s an obvious bid for attention when you’re splashing photos of yourself into everybody’s line of sight.
I was afraid of betraying what felt like my own bottomless capacity for vacuuming up any little gift of affection or validation offered up to me, and ashamed that I felt that way in the first place—like, shouldn’t I have grown out of it by now? Shouldn’t I have left that in the past with the pink sunglasses and the yellow windbreaker? So, by way of self-protection, and something approaching self-denial, I think I must have decided that anyone brazen enough to just flaunt themselves like that must have been, in some way, taking something away from me.
So, I don’t often post photos of myself online, except for when they’re taken by someone else. There’s the reasonable part of me that fears the repercussions of simply being a woman visible on the internet with all its possibilities for vitriol and even abuse. But, more than that, I’m far too wary of seemingly like I’m begging for attention. (It’s like Louis CK says in his stand-up show Chewed Up: “Forty’s a weird age. . . . You’re not young enough for anybody to ever be proud of you or impressed. They’re just like, ‘yeah, do your job, asshole. Nobody cares.’”) Because, I think that fear of looking like I’m begging for attention is actually more a fear that, even if someone is looking, I’ll be dismissed as nothing worth paying attention to. I don’t think my own lens of love is clear enough yet for me to be OK with that.
A woman I used to work with was using a jokey hasthtag on Twitter the other day: #femmeolympics.
With it, she was gathering female-identified people’s stories about putting on makeup in outrageous circumstances or walking in high heels in less than ideal conditions.
I know it was all meant in good fun, but my inner not-girly-enough sensitivity got a bit tweaked reading them. My panicked train of thought started spinning out: I can’t remember if I’ve ever gotten dressed or done my hair in exceptionally challenging circumstance. But, if I’ve never put on false eyelashes while driving in heavy traffic, does that mean I’m less femme than someone who has? Am I failing at something I never knew I was supposed to be aspiring to? Have I lost the Olympics without even playing?
While waiting to cross the street to get to my office Tuesday morning, a conventionally attractive woman stood a few feet in front and to the left of me. She was tall and thin and blonde and was dressed so impeccably she belonged, aesthetically, more in New York than Chicago. Even her winter gear was sleek—black serial killer gloves with a sexy peekaboo detail around the inner wrist, luxurious looking black knit legwarmers emerging from the tops of her fashionably severe knee-high black boots. It was like all of her beauty was further highlighted, heightened, caressed by her outerwear.
In my puffy lumberjack coat, with my hair sweaty and matted down under my trapper hat and earflaps, crisscrossed along the length of my torso by the straps of my oversized purse and tote bag containing my lunch, with my feet stuffed into clompy beige snowboots, I felt likewise highlighted by my outerwear. Just in the opposite direction. I was more awkward, more frumpy/dumpy/lumpy, more haphazard and mismatched.
I am obviously the only person responsible for buying my clothes and getting myself dressed in the morning. So, I suppose it’s theoretically possible for me to start buying outfits that would make me look like a German rocketship stewardess from the year 2150. I have no one to blame but myself if I’m unhappy with the state of my wardrobe. But obviously, even if I bought the exact same clothes she was wearing, I wouldn’t look anything like that woman. And not just because I’m shorter and more voluptuous. The whole effect of her tall-thin-blonde-elegant otherness stemmed from my response to it as an observer. I wouldn’t look that way to myself, inside myself, even if we were twins.
Partly, though, some of my perplexed fascination with her stemmed from the sense that she intended to look like that. Her self-presentation seemed too cohesive not to have been intentionally curated (god, I hate that word). Which means, she had the idea of what she wanted to look like—both in the morning when she was getting ready to leave the house and whenever she bought the individual items of clothing—and then found the pieces to match that mental image and merged herself with it.
This boggles my mind! To have so powerful a sense of oneself that one can not only articulate it internally, but then also actively go about purchasing and wearing the clothes that will accurately achieve the desired effect? As someone who has been known to casually throw around terms like “magic” and “witchcraft” and actually mean them, sartorial talent at that level seems less like voodoo to me and more like straight-up applied mathematics.
I find myself going through different looks, of course. There was the time I gave up pants altogether and started wearing skirts and dresses with leggings exclusively, the time I wore stripy knee-socks every day, the time I just kept putting my light leather jacket on over all my tops like a cardigan. But mostly these are accidental phases that I don’t realize I’m in until I’m well inside them. “Oh, I haven’t been wearing jeans as much as I used to. I guess that’s a thing that I’m doing now.”
