Asides

spice

In 1997, my school friends and I, much like others of our generation, became obsessed with The Spice Girls. We were a collective of eleven year old misfits with low self-esteem, and the thought of becoming a member of that band of bolshie young women in brightly coloured assorted stretchy outfits stood out to us as the highest level of ‘cool’ that one could ever hope to achieve. Of course, the main reason The Spice Girls were so appealing to us was that each of them had a distinctive, one-dimensional image, allowing us to ‘choose’ a Spice Girl with whom we most identified, religiously following and admiring them as an aspirational figure. The ‘Regina George’ (This is a Mean Girls reference that I am going to be using throughout. On the tiny off-chance that you haven’t seen Mean Girls, read ‘Bitchy Queen Bee’ here) of my pathetic group of pale Scottish book nerds assigned us all a Spice Girl, with whom we were permitted to relate and mimic. No duplicates were allowed, and anyone unhappy with their assigned Spice would have to appeal to the group in order to request a swap.

At the age of eleven, I was short, skinny, flat-chested, quiet and unassuming, with dark blonde/mousy brown hair, so I was allocated the role of Baby Spice. I was extremely unhappy with the higher power’s word on this matter, because it meant that my friends’ perception of me did not marry up with my internal perception of myself. Truth be told, I admired and strove towards the understated sophistication of Posh Spice – and as my family had Sky T.V. and went on holidays to Florida every year, I technically was the poshest of my group. I begged the group to allow me to trade for Posh, but was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to be Baby because I had the lightest hair colour. I couldn’t argue with deep and well- considered logic like that, so grumpily, I accepted my role as Baby, always secretly confident that I was the ‘real’ Posh Spice.

Me as a pre-teen reluctant Baby Spice, complete with unfortunate blonde bob haircut.

Me as a reluctant pre-teen Baby Spice, complete with unfortunate blonde bob haircut.

Fascist pre-teen dictators aside, what is clear from this whole experience is that each of us little Spices understood the importance, even then, of finding an identity set apart from the other members of the group. In the classic teen movie Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan’s character Cady makes a clever observation about fellow clique member Gretchen: ‘She knew it was better to be in the plastics, hating life, than to not be in at all.’ While finding a clique within girl world was of great importance, we all knew it was of equally high importance to have an individual, exaggerated identity within that group. I resented my Baby Spice label, but I knew that clinging to the label would be more beneficial in the long-run than denying it, which would result in me potentially sacrificing my role within that clique. As I grew older, I took the path of least resistance, embracing the Baby Spice role, playing up the ditzy, cute aspects of my personality and downplaying my intelligence and shyness. I dressed in baby pink wherever possible and had blonde highlights put in my hair (not a good look for me; think pasty tiger mouse); I made sure to get things adorably ‘wrong’ from time to time and allowed my friends to push me around and tease me for my perceived gullibility and femininity. This cutesy ‘little girl’ image is one that followed me into my late teens and early twenties, so much so that I eventually had to make a concerted effort to shake off the image, undergoing a mid-twenties rediscovery of who I was; working out which parts of my image were just traits I had adopted to please people, and which ones were a genuine reflection of myself. I learned a lot during this time, such as where I stand on the colour pink. It turns out that I do love the colour pink, but not to the extent I had allowed people to believe I loved it. I love other colours too, and as an adult, I actively dislike baby pink clothing. Last year, I got married in a handmade dusky/blush pink wedding dress, and specified to my dress designer, ‘NOT BABY PINK PLEASE.’

My dusky pink wedding dress. Cute, but not 'Babyish'.

My dusky pink wedding dress. Cute, but not ‘Babyish’.

The quest for identity and self-definition is necessary to all humans, but particularly to young women. Our entire lives are spent being perceived and defined by those around us. As children, we are defined by our parents (I was deemed ‘the quiet one’ from a very young age), and then we are judged and reduced to labels by our school friends before we even have a chance to work out who we are. The result of this is often an adolescence spent desperately searching for an identity set apart from those assigned to us by others.

For years I felt that I was leading a double life: playing the smart, quiet, studious young woman at home, and the outgoing, ditzy party girl when out with my friends; there was such a stark contradiction between these two perceptions of me, that when I took the Myers-Briggs personality test in 2007, and yielded the result of ENFP (Extroverted Intuitive Feeling Perceiving), my family actively argued with me about my result, informing me that this couldn’t be accurate, as they didn’t perceive me as an extrovert. It took me years to reconcile my two lives which seemed to me mutually exclusive. It wasn’t until I finally made some supportive and understanding friends in my early twenties, that I began to find myself. By refusing to see me as the dippy stereotype I had reduced myself to, and accurately perceiving that I had adopted this image as a result of social anxiety and lack of confidence in articulating my opinions, my friends helped support me in learning to present myself as the smart, strong, emotional, articulate, opinionated, outgoing, stylish, funny, cute, creative, ambitious warrior I am today.

