Pain is beauty

Thinking Outside the Binary

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I’m a sucker for romantic comedies. We all have our guilty pleasures, and mine are rom-coms. As a kid, I loved watching movies in which the boy ends up with the girl despite myriad inconsequential odds stacked up against him. I was excited to grow up and fall in love with a boy just like that.

But now that I’ve come to realize I’m not attracted to men, I’ve begun to watch these films through an increasingly critical lens. (Hot take: If Cady Heron and Janis Ian from “Mean Girls” fell in love, I promise the movie would be 100 times better.) 

Seriously though, rewatching a few of my favorites (“Clueless,” of course), I couldn’t help but notice a pattern that made me sort of queasy: makeover scenes that inevitably feature an awkward, tomboyish girl getting transformed into a carbon copy of her more popular, “pretty” friends. As a kid, I ate these scenes up. I loved thinking about the possibility of changing myself and mimicking the actions of the girls on screen — as if I could be considered beautiful just by putting on tighter clothes or makeup or maybe even straightening my hair.

Maybe this is what it means to be a girl, I thought. You’re born ugly, you make yourself over and out comes the beautiful woman you were born to be.

But this intense pressure to make myself over didn’t just exist in movies: It lingered even after flicking off the television. My grandma, for instance, took me to get my eyebrows and mustache waxed for the first time in the eighth grade. Boys at school had felt the need to point out the peach fuzz on my lip that vaguely resembled theirs, and after school, instead of consoling me or telling me the hair on my face was natural, my grandma took me to the salon. The first time I was waxed, I could not control the tears streaming from my eyes.

While I thought waxing my eyebrows and ’stache might have been enough to end the ridicule of my appearance, it wasn’t. I can distinctly recall, as a kid, hearing my stepdad tell me to stand straight, suck in my stomach and smile more. But this just made me want to frown and slouch even harder. My appearance seemed to be a looming presence, and despite my attempts at ignoring it, my family members inevitably chose to focus on it. 

Their comments made me want to hide and distance myself from femininity. I let my bangs hang to cover my face, no longer caring to comb my hair or straighten it the way my mom suggested. Although I used to love painting my nails, I stopped because of my grandma. “Why don’t you go to a salon?” she would ask offhandedly. “You don’t do them well yourself.” Small, seemingly trivial comments like this ruined what once was an enjoyable activity for me. Maybe if I stopped all attempts at femininity, my appearance would no longer be in focus. I could blend in the background, a vague outline of a person, so that no one could comment on or pick apart my appearance.

Forcing myself to reject femininity hardly seemed to work, though. I wasn’t happy. I felt detached from myself. I wasn’t dressing or expressing myself how I wanted, and I envied people who exuded confidence in how they chose to present themselves. I wanted to be the one to pick and choose what aspects of myself to make over. I wanted to choose to do my eyebrows for me, and if I felt like shaving my legs, I’d be doing that for me, too. 

But even in embracing femininity for myself, I was still told I wasn’t doing it right. The decision to wear a dress would lead to my mom suggesting, “Why not wear a little makeup, too?” Or my grandma making a face and saying, “Aren’t you going to shave your legs?” They made it seem like it wasn’t possible to pick and choose which aspects of myself I wanted to change and which I wanted to stay very much the same. 

As if endless criticism from others wasn’t enough, as I began to explore my relationship with clothes and gender, I realized I, too, had a hand in policing myself. I’d convince myself not to go out in shorts or a skirt without shaving my legs. Some days, wearing a long-sleeved shirt seemed like the only viable option because I couldn’t shed the thought that the hair on my arms made me look like a man. And others were anxiety-ridden because I had missed an eyebrow appointment, and I did not feel presentable until my face was waxed. 

It wasn’t just the TV, the kids at school or my family. I was picking at my own appearance, too. In an attempt to avoid others’ criticisms, I’d become my own worst critic. I felt I had found a new part of myself to hate. 

Recognizing this self-criticism was a difficult first step. But I’m now faced with an even more difficult and complex challenge, one that I’m still unsure how to approach but will continue working toward nonetheless: breaking free.

Elaina Guerrero writes the Wednesday column on the confines of the gender binary. Contact them at [email protected]