I was challenged by Unique Vintage to percolate on self-celebration for their #iamunique campaign. I was truly honored to be asked to participate in such an incredible movement, which encourages everyone to embrace their fabulous quirks and put their own unique spin on the world. But, I was also terrified. Because as semi-practised as I am speaking my mind and putting myself out there, the thought of contributing to something so powerful was a bit intimidating. But, if I present the challenge every day on this blog to be ourselves, celebrate our bodies, and wear what we please, then I owed it to myself (and you) to scrunch up my nose and ask myself the tough question: What makes me unique? So, I donned one of my all-time favorite Unique Vintage dresses, twirled around the garden for inspiration, and then poured myself a glass of wine and sat down to write…
As a society, I think we celebrate humility. Laud the absence of vanity. But I find that we’re sent conflicting messages – because we’re also told that our job is to be perfect – to work towards perfect bodies, perfect hair, perfect skin. We need to follow the current trends and adopt the current colloquialisms and eat that which is currently proclaimed as the miracle food. Everything that runs across our retinas emphasizes that we are not yet good enough. But, with a swipe of this concealer pen or the reduction of a few numbers on a scale, maybe, just maybe, one day we can be this mythical ‘enough’.
Well, guess what? Dear World: I am unique and I am already plenty good enough.
I have to admit, it took some navigating down a pretty long road to arrive at a destination where I could let my freak flag fly proudly and without reservation. To acknowledge that self-celebration isn’t vanity and all of the various parts of myself that I bemoan from time to time are actually the very things that make me uniquely fabulous.
My first love has always been science. I spend my days buried in books, teaching our next generation of undergraduates (which is still terrifying), dissection specimens, and, very occasionally, swimming with the sharks, literally and figuratively. I run experiments, manage grants, facilitate collaborations, and drink a LOT of coffee. And I just happen to do it in a dress (except the swimming part. I have a wetsuit for that).
Many people struggle with marrying the vision of a scientist (read: nerdy) and a vintage bombshell (read: sexy). But I am neither and both of those things. And my fabulous uniqueness sits at the crossroads of that dichotomy.
Although I couldn’t articulate it until my inaugural blog post, I believe woman and young girls alike are sent an all-pervasive message – that we can either be pretty or smart. Sure, we have the option, but we’d better choose one and choose it fast. And with that choice comes certain archetypes we need to emulate to fulfill our membership into the Smart Club or the Pretty Club. If you are a Smart Girl, you don’t have time to understand your body or celebrate it – you’re too busy being smart! And serious. And buying thick framed glasses to emphasize your brilliance. And if you’re a Pretty Girl, there’s no need for you to excel in math and science or flex your creative muscles. Don’t fret your pretty little head over world news or politics – leave that to the Smart Girls. You need to spend time worrying about how best to achieve perfection and avoid getting dirty.
These messages are conveyed to all of us to varying degrees, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly, and always to subconscious effect.
I’m a scientist – a marine biologist – and a pretty darn good one. Throughout most my my life, my professional goals were so focused and precise that I thought I only could choose one path – that of the Smart Girl. I thought that if I put an effort into my appearance, then I would no longer look ‘smart.’ Because an interest in fashion is seen as a shallow pursuit. Putting effort into your appearance is seen as vain. And if you DO care about your outward appearance, you must have nothing else going for you. And who wants to look as though they have nothing else going for them? So I settled into the role of the Smart Girl, but the other part of myself lay dormant for awhile, until she realized her self-imposed stereotype was all kinds of crazy and started to fight her way free…
Truthfully, I live and work in a very male-dominated profession. For this reason, I fight daily against a culture that suggests I dress differently, wear my hair differently, and defer to a more masculine identity. I’ve been told “not to be such a girl” by a colleague, as if celebrating femininity somehow precludes me from being a good researcher. I have been asked if I was “sure I was a scientist,” because I look far too pretty (which, as we now know, goes against the bylaws of the Smart Girls Club). As if a dress beneath my lab coat instantly negates my ideas and my expertise. Or the impact of my research paper hinges on heels and eyeliner.
