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The Trouble With Trying

By: Nanditha Pillai

“What does ‘try’ even mean?” I asked from across the table at Panera. 

My friends were talking about the few times they had actually “tried” that year in school. 

My friend looked at me with an expression of mingled disbelief and exasperation.

“It means wear makeup, do your hair, wear cute clothes,” she said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“Right,” I replied, and took a bite out of my sandwich.

A year later, my friend met a guy she liked. She’d been talking to him for a couple weeks, and they decided to meet up. The night before, our group chat was active for hours as she sent pictures of three different outfits, only for each to be minutely dissected, the merits and disadvantages of each thoughtfully pointed out. The next day, she showed up to her date, no doubt having spent hours getting ready. He showed up simply wearing jeans and a t-shirt. It could not have taken more than fifteen minutes to put together.

 Similarly, I’d heard about another girl who showed up to her first date also having meticulously prepared before. After all, this is pretty standard practice for many women. Her date showed up in sweats.

It’s not just in the social world of casual dating that this discrepancy in “effort” exists. It was also talked about in the world of high school speech and debate. 

At my high school, our speech-and-debate team was ranked as a top-twenty team nationwide. Needless to say, the activity was taken very seriously by its participants and the competition was fierce. Students practiced tirelessly at meetings multiple times a week, would spend hours at home perfecting their cases with their partners or honing their speeches. Early Saturday morning, the steps outside the front gates of our school would be covered in students donning stiff suits, sometimes before the sun had even risen, reciting tongue-twisters that would help them warm up and ending with the team’s motto. 

For a subset of Dougherty Valley’s speech and debate team, however, there were even more requirements. 

“I’ll wake up an hour before we have to leave,” a student told me, “to straighten my hair and do my makeup and then I’ll see my brother wake up ten minutes before we have to go. It’s so annoying,” she sighed. 

Despite having to walk continuously, sometimes across large college campuses to find classrooms for one’s rounds, and then having to stand up to present one’s speech or one’s case, many of the girls also wore heels.

All this, and they were still criticized. The same girl whose brother rolled out of bed ten minutes before they were supposed to arrive on the school steps also had a judge write as a critique that her skirt length was inappropriately short, barely even mentioning her content. 

Most people will tell you that appearance does matter to some extent. It’s important to look neat, family has told me. It’s important to put in the effort to look “professional,” a word that often carries with it classist, racist and sexist legacies. And in a culture that prides itself on the neverending “hustle,” effort is what imbues value more than natural advantages. A seemingly noble sentiment, at first glance. Until it becomes abundantly clear that the definition of “effort” has different meanings for different groups of people.

For non-femme-identifying individuals, “effort” often looks like a button-up shirt, cologne, and maybe some hair gel. For women, “effort” is usually far more complicated, not to mention expensive. 

For many women “effort” means drawers cluttered with innumerable cosmetic products. It often means that their bare face is little more than a blueprint, to be filled in, smoothed out and enlivened with colorful powders ironically meant to emulate a natural flush, when a natural flush clearly was never enough. For many women, it means divesting oneself of all hair below the lower lash line through various means such as plucking, pruning, and ripping the hair off one’s skin. It means more categories of clothing than there are fingers on my hands, shoes that appear to put some species to shame in its diversity. The options alone can be exhausting.

For many women, though, putting on makeup is prized time with themselves and a fulfilling expression of their personalities as well as art. For many women, the “getting ready” process is a memorable and nostalgic one, of times spent with friends or family before an important event such as a school dance or a wedding, a time spent in communion with other women, bonding and engaging in a culture that seems uniquely theirs.

However, the problem arises when spending time on one’s appearance moves away from the realm of choice into an expectation. An expectation that pressures someone into feeling that if they want to be in a relationship, if they want to win a debate, if they want to land a job–all scenarios in which compatibility and companionship, the strength of one’s argument, and one’s qualifications and experience are most relevant, respectively—then they need to not only spend time and energy on cultivating a specific appearance, but also do it to a greater extent than their male partner, their male opponent, or their male colleague might. 

