At the end of January, I turn the big 3-0. And as a natural byproduct of aging into another decade (and reaching a big milestone), I’m reflecting on where I am in my life and how I present myself to the world. But when I think about the version of me that existed when I was first entering womanhood, she feels so far away.
My teens and 20s were spent worrying about whether or not people liked me, and my focus is now finding a way to make sure I like me—and a big part of that is ridding myself of all the things that aren’t quintessentially who I am. While I wish I’d come to this conclusion sooner, entering this new phase seems as good a time as any to figure out my truest form. And so far, I think stereotypical “femininity” has way less of a place in my world. Let me explain…
When I was a preteen, I always envisioned how I wanted to look as I got older. The image was oddly specific, and it consistently featured me lying on my chest with my hands under my chin, similar to how I’d imagine Clarissa Explains It All photo shoots outtakes to look. My hair was long and straight, and I was much leaner than my chubby 12-year-old frame. I don’t remember the precise outfit, but I think it was along the lines of a lime green camisole and jeans. Basically, the ultimate picture of high fashion and sophistication.
When I look back at how I presented myself over time, I think about it in phases. I remember the time I dressed like my interpretation of a surfer, and when I wore rhinestone-encrusted tees from Bebe, and when I was a huge fan of newsboy caps. All throughout middle school, high school, and college, my aesthetic was traditionally feminine, without question. I wore my hair long and straight. I never left the house without a full face of makeup, and I became a cat-eye expert at a very young age. Even when I was a depressed teen living in sweats during high school, I’d always be made up. I never wanted to be seen as unattractive, and at that time, I equated being attractive with wearing makeup and appearing femme.
It’s not like I felt like a tomboy, though. I envied my friends’ ability to rock JNCOs with the best of them, but I gravitated more toward glitter eye gel and big hoop earrings. My lips were always dripping wet with lip gloss, and my hair was often adorned with springy butterfly clips. The only deviation from my girly aesthetic was when I chopped my butt-length hair into an unfortunate mushroom cut in kindergarten. But for the majority of my life—and up until a little over a year ago—my hair was generally past my shoulders.
It wasn’t until I started working at a plus-size fashion startup that I began reconsidering how I could present myself. Before, it was all about making myself as palatable as possible for the largest demographic, so that meant dressing femininely and wearing my hair long. Because the focus of the company I was now immersed in was developing your own personal style, I found myself considering how I wanted to cultivate my appearance. As a woman, I was programmed with this idea that taking up as little space as possible and being as dainty as I could be were important. But working in a body-positive environment of mostly women made me reevaluate that in a big way, and it’s no coincidence that it’s coincided with the end of my 20s.
I never wanted to be seen as unattractive, and at that time, I equated being attractive with wearing makeup and appearing femme.
The first step was cutting my hair last year. On the surface, it wasn’t a huge transition, but to me, it felt like I was cutting off a vestige of my former self. What also played into this decision was a further unpacking of my sexuality and the realization that I wasn’t the straight girl I’d always thought I was. Understanding this new aspect of myself allowed me to reimagine the woman I was and stop playing into what I thought attractive straight girls looked like. I discovered my sexuality fell somewhere in the middle, so my blind allegiance to a strictly feminine aesthetic lost its grip.
In the same vein, the pretty dresses that I’d wear in an almost pathological attempt to appear attractive had all but lost their appeal. Now, I play a lot more with androgyny when I get dressed, and I often find myself more attractive when the stereotypical gender lines are a bit blurred. I fantasize about shaving part of my head and really embracing the idea of fucking with gender. At the same time, it's so hard to shed the feeling of concern for what people will think.
My goal for the beginning of my 30s is to continue removing the Sarah that wants desperately to be liked and, instead, to always be wholeheartedly me, at whatever cost. Maybe certain people won’t be attracted to me, or maybe strangers will have preconceived notions. But ultimately, if I look in the mirror and see how I feel on the inside, then I can consider that, as the millennials say, living my best life. That’s really all we can strive for anyway, right?
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Want more stories from The Flipside? Don't miss this essay about what it's really like to be a curvy ballerina.
Opening image: Imaxtree