When I was three and rocking a mop of Shirley Temple curls, I grabbed a round brush and tried to pull it through my hair. It stuck fast. Lesson learned! My hair was not and never would be straight, shiny, glossy, or easily managed. That was far from the whole lesson though, because what I left out is that when this happened I was at the mall with my mom and we didn’t own the round brush and when my mom tried to pull it out of my hair it was really stuck and I went red all over and kicked and screamed and cried and my mom had to haul me out of there with the brush still stuck to my head. I remember sitting on a bench, watching shoppers walk by with their bags and paper cups of Orange Julius and heaving those heavy post-tantrum sobs, and the stinging in my scalp while my mom tried to work it out. Lesson learned! My feelings were not and never would be quiet, polite, sensible, or easily managed. I stayed afraid of round brushes for years, and to this day don’t trust a complicated hair tool.
There was a time I would have described myself as low maintenance and thought that to be accurate self-assessment. There was a time when I thought low maintenance was something to aspire to. There was a time when I thought that low maintenance–in relationships, in friendships, at work–would keep me from getting dumped or fired. I was wrong on all counts. I am not low maintenance in any meaningful sense. I demand a lot from my relationships. I require attention and engagement and emotional intensity, or at least a degree of tolerance for my emotional intensity. There’s nothing remarkable or impressive about being a woman with no needs. Disappearing yourself will not keep people around.
I do, however, enjoy making as many things in my life as I can as easy–as low maintenance–as can be. I don’t dye my hair. I get cuts that can grow out for six to twelve months (or more!). I bite my nails down to the quick. I shop for clothes maybe once a year and when I do I spend too much money so I don’t have to do it again. Remember how at the beginning of COVID, introverts were like, “Social distancing, oh please. I’ve been prepping for this my whole life?” That’s how I felt when the salons closed and women started showing up in Zoom with their natural hair. I’ve been like this my whole life.
Periodically, relentless insecurity will collide with my penchant for wishful thinking and I’ll try to be somebody other than what I am. I’ll find myself at a J. Crew outlet trying to be my sister-in-law. I’ll find myself at an overpriced downtown salon asking for an undercut. I’ll find myself drooling over women with dewey skin on the internet and ordering $85 worth of product from Glossier. The skin care regimen was the thing, the brass ring, the hallmark adult womanhood I could never quite figure out. Surely, I thought, there must be a causal connection between the fact that I had yet to dedicate the time and money to figuring out what combination of products work best with my skin and the fact that I was still breaking out like a teenager. Surely, there must be a magic formula that would shrink my pores, calm the redness, and dry out the cysts on my temples, cheekbones, and chin. Surely the fault was mine and commerce was the answer.
Glossier was my gateway drug. I tried all the serums: Niacinamide + Zinc serum to “sort out texture issues,” Hyaluronic Acid + Vitamin b5 to “ease any tight, dry feeling,” and Vitamin C + Magnesium to look “fresh, recharged, and [of course] glowy.” Did they work? I don’t know. They definitely changed my skin, made it somehow…thinner…so I couldn’t pick my face anymore without making it bleed. I figured whatever it was doing, it had to be better than nothing, so I reordered the serums when I ran out, and kept doing it, though I eventually started buying inexpensive dupes from another company. In the meantime, other products kept showing up in my mailbox, after my husband bought me one of those subscription beauty boxes. He only meant to get me a year but forgot to cancel so the products just kept coming. I incorporated morning and evening toners into my routine, more vitamin C, expensive moisturizers and primers, masks, and yet more serums for morning and sleep, including one that I really liked that was fittingly called “Self Esteem.” I may be cheap and low maintenance but I’m not a total novice. I did my research. I didn’t use them all at once and I gave them time to work on my skin. I threw out the products that clearly reacted badly with my skin (okay, fine, I threw them into a drawer, not the trash because, like I said, I’m cheap). Eventually, I had a skincare regimen that…I don’t know…felt like it worked…I guess. Maybe? The products were expensive, and the steps were complicated and changed every other night, and my skin was smoother but still weirdly thin, but maybe I could chalk that up to aging, and I still broke out a lot, but that was probably hormonal and also I realized I need to wipe the screen of my phone down more often after stroking it with my fingers all day and then sticking it to the side of my face to use as an actual phone.