Grown-up Baby Spice and hardcore party girl, at my 21st in 2007.

Grown-up Baby Spice and hardcore party girl, at my 21st in 2007.

“All of this is well and good, but how does it relate to ‘selfie culture’?”, I hear you scream!  I spent years feeling helpless because it seemed impossible to change people’s perceptions of me. One of the benefits of social media is that it gives young women the opportunity to control how others perceive them, essentially defining themselves as they wish to be defined. There has been much discussion on the issue of ‘selfie culture’, with many bloggers and internet journalists claiming that the selfie marks a feminist movement, allowing young women to make themselves visible on their own terms. Simultaneously, there has been backlash against social media culture that is deemed narcissistic, such as selfies, instagram, and self-indulgent Facebook posts. I’m not going to repeat what’s been already said in this debate, but just in case you’re unclear on this argument, fellow WordPress user, radicallyvisible presents an excellent overview of the argument whilst providing a touching explanation of how taking selfies allows her to present herself on her own terms as a fat woman in a society that values a set ideal of female beauty over other types.

While I agree that taking selfies can be a very empowering experience for a young woman, and can therefore serve as a feminist statement, I would further propose that selfies and the wider culture deemed ‘internet narcissism’ offers young women a new tool with which to engage with questions of feminine identity, and not just in relation to their physical appearance. It’s no secret that fashion offers many women an avenue of self-expression, and for myself, as an avid follower of fashion, dressing creatively allows me to define myself in ways that feel appropriate for any given day. Fashion is for me, and for many other women, an art form. With the right outfit, I can be anyone I want to be. I take inspiration for my outfits from many different time periods, films, books, and the world around me. I often throw around the phrase, ‘I’m not a jeans and t-shirt sort of girl’, but what I mean when I utter this phrase, is that I am not the sort of person who wakes up in the morning and just throws on an outfit. I put great time and thought into an outfit on any given day, and if I were ever to wear jeans and t-shirt, it would be the most carefully calculated jeans-and-t-shirt combination ever worn, deliberately engineered to conjure a specific image of femininity that I happen to identify with on that given day.

Marilyn Monroe in jeans.

Marilyn Monroe in jeans.

Fashion allows for creative self-expression and role playing, and the selfie allows women to capture that self-expression in a permanent image. Often, when I take a selfie, or ask my husband to take an ‘outfit photo’, I’m not necessarily looking to appear pretty or seek attention – I’m proud of the creative and inspired ensemble that I’ve put together and want to keep a reminder of it. At times when I have been lonely, in  a toxic relationship and feeling helpless, fashion served as an escape from those feelings. It provided me with control over my appearance and others’ perceptions of me when I felt my life was spiralling out of control. It is for this reason that many of my outfits over the years might be deemed ‘over-the-top’ or ridiculous. Although I now have a more subtle sense of style, fashion for me is still about fantasy and playing dress-up. It provides a fun escape from an ordinary and sometimes demotivating routine. Taking a great photo of my outfit in the morning can even help me work up the motivation to go to work on a bad day. Selfies to me are self-expression, self-definition, self-identity, and I believe that every woman should have the right to self-expression in whatever form that takes. If creativity and a propensity for self-expression are characteristics that mean I’m a narcissist, then so be it. This is my body and my identity, and it is my right to show it as I deem fit.

Some of my outfits and selfies from over the years. L-R: In bloomers and bunchies for an Emilie Autumn gig; Pink hair and glitter eyeshadow to go see Kylie Minogue; rockabilly everyday style inspired by Amy Winehouse; all dressed up in Vivian of Holloway and Vivienne Westwood for a vintage style birthday party; 90s grunge look inspired by Judy Funnie from the cartoon 'Doug'; 'My Little Pony' printed bodycon dress by designer Alice Vandy.

Some of my outfits and selfies from over the years. L-R: In bloomers and bunchies for an Emilie Autumn gig; Pink hair and glitter eyeshadow to go see Kylie Minogue; rockabilly everyday style inspired by Amy Winehouse; all dressed up in Vivien of Holloway and Vivienne Westwood for a vintage style birthday party; 90s grunge look inspired by Judy Funnie from the cartoon ‘Doug’; ‘My Little Pony’ printed bodycon dress by designer Alice Vandy.