I’m fascinated by fashion and have enough visual sense to be able to achieve basic effects with my clothing choices—but it’s all still ultimately a crapshoot. I’ll luck into finding functional pieces for my wardrobe at resale places and consignment shops and even Target and Old Navy. I don’t tend to go out in search of anything specific, though, for fear that if I did, I’d never be able to find it, never be able to afford it, never be able to pull it off.
I’m utterly enamored of the current raft of body-positivity bloggers who insist that we all have a right to wear what makes us feel good. There’s so much amazing creativity and resourcefulness being put into their “outfit of the day” posts—and that’s not even mentioning the niche bloggers who focus exclusively on underwear, hair, makeup, nail art, perfume, etc. It’s a varied, beautiful landscape of self-expression and self-presentation. I support it and endorse it and adore it.
But when I find myself feeling like I’m falling short of even this free-for-all, anything-goes spirit, I have to wonder where, why, and how I’m blocking myself. Is it the time, the effort, the money? Clearly not. Any of those things are surmountable. I think I’m most worried that I have no vision, because I know that means I’m avoiding looking at myself. Whatever it is I’m afraid to see (or not see) when I look certainly can’t be as horrible as convincing myself that I shouldn’t bother at all.
As best I can remember, the first time I met another girl named Allison was in the fourth grade.
And not only was her first name Allison, but her last name also began with the letter F. Just to make it even funnier, her middle initial was the same as mine too, an M.
So, we couldn’t be distinguished from one another in the way we could have if we’d been, say, “Allison B.” and “Allison K.” “Allison #1” and “Allison #2”—aside from the obvious scatological connotations—wouldn’t work, because, yikes, who would be #1? Who would be #2? Though we eventually became good friends, we barely knew each other at that point and there was no reason for us to attempt to compete for ranking like that. I don’t remember who suggested that we come up with our own designated nicknames, but she soon declared that she would be “Ali” (like Ali MacGraw, not Muhammad Ali). And I declared that I would be “Alf.”
Yes, the television show about the cat-eating alien was popular at that time.
And, yes, it was a neutered variation on my name, continuing my trend away from my own feminine energy that had started the year before with my mother’s death.
The name followed me for years, though with less and less frequency, until it phased itself out altogether by the time I graduated high school.
In the years since, I have been known by a variety of other names. And I have known a variety of other Allisons.
The Allison from fourth grade sticks out in my memory now as being sweet yet strong. She had a birdlike frame, yet, exotically, was an accomplished downhill skier.
We lived in Northwest Indiana, where hills in and of themselves, much less downhill skiing on them, were difficult to come by, so this speaks to her family’s ability to not only afford all the gear, but to fly her to the places where they actually had mountains to ski on. She had also been adopted, which therefore also made her the first adoptee I consciously knew.
There was another Allison a year ahead of us at the same elementary school. Physically and temperamentally, she couldn’t have been more different from the two of us. She was loud and blonde and brash, and I remember that she had enormous nostrils. I have a vague recollection that she was probably being raised by a single mother, a mildly eccentric hippie type, who marched to the beat of her own drummer and evidently taught her daughter to do the same.
In the lead-up to the presidential election of 1988, most of the kids on our school bus, following both the general tide of the country as well as Indiana’s conservative politics, were all rooting for George H.W. Bush. She, on the other hand, would respond by taunting the rest of us with her loud, solo chant of “Dukakis!!” Even as an adult, I still admire her for the strength of character it took to stand out like that.
In middle school, my best friend Mary introduced me to a girl named Allison she’d met in a local children’s choir, and we soon became a triad. She was a year younger than us, and went to a different school, but we participated in a lot of the same local community theater productions, so we had ample time together outside regular school hours.
In years past I’d of course encountered the beginnings of girl competition, but at least the social hierarchies had been clear-cut, with a huge gulf yawning between the pretty popular girls and the more awkward, bookish nerds like me. But this triad marked perhaps the first time that I began to see the machinations of competition among girls who were actually quite similar.
