The kitchen was steeped with the smell of blooming lilacs, their purple, bushy-tail tips peeking up behind the open screen. Betty, my grandmother, looked at teenage me quizzically, her head tilted like a curious robin. And at 15, she was right to have that look. My long, frizzy hair was parted down the middle making me reminiscent of a teenage Howard Stern. Frosting my ten fingers were 23 rings purchased off the felt-topped tables on Telegraph Avenue. And I clothed myself in three long hippie skirts (all at once, for a matronly look) and one skimpy tank-top, braless with armpits that were more socially suitable for France than my grandmother’s Santa Barbara home.
To top the outfit off, I was standing on a figurative soap box, rallying against beauty standards and how unjust it was that women were expected to look and act a certain way. A storybook way, my friend Ceci and I called it, writing poems with lines like, No storybook girl would burp at her crush, she’d giggle and smile, just look cute and blush. I wished I could be a storybook girl, but the gene and/or true desire to prettify myself didn’t seem to exist in me. I cared, to my frustration, more about being who I was.
“It just seems unfair,” I was preaching to Betty, “that in order to have a boyfriend, I’m supposed to change.” I’d recently made a correlation between my lack of storybookness and lack of boyfriends. Always the girl boys would kiss, rarely the girl boys would date. “Like, I’m supposed to fake myself. Wear makeup. Be anything but me.”
She pointed out my chipped black nail polish, my unconventional clothing. “Nothing you’re saying about yourself right now says that you care about you. So why should they?”
I began tearing up. I didn’t want to live in a world where games were truth and somehow being myself wasn’t enough. “I don’t want to be alone forever,” I said.
“Well Alicia,” my grandmother said – and perhaps she said it gently but it came out like vipers, “it’s a game. And yes, to have a boyfriend, you have to play it.”
The filming of the eyes gave way to identifiable crying. I continued resisting what she said, resisting society, resisting what was expected – and Betty kept trying to tell me what would get me what I wanted.
I’ve thought a lot about that kitchen conversation since then. About the ways I’ve conformed (my nice girl status was, and is, fully intact) and the ways I refused to for so long (my wardrobe really didn’t start to improve until I was 27, and yes, I did it to play a game – the job-getting game). The fact that I still don’t want to wear makeup (and that doing so during 50/50 felt like a huge concession to me, something I know no one else understands) and while maybe I’m slightly less crass when you’re getting to know me, I still lack a filter. And I’m still not sure what to make of the talk.
I don’t believe you should change yourself in order to be liked by a partner. I do believe in putting your best foot forward and feeling awesome about yourself in whatever not self-harming way that means. I don’t think I’m capable of being a storybook girl for more than a couple dates, try so hard as I might. I guess it goes back to something I wrote last week – that “I demand to be seen as I am.” For better or worse, that’s what my heart screams.
And yet all that said, there is some “gaming” I adhere to. (Not in a Neil Strauss way.)