We as human beings are constantly trying to define ourselves, and the internet has provided us with more opportunities to do so, but this search for self-identity is definitely not a new one. Just as my friends and I argued about which Spice Girls we were most like in 1997, my feed is filled with Buzzfeed quiz results entitled ‘Which _______ character are you most like?’ every single day. I myself have taken many of these quizzes and could quite easily provide you with a comprehensive list of the characters Buzzfeed has compared me to (Elmo, Lady Edith from Downton Abbey, Dionne from Clueless, Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter, Inara Serra from Firefly…the list goes on and on). Why do I take all of these quizzes? I suppose I take quizzes for the same reason I take selfies: to express my personality, and remind myself that I am not alone. A selfie serves as a modern day photo booth picture or polaroid, capturing the image of a particular time, place and person, providing laughter and amusement for years to come, or even just in the short-term. In this sense, the selfie is no more damaging to society than the ‘Which Friends character are you?’ quiz I once answered in a 90s teenage magazine (Phoebe, just in case you were wondering, and as if there was ever any doubt). 

Philosophers, psychologists and ordinary human beings have been obsessed with this concept ‘self’ since the beginning of time, and the internet generation has simply brought this search to the forefront of society. This post is just a further attempt to define, and identify what it means to be a human living in 2014, and I suppose it serves as a modern day diary entry or letter.

The ‘Regina George’ of my teenage social group kept trying to define us all, even years after the Spice Girls debacle. When we were ready to leave school, she ordered us all to write down answers to questions in notebooks so that she could put us in boxes, and we were assigned labels. My assigned label was ‘the slutty one’. I ripped the pages defiantly from my notebook years later, determined to wipe the slate clean and start over, defining myself on my own terms. It seems I am still trying.

Regina’s path was much less rocky than mine. It seems that she knew just who she wanted to be in high school and followed that path through to its logical conclusion, whereas I tried on multiple identities before I worked out who I was, and who I wanted to be. Even now, my definition of myself is fluid and changeable. That’s okay though. It just means I am curious, always searching and striving for more. If I had to limit myself to just one label today, it would be ‘The Wanderer’, because I am forever searching for truth and justice, as is apparent from this entire blog post.

If you’re still not convinced by my ‘internet narcissism is okay’ argument, ask yourself why, in 2014, you’re about to take this ‘Which Spice Girl Are You?’ quiz on Buzzfeed. I got Scary Spice, so the quiz is clearly defective, but I know you’re going to take it anyway.

bondvillain

x L x

P.S. You can totes follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. I will most likely follow back, unless you’re a douchecanoe. Spoiler alert: I take a lot of selfies.

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Spice Girls, Selfie Culture, and the Endless Search for Identity

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The year I turned 15 was a pretty big year for me. It was the year that little round breasts finally sprouted from my underweight pubescent body, and boys gradually began to notice me, namely my first boyfriend, mentioned previously, who caught my eye in my Standard Grade Biology class and convinced me once and for all that I probably wasn’t a lesbian. It was the year I started wearing eyeliner, velvet tops with elaborate sleeves and baggy jeans (from Tammy Girl, because I was too little to fit in the adult sized ones my friends bought from Flip in the city centre). It was the year I tried (and got tipsy on) my first Bacardi Breezer at a family party and felt oh so grown-up. It was also the year I really learned to love English, and it is this learning experience that I have chosen to write about today.

Mrs S was built like a rake, with cropped dark hair, high cheekbones, a pale Scottish complexion, and long manicured nails with slightly yellowed ends that tapped against your paper when she was explaining a point to you. She wore black tailored suits with simple chic white blouses and constantly effused the comforting scent of strong black coffee and cigarettes, radiating a kind of natural Parisian glamour that, as a short, curvaceous pixie girl with a slightly too long nose, I can only ever dream of imitating. Mrs S was my first real idol who wasn’t a pop star or a girl in my class. She was the first ordinary working woman that I ever looked at and thought, ‘I would like to be like her someday.’

Previously to being taught by Mrs S, I struggled to reach my full potential in English class. Although I loved to read and write, I my grades were just above average before I was first placed in that classroom at the age of 15. As I sat in class that year, listening to Mrs S speak with so much passion, enthusiasm or cynicism about classic texts I had previously thought not nearly as interesting as my enormous collection of ‘Babysitters Club’ books, something changed within me, and I fell in love with the written word; with Charlotte Brontë’s winding and confessional narrative in  ‘Jane Eyre’; the exquisitely poetic descriptions of the American Deep South in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’; and the gruesome villainous sisters of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’.