Since we all sang and acted and were good students, we struggled to figure out how to define ourselves against each other, to individuate. The unconscious method we arrived at was subtle jockeying for position. Who got the better parts, who could sing the higher or lower notes, who had been taken under wing by the more impressive adult actors. My memories of our time together remain tainted by this eternal quest to rank ourselves against each other. Those tween and early teen years felt utterly exhausting. Even then I had a sense that friendship probably wasn’t supposed to feel like that much work.
That Allison, now in her early 30s, very recently gave birth to a baby. She and her husband had struggled with fertility and decided to adopt, only to become pregnant soon thereafter. I guess I’m happy for her, though the knee-jerk impulse to emphasize our differences compels me, still, to secretly think, “ugh, I am SO GLAD I don’t have to take care of two little babies right now. I am living better.”
Throughout high school, I’d been known among my theater friends primarily by my last name, in a burlesque of the way that athletes call each other by their last names. It wasn’t until probably my junior year of college, though, that I remembered how much I actually like my first name.
A grad student who’d been the assistant instructor for a number of my favorite film studies classes was chatting with me about a paper assignment at the end of a class, and in the course of conversation, he casually said my name back at me. “You know, Allison, you should keep in mind that…” or something to that effect. I nearly swooned.
With the exception of the very occasional guy who will develop a crush on me and suddenly decide that he’s going to call me “Allie” (they all think they’re terribly original when they do this), I’ve been nothing but Allison ever since.
A few years ago, at the wedding of a former roommate I’d already started drifting away from, my place card on the table at the reception listed my first name with only one L. It was a minor misspelling, an easy error for someone to make, but it very definitely felt like the final nail in the coffin of our friendship.
As I examined my pique, I found that I actively wanted both of my Ls. I wanted the All that had not so secretly been living in my name the whole time. I finally wanted the fullness my name had been offering me, a fullness that was never diminished, even while I attempted to disguise it by calling it anything but what it is.
I’ve spent the past little while in a fog of wrongness.
Maybe it’s post-holiday malaise, or self-diagnosed seasonal affective disorder, or the stifling of an inner urge to do more, be more.
Regardless of the shape it takes, these days, when I find I’m most self-critical about the stuff I’m not doing as well as I’d like to be—like writing, managing my time, saving enough money, taking care of my body and health—I often hit a point where I make the connection, “Oh, that’s because I’m comparing myself to men, measuring my progress against men, or trying to adopt stereotypically masculine working methods.”
I was raised by a perfectionist father, and took a long time growing out of that “one of the boys” mentality. You know, that whole Wendy and the Lost Boys thing of being the only girl in a big, rowdy bunch of guys and feeling special because of it, but also, of course, super-protective of my status against other women who might encroach on it. I do have a good group of close female friends and find it way easier than I ever have to make new women friends at this stage of my life. But still—it’s a pernicious mindset that I find hard to shake. I work on it, but it crops up, many times before I’ve realized it.
It’s somewhat more acute these days in that, as my daily habits and schedule have been restructured quite a bit over the past two or three years, I find I don’t have nearly as many female friends as I would like to whom I can talk about creative pursuits. By and large, the people I have conversations with about my writing and my music and my other grand schemes are men. Men that I adore and respect and find endlessly fascinating and inspiring and who encourage me in so many ways that I appreciate so much, but . . . men nonetheless.
So, it’s terribly important for me to read so many wonderful blogs (and Twitter feeds and Tumblrs, etc.) kept by women. It’s especially important when these women write about their own struggles with insecurity and anxiety. More than just that typical rah-rah-internet cri de coeur of finding togetherness, globally, from behind our computer screens, it is an active reminder to me that sharing my thoughts and perspectives is truly valuable—even when the self-critical voices keep harassing me with putdowns along the lines of “what makes you so special?” and “who cares what you think anyway?” If these women can find a way to turn their own demons into words, and loudly talk about their experiences in order to make the stings feel less venomous, surely I have a responsibility, at some level, to uphold my end of the cosmic bargain to do the same.
I’ve been swatting away a lot of those internal putdowns of late. Here are some of the pieces I’ve read online that have helped keep my strength up while I’m at it.
Veronica Varlow, “Battling the Dark Weather in My Brain”
The [negative brain] loop was murdered by thoughts of calling out to Big Foot and the Loch Ness and letting them know they could be safe if they lived on my mountain, that I wouldn’t report them being there to the papers, that I would bring them food if they wanted, I could just be there and leave notes or wave from the house and they would know that they weren’t hated or hunted and that
this crazy girl in this crazy house loved them
and they weren’t alone.
