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When I was a young girl, I would look in the mirror and be alarmed at all the things that were wrong with my appearance. I found that my ears stuck out; I never wore a ponytail or tucked my hair behind my ears. I was so skinny that my dad called me chicken legs. There were bags under my eyes that always made me look, even at the age of six, as if I had just been fired. I thought my toes were too long and strange looking. I was so ashamed of my feet that I wore a pair of socks to walk down the street to the swimming pool. When I tried to wear them to go in the water, the lifeguard stood up in his chair as if he’d just seen a shark.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, models were all ridiculously perfect knockouts. That was the standard of beauty I compared myself to: Guess-campaign glamazons like Claudia Schiffer. I went through fashion magazines thinking, like Snow White’s stepmother, that everyone was more beautiful, more worthy, more perfect. I remember sitting in the back of the class in Grade 9 with some friends and discussing how beautiful models Elle Macpherson, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford were. There was something unhappy in the discussing, as if we were acknowledging that we’d never be as pretty or as worthy. They were perfect, and we were far from it.
The voice of the average girl had no forum back then. Desires and concerns were relegated to small symposia at the uncool table in the cafeteria. But the Internet has given young girls a voice. This window into private lives is one of the joys of the new media. The lives of models have also become available through this medium. On Twitter and Instagram, they post photos of themselves with their hair unwashed and no makeup; it has become almost fashionable to admit to being imperfect and human. And lately in fashion there has been a noted turning away from the spectacular toward the eccentric and distinct in models.
There is Natalie Westling, with her bright-red hair that looks like she dyed it in the sink at a sleepover party. Stella Lucia might just be the world’s most adorable Neanderthal, and Masha Tyelna’s eyes are so enormous that they seem Photoshopped. Molly Bair appears to be from another planet altogether. In an interview with CNN, she declared, “I guess I’m embracing that alien-rat demon-goblin-gremlin sort of vibe.” Speaking of big ears, Binx Walton
looks as if she bought hers at a costume store and stuck them on to look like an elf. These women, in part because of their flaws, are unforgettable.
This new crop of models reminds me of girls I used to know when I was younger. They bring to mind the weird girl who would sit at the back of the class cutting her own hair. Or the girl who would talk to her sleeve and write three-page fan letters to Ricky Schroder instead of hanging out. They remind me of some sort of authentic experience of girlhood. The models from the ’80s were unlike anyone I’ve ever been close to.
For instance, I had a friend named Sabrina. She had a round face and thin red hair that stuck to her head. She had a medieval look about her, like she ought to be wearing a headdress and frowning at a dragon. She was so imaginative and wrote poetry. She always had her hand up in class, even though her answers were sometimes wrong. I found that odd-looking girl, with her eccentric, mythical appearance, to be the most beautiful girl in the world.
All true art is a touch ugly. It demands you take a second look at it. It is provocative. You have to learn to see the beauty in it, as it comes to reveal itself to you. We feel proud of ourselves when we spot something that is unusual but we know is beautiful: like reading Virginia Woolf, like looking at Picasso, like listening to Lou Reed. It makes you more empathetic. You expand your idea of what is beautiful and then you look back at the world and it is just so much more full of wonder.
These days, I couldn’t care less about my big ears. I think they make me look smart. And as for my big feet, I order 1970s leather men’s boots. My body is just the vessel that holds my personality, and I rather like the details that remind me that I am unique. I decide what beautiful is, and I think it’s confidence. Anjelica Huston once said, “I might not have physical perfection, but I’m going to think myself into being beautiful.”
A pretty girl can always be found—there are a zillion pictures of them online and at least one on every subway car you climb into. The only thing that can make us pause today is uniqueness. That’s what beauty is now; it’s something that makes you stick out in a crowd. It is abnormal and weird. It is deeply, wonderfully flawed.