As I have previously mentioned, I did not enjoy High School, and while a double period of English on a Monday morning might sound like hell for some, it was the highlight of my week. The classes were both fascinating and challenging, not just to my mind but to my moral code and sense of self. When we read Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ in my 5th year of High School, I was chosen to read the part of Elizabeth Proctor. A transformation came over me when I became Elizabeth Proctor for forty minutes a day, as my teacher somehow made the Salem witch trials relevant and relatable to a moody teenage goth girl with bad spots and Bugs Bunny teeth. I never found myself gripped by Religious Education or Social Education – instead I found my morals in literature. After we’d finished reading ‘The Crucible’, Mrs S gave us a moral analogy, asking us to raise our hands if we would speak out against racist jokes, and when myself and a few others raised our hands, she told us that we were the John Proctors of the world. Mrs S didn’t just ‘teach’ us literature. She taught us who we were. At the age of 28, I’d still raise my hand and say that I am a John Proctor – a warrior for justice – and it was Mrs S who first discovered that trait within me.

Mrs S ignited a spark within me that previous teachers had missed, and within that first year in her class, I was achieving some of the top marks in the year for English. I went on to achieve the highest grades possible for both my Standard Grade (straight ‘1s’, for those who understand the Scottish education system) and Higher English (an A Band 1, which Mrs S revealed to me in a flurry of excitement, so proud of the work we had done together), followed by an Advanced Higher English, a 2.1 in English Literature and an MLitt Victorian Literature with Merit from the University of Glasgow as recently as last year. All of this happened because a teacher managed to find some time away from disciplining the uninterested kids and engaged with a shy teenage girl who loved reading and wanted to be a writer. 

About a year ago, my sister (who was taught by Mrs S not long after me) passed on the news that Mrs S had terminal cancer. Despite not having seen my old English teacher in almost ten years, the news hit me hard. To this day I find it terribly unfair that someone who shaped and inspired the minds of others like my young self, should be losing a battle against her own body. For months I agonised over a choice of whether or not to send her a letter, telling her everything I’ve just told you, and thanking her, from the bottom of my heart for helping me to become the successful, ambitious, strong-willed, articulate and often fearless young woman I am today.

Probably rather predictably, the letter never got written, because as we all know, inaction is always so much easier than taking a challenging course of action, and the opportunity for sending it has now passed. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, a Google search for my old teacher showed that in 2011, Mrs S was rated at 100% on Rate My Teacher. I identify as a Buddhist, and, for those who are not familiar with Buddhist philosophy, it centres around the scientific theory that energy which has been created can never be destroyed. This thought brings me comfort at times of loss, as I can see it to be the case wherever I look. Mrs S doesn’t just live on in my memory; she lives on in the memory and spirit of all those whose minds she taught and inspired. She lives on as the part of me that remains angered by the mispronunciation of ‘hyperbole’ on television; as the part of me that will always secretly consider ‘Jane Eyre’ my favourite novel, despite having first read it at the age of 15 and possessing my third disintegrating copy of it; as the part of me that still occasionally finds comfort in the scent of cigarettes and strong black coffee, despite having quit smoking three years ago; and perhaps most importantly, she lives on reminding me to fight for what is right, like Miller’s John Proctor.

Our lives are very hurried, and it’s easy to get swept up in the rush and miss them. It’s easy to spend years pottering along without ever knowing if what you are doing is right or true as the universe intended it. It’s easy to forget the people who made us who we are. Mrs S, I know you’ll never read this, and I’ll never be able to tell you how much you inspired and shaped me as a person, but I do hope that your loved ones did a better job of articulating your brilliance than me, and that they were even half as grateful for it as I am today. I hope others chose action, where I fell back on inaction, so utterly self-involved with my own bullshit that I never told you how I felt.  Most of all, I hope your loved ones have found peace and can see you live on as I do, in all of the spirits you inspired and sparks you ignited. And who knows, maybe, just maybe, if I can ever convince myself I’d do half as good a job as you, I’ll go and teach, so that I can help your influence to live on in the minds of those you never even met.

I have just arrived back from a mini-break in Durham. While I was away, I left an unfinished draft of this post saved in my WordPress account. On my first night in Durham, we went to a Pan-Asian restaurant, which was polished off with fortune cookies. This was my fortune:

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Maybe this was a message from Mrs S, intended to remind me that I am a warrior. Thank you, Mrs S, for teaching me that it is honourable to stand up for what is right. I promise I’ll send that letter next time.

 

x L x

On the John Proctors of This World

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