Lauren Percz, “Love Thy Self“:
My boyfriend is thin and athletic and I’m the complete opposite. When we first starting dating, I was in constant fear that he would be grossed out by my body and dump me. I dreaded the day when and if he would ever see me without clothes on. I figured he would really be disgusted by me then. But he wasn’t and he isn’t. I find that even now that we are an official couple, I still fear that he doesn’t like the way I look.
Mama Gena, “Results that defy logic“:
your resolution slowly begins to vaporize. And you are left with a shrug, an ‘oh well’ and an eerie sense of failure.
Why? Because there are circumstances which actually create creation, and allow for the fulfillment of any and all new year’s resolutions, but the culture we live in is not structured in a way to support a woman’s dreams coming true. We live inside this culture like round pegs trying to fit into a square hole.
It’s not through setting goals.
Not through logic.
Nor doing the right thing that cuts a woman’s imagination and creation loose.
It is her connection to her own pleasure.
Bri Emery, “Anxiety & Insecurity“:
even with this post, i am having this voice inside that wants me to have someone read it first so i can ask ‘should i post it? is it too much? do you think it’s okay?’
Heather Havrilesky, “Ask Polly: I Feel Bitter About All My Exes and I Can’t Get Over It!”
At my lowest points, I was (unconsciously) committed to repressing all ME-ness and approximating what I saw as my current boyfriend’s ideal woman. Needless to say, I was not convincing at this charade. But I didn’t even know that I was acting! I thought I was just trying to be less WRONG, less BAD, less CRAZY.
Kat Kinsman, “Living with anxiety, searching for joy“:
Despite my best attempts at slow, deep breaths and all the rest of the therapeutic tricks I’ve been taught, I’m unable to slow my firecracker pulse or the explosion of toxic thoughts rotting me from brain to skin. ‘You’re so useless. You let down the people you love. Everyone who’s been stupid enough to love you will regret it when they realize how weak you are.’ It goes on and on until my body just shuts down for a couple of hours.
Elisabeth Geier, “Choice Horses and Basements I Have Known“:
The neighbors were young and in love. I learned to keep earplugs next to my bed because I could hear everything that went on in the room above mine. I sat for their baby a few times; when she cried, she shouted ‘water-eyes, water-eyes’ and shook her head, alarmed by her own tears. I did my own crying into pillows and missed Chicago every day until the day I still missed it but wasn’t crying anymore.
Chelsea G. Summers, “Unmentionables, the second”
I told her how previous to purchasing this ridiculous expensive confection of a bra (and the subsequent four I bought online thereafter, drunk with the knowledge of my actual bra size and the pleasure of the feel of a well-fitting bra) I’d been wearing a friend’s hand-me-downs.
‘Chelsea,’ my therapist said in her Long Island accent, ‘you can’t wear second-hand underwear!’
They were nice, I said. Really expensive castoffs from a friend who’d had a breast reduction, I said. They were lovely, I said. Really, I said. Much nicer than I could afford, I said. I protested, perhaps too much.
My therapist tented her fingers and narrowed her eyes. ‘Have you considered how your X is like your hand-me-down underwear?’ she asked. No, I hadn’t.
And, though I am definitely not suffering from the kind of depression that Allie Brosh writes about in her much-celebrated post “Depression Part Two“, I have to link to it anyway, because she is amazing.
I don’t remember myself as being an overly girly little girl. Mostly, I was a show-off. So, if a dress or other frilly thing helped me show off more effectively, then that was great. But I don’t recall gravitating to any certain activity or hobby or way of presenting myself simply because it was specifically feminine.
Who knows how my self-presentation would have continued to develop if my mother hadn’t died when I was eight. But, not only did I lose my primary female role model, I also then instinctively but unconsciously began to align myself with my father. I’m sure it partly stemmed from a child’s need to imitate her elders in order to experiment with how to be a person in the world, but, in my case, it was also a strategic way to figure out how to avoid my father’s hot temper. If I could match him, then hopefully I wouldn’t end up doing anything to set him off, because I would be acting as him in some sense.