These comments really pushed me to a crossroads and I had a choice: (1) Give in to someone else’s definition of me or (2) Make a conscious effort to embrace my aesthetic – embrace what I loved to wear and how I chose to present myself. And in doing so, I outwardly refused to apologize for feeling at my most powerful in a dress and heels. Although a small battle in the scheme of things, wearing the dresses I love so dearly subtly wages a daily war on premise that pretty and smart are mutually exclusive adjectives. I now skip towards the lab in my sparkliest heels, marching right past those that suggested I may need to “dress more like a man.” And with each bedazzled, heel-clad step, I refuse to foster the idea that to succeed I needed to conform. And over time, that idea slowly withered and no longer held any power.
I won’t lie – I get a lot of stares (I choose to see them as complimentary). I’ve been asked what costume party I was heading off to as I gazed back, eyebrow raised, cause I was going to work dressed as myself. I’ve had people say, “Well, I would have never have guessed that” at University events when I share my Assistant Professor title and job as a scientist, barely disguising their surprise as they take in my floral vintage dress. But, bottom line – I don’t dress for them. I don’t dress in a way to facilitate successful categorization, so they might feel comfortable with the box they choose to put me in. I dress in a way that is unique to me, not to the cardboard cutout of me. Because years from now, looking back on my life, I know I would question why I wasted a single day conforming someone else’s stereotype of who I should be.
Getting to a place where you can feel comfortable in your own skin is like the act of falling asleep – it happens both slowly and all at once. And once you’re there, you’ll wonder what took you so long. I spent a large portion of my life covering up, trying to fit in – believing that if I could just be “normal” and like everyone else, I would feel confident. I fell into that trap, as so many of us do, and talked myself out of wearing beautiful things for fear of breaking out of the confines of what “smart” was supposed to look like or – god forbid – looking like I was making an effort (apparently this is a huge crime). I admired things on other women but could never translate it to me and spent way too much time in the mirror focusing on my flaws.
But the truth is – we spend so much time doing things we don’t want to do but have to do – laundry, taxes, putting up with rude coworkers, and resisting the temptation to road rage. We have no choice when it comes to changing our childhood or erasing an ex-boyfriend or two from our memories. So, why not take charge of the things we actually CAN control? Why waste any time focused on the extra pounds we have, the extra money we don’t have, the extra attention that girl over there is getting. Why not focus on the strength we have, the riches that are overflowing around us, and the empathy we can always have more of. Isn’t it time to make yourself vulnerable? Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Put the power back in your hands where it belongs. You are beautiful because of each and every one of your quirks – those things you see as “flaws.” Those things that make you uniquely you. Not in spite of. Because of.
Personally, I am at my best when I am bursting forth into the fray as my most crazy, whimsical, dressed-up-and-covered-in-glitter self. And I will never apologize for my love of pink glitter and floaty chiffon dresses, coupled with my love of science and books and excel spreadsheets. How my voice goes up an octave or two when I see a kitten, how loudly I sing to broadway musicals in my car, and how I love reading fashion blogs in my spare time. Even though, to society, apparently that isn’t ‘high minded’ enough. It isn’t “smart girl” enough. But I’m no longer trying to be enough for anyone, but me.
You are uniquely beautiful and you are more than enough. You always have been – you just have to say it out loud.
Dress: Trudy Yellow & Chiffon Cocktail Dress from Unique Vintage
(similar modern here & here or vintage here, here & here)
Belt: Mo-Mo’s Vintage (similar)
Necklace: Sophistihat (similar here & here)
Handbag: Gift (similar here & here)
Shoes: Jessica Simpson (similar here, here, here & here)
Vintage Cherry Shoe Clips: La Belle Vintage (another pair available here)