To Be a Girl:
My Thoreauvian Experiment
I grew up with boys, knowing that I was not one of them. Everyday my brothers and I would be together, outside in the mud, inside in the living room. Although I recognized that I liked to play with Barbie, have my hair braided, and dress up for Sunday church, and they didn’t, I never thought that that was what made us different. In the winter, we’d be bundled up for the snow, our body’s covered from head to foot, and we undoubtedly looked the same. So it was never the fact that we looked differently; there was always something deeper that made them boys, and I a girl.
Thoreau wrote, “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.” I understand this to mean, be careful of those undertakings that ask you to modify how you portray yourself, and not how you perceive yourself. It’s been my experience that being a girl who is becoming a woman requires new clothing. Clothing not only in the sense of physical fabrics, but also as a symbol of our outward appearance. I say; why should you have to change yourself externally, if what your peers, teachers, employers, and everyone else important in your life are supposedly looking for is inside you? If we are what is within us, if we are more than what is easily seen, then why do we put so much significance on our external image?
I remember when my body started to change, of its own accord, into that of a woman’s. It didn’t seem at all like a problem to me until people began to treat me differently. I was in seventh grade and suddenly I couldn’t wear tank tops to school anymore, or play tag with the boys at recess for their fear of accidentally brushing my chest with their hand. In my eighth grade play my teacher said I couldn’t act the lead girl because I looked “too mature.” Over time, I learned to adapt to this new phenomenon that was my body. There was no specific moment when I adopted the idea of looking a certain way, mostly pretty, going hand in hand with femininity. People have always hackneyed the phrase, “what really counts is on the inside,” but I was fully aware, as I believe most girls are, that even if that was true people still pay more attention to what’s on the outside. Therefore, my appearance, or my “clothes,” have always “really counted.”
In my experiment, I used Thoreau’s words as inspiration in my attempt to sever the two concepts of importance of appearance, and of femininity. My idea was to test the societal boundaries of what it truly means to be girl, and see if it indeed means more than looking a certain way. I sought to discover for myself what significance my appearance really held, and if I could still be the girl that I was without it. This project of mine was in no way intended as a defiant outburst toward society. In doing this, I hoped genuinely to discover something about myself, not criticize the views of others.
And so I made a commitment to myself: for the purpose of my experiment, I would cut off my hair, in an unfeminine short way, and wear masculine clothing for the next week. At my salon appointment the next day, I met a nice woman who happily and professionally cut my hair to a boyish-butch look. I don’t think I would have been able to sit through the whole ordeal so calmly if I hadn’t cried so much the day before. I was honestly scared to cut my hair. The thing I find amusing is that so many girls were, (and still are), incredibly empathetic with my initial terror, when in reality, it’s just hair! I have no doubt that it will grow back like it always has. I do admit that it was nerve-racking when the hairdresser took my long brown hair into a ponytail and chopped it right off with her scissors. After that I knew there was no going back, and I smiled.
The first thing I noticed was that my newly shorn hair felt dramatically different in the physical sense. I felt the lining of my jacket with a part of my neck that hadn’t been exposed in years. It made me jump! I couldn’t stop running my hands through it and smiling, I felt like the whole world was on to me and my experiment, though none of the unfamiliar faces in town looked twice. Back at school was quite a different story. It was raining when I returned so I had the luxury of walking into Main Building with my hood on. The first few people I showed had known what my trip to town was for and exclaimed joyously that they loved it when I removed my hood. The rest of the school, my roommate and best friends included, whom I had not forewarned, were a bit more shocked. That night I braved the dining hall, where people literally craned their necks to look at me, and my friends couldn’t stop asking “Why??” My original idea was to respond to this frequently asked question as if it had no correlation to my Thoreauvian Experiment. Only after I discovered that my experiment was just as effective whether or not everyone knew of it did I answer people honestly. I had a new look and suddenly everyone knew my name. I loved all of the attention.
However, the next morning I wanted to cry. I felt ugly. I looked like a boy. I missed my long hair. I hated my outfit for day two of my experiment: dress pants, a button down, and a wool sweater. A combination of my own clothing that I had never before worn together. In fact, it was probably the most conservative thing I had worn to school all year. Not to say that my previous style of dress was inappropriate, but I had grown accustomed to skirts and pretty blouses. I find it ironic now, that while walking through school that day, I was more ashamed of myself than if I had been wearing, say, a very revealing dress. When thinking about why I felt the way I did, I saw that so much of the quality of my life as a girl had been based off of my appearance. It was only natural that I should feel like I was losing myself in the process of removing that which I had been dependent on. I didn’t know what to think of myself. For me, being a girl and looking like a girl had essentially melded into the same thing over the years. Could I lose one and still have the other? I would like to believe that true beauty is an effect of someone who embraces their femininity, but the enterprise of womanhood had required so many new clothes of me that I had begun to confuse them with my identity as a girl.
Considering that it was my choice from the very beginning to decide to look a certain way, girls could argue that it is still their choice, and only their choice, that keeps them in adhering to social norms of femininity. Many girls, friends of mine even, recognize that they would be the same person, in essence, without their external façade, but claim that being pretty is a preference for the sake of fun. The entertainment of wearing pearls and perfume, sunhats and stockings, floral prints, lace, high heels, and makeup is alluring to girls of any age it seems. It is therefore highly plausible that the majority of women in the world find themselves looking as they do simply because they wish to.
Yet if looking feminine is honestly a preference, and not a necessity, could they go without it? If the girls who interacted with me, before and after my outward change, sincerely felt that they were more than their appearance, I believe that they would not have been so stunned with my experiment. If they could stand solidly in their beliefs of what it means to be a girl, minus the prominence of their appearance, they would not have “admired my bravery” for letting go of things of such little weight as my hair and my daily dress. And so I ask, at what point in the enterprise of womanhood does a girl’s appearance become an element of her femininity and not a product of it?
In taking on this experiment, I’ve come to realize that I enjoy looking and dressing certain ways, and that regardless of how I may appear I wholly remain myself on the inside. Once I became comfortable with not having my appearance, I began to find myself being exactly how I wished to be. Once I stopped judging myself by my appearance, I let go of what others thought. In doing this, I felt more like a true girl than I ever had. No one was expecting me to look a certain way. No one was talking to me only because they could see down my shirt. My own brand of femininity came through because I was not seeking to be that way for anyone but myself. I noticed a soft and loving side of myself, a side I was not aware of as a constant part of me. I was able to embrace my identity as a girl when no one was seeing me as I thought girls should be seen. I am not a girl because I am pretty, nor vise versa. I am beautiful either in the eyes of myself, which I can’t prove, or in the eyes of everyone else, which don’t matter. I am a girl because, well, I am.
The brilliance of Thoreau’s metaphor is that it holds true in reality; our clothes will forever deteriorate and our appearances grow out of fashion. In the end we are left with ourselves, so why not value that which we can actually keep? It is my hope that as people read this, whether male or female, they consider their own identities, for we will always be the wearers of our clothes, whether they be old or new.