And so my energy became more and more boyish as I gained weight (thanks to genetics, uncontrollable stress-eating, and my father’s lazy habit of feeding us a steady diet of fast food) and marched toward puberty.
In high school, I delighted in being one of the guys, especially among my theater friends, and once wore a tuxedo to host a local musical variety show. I thought it was cheeky, to be a 17-year-old girl with a voluptuous figure dressed like a boy. In reality, I just kept distancing myself further and further from my own femininity.
Around the same time as that variety show, I was performing with a coed show choir that required the girls to wear formal dresses for our many concerts during the holiday season. I’d found an old black velvet halter dress that had belonged to my mother and had it altered to fit my measurements. My best friend and I, dressed up in our finery and walking through the school one afternoon, on our way to some performance or other, ran into two middle-aged women teachers in the hallway near the cafeteria. They asked us to twirl around and show off our dresses, and one of them, in reference to me, drawled to the other, “god, if I had a body like that. . . .” I remain shocked by the comment to this day. Not because it felt threatening or inappropriate, but because, with all my insecurity about my weight and all the ways I felt more like a boy than a girl, I couldn’t conceive of my very obviously female body as being anything for anyone to envy.
I’ve done a lot of work in therapy and meditation and energy healing over the past ten years, and I’ve started to feel more OK about my body and my gender presentation. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to play with persona is through perfume. Though I’d always been obsessed with scent, perfume became a more intentional hobby for me in late ’09, initially as a distraction from a breakup that wounded me more deeply than I had expected it to. And as my perfume collection grew beyond the point where it was possible to have only a handful of default scents (say, one for work, one for fancy occasions, one for winter, and one for summer), choosing a daily scent became an exercise in asking myself, “how do I want to feel today? What kind of person do I want to be? How can a perfume help me perform the version of myself that I most want to present to the world on his occasion?”
One of the sweeter aspects of my father’s personality that has become part of my own is his ability to get sentimental about anything and everything. Which means that I’m not only always looking backward in time at the things I used to do and be, I’m also always projecting myself forward and wanting to make sure that I do right by my future self in making sure I’ve done enough to memorialize whatever experience I may be living through at the moment. And since scent is so inextricably tied to memory, I’m perhaps overly fixated on finding the “right” perfume to wear on any given day.
I know I’m not alone in this, especially among other smell obsessives that I read about via the many wonderful perfume blogs being published online, but it’s extra freighted for me as I seek to retrain my childhood instincts away from a more masculine default that no longer serves me toward a femininity that I’ve long suppressed and find myself hungering for. All this is bad enough on a daily basis, just going about my regular workaday life. But the decisions are extra-intense on holidays or other special occasions. So today, New Year’s Eve 2013, the first thing I thought after getting out of the shower was “oh god, what perfume should I wear to say goodbye to the old year and ring in 2014?”
I’d just received a handful of decants in the mail that I wanted to test, but committing to one of those for the full day was way too risky. What if I picked something that didn’t work with my skin’s chemistry or inadvertently stimulated some dormant memory of an unpleasant experience? Better to go with something I already knew that I liked.
But, should I go with an old standby—with emphasis on the old? Would an old standby, because of its familiarity, not retain enough magic to mark the specialness of the day? So, that eliminated what felt like dozens of options.
And though I’ve made peace, despite everything that I’ve written above, with my attraction to scents that fall toward the more masculine end of the spectrum (particularly the smoky, leathery, boozy ones), perhaps obviously I felt like it was best to steer clear of those today as well. As I was pawing through my perfume box, my fingers touched upon the perfect thing: Arquiste’s Anima Dulcis.
It’s sweet and sultry and just a bit naughty; my favorite description of it would have to be Denyse Beaulieu’s evocation of “a series of embedded stories and/or spaces. In Mexico: a convent. In the convent: a cell. In the cell: a nun. Under the nun’s habit: a lace skirt. Under the lace skirt: pimiento, vanilla and chocolate. The holy of holies: a noble virgin’s body.”
The warm, chocolaty yet slightly sweaty embrace of this perfume pushes me to reimagine myself as a more unguarded, boldly erotic and unapologetic woman. Which, I feel, is as good a reason as any to leave this scent here, on this day, like a bookmark for me to glance back at from some future time, maybe less out of nostalgia and more as a marker of the declaration, “it was from here that I began again.”