A couple of months ago, I cleared all the products out of sight and went back to the routine I used in my early twenties, when washing my face at night and wearing moisturizer with sunscreen felt like the height of responsible living: face soap + drugstore moisturizer. No toners. No serums. No primers. No vitamins. It was just a test, born out of taking a closer look at my finances. A couple of more expensive products were close to running out and I didn’t want to reorder them if they weren’t actually doing anything. Within a couple of weeks of putting down the products, my skin went back to the way it used to be, which is to say, not great, but normal, at least for me. I still have visible pores and blackheads and scars, but my skin isn’t so fucking fragile anymore. I can pop a zit without it looking like a crime scene. Breakouts happen and then they pass. I do use a clay mask once a week. I look in the mirror and I like what I see.
The serums were worse than snake oil. They actively made my skin worse.
What other pointless pastimes have I been pursuing because I thought I was supposed to? What other hopeless habits have I picked up because I thought they looked good? What other random and purely imitative rituals did I mistakenly think were for me?
Years and years ago, after college but before I got married, I made short and sweet list of resolutions at the beginning of a new year. There were only five items on the list. I don’t remember three of them. One of them was to be better at writing thank you notes. The last one was to learn how to make a “heart healthy muffin.” What the fuck? Back then, I gave a shit about the size of my thighs, but not my heart, and I’d never baked a thing other than chocolate chip cookies using the recipe on the back of a Nestle bag. I was probably 22 and saw the phrase in a SELF magazine at the gym and latched onto it as a symbol of the kind of women I wasn’t and, therefore, the kind of women I should aspire to be. That resolution stayed on my list for years until I realized I didn’t want to waste the little bandwidth I have for cooking on a recipe that’s defining characteristic is that it’s good for your heart. I buy all my muffins at coffee shops, anyway.
Pandemic life offers some easy answers to the question “What kind of person did I think I was that I no longer have to be?” I don’t miss shopping for shoes and purses; I don’t miss getting the odd pedicure once a year and feeling guilty about the state of my nails the rest of the time; I don’t miss accepting every invitation for lunch, coffee, and happy hour that comes my way; I don’t miss waiting in line for brunch; I don’t miss going somewhere every weekend; I don’t miss working out every day. I’m not low maintenance, but I sure do like having my life that way.
I cut off a foot of hair today. This is not without precedent. I can’t maintain a hairstyle for the life of me. I go months or years between cuts until I am so sick of my hair that I chop it all off. This is my first time going pixie short, though. Though there is really nothing pixie-ish about how I look now. The cut is decidedly androgynous. I’m fairly certain my husband hates it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that was kind of the point. When I booked the appointment last week, I was planning on a chin-length layered bob. When I mentioned that I planned to cut my hair short, my husband reacted negatively, worried I would cut it “too short.” It annoyed me he even had an opinion. To be fair, he does ask me about my preferences about his hair, clothes, etc., and I mostly don’t have strong ones, but when I say I like something, he does try to do that thing, even when it is not exactly advisable from a fashion standpoint. I’m thinking of the year we were super into Sons of Anarchy and I kept telling him to grow his hair out long like Jax. And he did it! I know he knew it was a questionable look because he kept asking, “Are you sure?” and I kept saying, “Yes, yes,” even though a clean cut style is for sure more flattering on him. Preferences aside, I would never dream of criticizing a style he likes even if it doesn’t match my aesthetics, so, like I said, it irked me when he did. It didn’t help that his knee jerk reaction against short hair aligns with sexist societal beauty standards. Fuck that. Not fuck him, just fuck that. The beauty standards. So when I got in the chair I asked the stylist to take it all off, and she did, and I love it. I couldn’t quite picture how my face would look with short hair and it turns out it looks like…my face…but more in YOUR face, if that makes sense. Do I look better with short hair? I don’t know. Probably not. I like that I look less feminine, though. I think I look like my friend M, who is a badass (an overused label that I myself use sparingly…M is one of my few friends who deserves it). I like the way my neck looks, like a swan, and my jaw, all defined. I don’t miss the knotted curls on the back of my head or the ragged ends or the frizz around my crown. I am all about the unbrushed flower child look in the summer and feeling like a witch in the fall but now that the cold has set in leaving the house in the morning with a wet mop hanging around my shoulders is unappealing, as is trying to stuff an oversized top knot into a winter beanie. This evening I ran into a male acquaintance at the church and he did a double take and then freaked out, in a good way, when he realized it was me. He took in my all black, my work boots, and my new short hair. “You look like every girl I had a crush on in middle school.” I liked hearing that. So clearly I’m not exactly trying to escape the male gaze. I’m not flouting all the beauty standards. Just the ones that don’t suit me at this particular moment, which is nothing admirable. I still want to look sexy. And I do. Except now I look like the women that I think look good.