There are definitely people who still don’t spend that much time on their appearance, but the pressure still exists. I, for one, never straightened my hair for a tournament and exclusively wore flats and I was certainly not the only one who did. I also never wear makeup in my day-to-day life. However, not a single day goes by when I don’t think about the perceived inadequacy of my outward presentation, leading to a CVS haul this past winter break, where I spent a hundred dollars on makeup that lay relatively untouched and unopened in my bathroom drawers. It’s why every couple weeks, I’ll force myself to watch a makeup tutorial, even though I’ve already tuned out after the first thirty seconds, and will leave having retained almost no information.

The problem arises when the time one spends on one’s appearance becomes entwined with character. Because that’s what happens when straightening your hair or curling your lashes is called “putting in effort” or “trying.” Not because it isn’t effort–I feel nothing short of pure exhaustion after an hour spent flat-ironing my thick, Indian hair–but because the implication is then that not straightening one’s hair, not wearing makeup, wearing t-shirts and sweats because they’re comfortable and feel most expressive of your style—is the opposite of effort, is the opposite of trying. In essence, that it’s lazy. And in our capitalist, work-ethic obsessed world, that is a condemnation that is more than skin-deep. And there-in lies the paradox. In a culture that often preaches self-love and acceptance, we still unintentionally use language that ascribes certain values to certain behaviors, thereby condemning other behaviors, or the lack of those behaviors. We can preach self-acceptance all we want, but every time we label one choice as “effort,” we’re labeling everyone who makes a different choice lazy, or careless. The decisions one makes with one’s appearance should be intrinsically motivated, because the activity brings genuine joy and fulfillment, not to prove our characters. 

So, yes, many people do put in a lot of effort into the way they look, but emphasizing “effort” alone, identifying an entire set of activities as “trying,” not only gives it a superior moral connotation in a work-obsessed world, it also highlights the cumbersome, chore-like quality of the activity. It’s also a form of modesty, deflecting compliments from one’s person by emphasizing all of the outside work it took to create the effect. By replying with, “thank you, I tried,” to “you look beautiful,” still reflects archaic notions of modesty. While on the one hand it acknowledges the reality of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into outward presentation, it also creates a link between looking beautiful and going out of one’s way to change oneself. If “I tried” is a modest attempt to explain one’s beauty, then it can also be interpreted that the “trying” is then the direct cause of the beauty. 

It’s a complicated question with no easy answer, but I think the first step is to acknowledge the time and effort that goes into certain activities by simply stating it in factual terms. For example, instead of “I tried today,” maybe just say “this took me thirty minutes.” The difference may not seem noticeable, but this way, reality is acknowledged—it was a time-consuming process—but it lacks the judgement inherent in the first statement. Sometimes in our effort to simplify our language, we forget that words are loaded with connotations and cultural baggage, and in the process of jamming a series of steps into the one word “try,” we sum our behavior in that one word and with all of that word’s existing connotations in our culture. 

Perhaps this is a good opportunity for us, as a society, to rethink our relationship to “effort.” Many have already spoken out about the harmful effects of “hustle” culture on mental health, but effort is still deeply embedded in our culture as one of the most important virtues. We use it as a metric to measure quality, to assign value, to decide how meaningful or impressive something is. As we move, as a culture, towards acceptance and inclusivity, not only of others, but also when it comes to ourselves, we need to question the concept of “effort” and the role it plays in informing all of our actions. But that will no doubt take time. And in the meantime, we can take small steps towards that larger cultural reevaluation by taking note of our everyday language and making more conscientious choices with our words, because language matters.

So the next time you spend thirty minutes getting ready for something, if you spend thirty minutes getting ready for something, I hope you do it because the process brings you joy, and not out of an obligation or because you equate effort with quality or effort with self-worth. After all, effort is never so hard when motivated out of enjoyment as it is when motivated out of expectation.

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In Defense of Bella Swan

By: Nanditha Pillai

“Oh no, this bad,” I typed in my group chat. “This is REALLY bad.” My friend had sent me a personality test that matched you to a fictional character that was most similar to your personality. At the top of my list, with an alarming ninety-seven percent similarity, was none other than Bella Swan of the notorious Twilight universe.

Bella Swan–the object of countless jokes, derided as a disgrace to feminism, scorned as weak, passive and whiny. Everyone loves to hate her. Countless book reviews, movie reviews, and Youtube videos have pulled not just her, but her creator, Stephenie Meyer, and her actor Kristen Stewart, ruthlessly apart, as they read the books aloud in mock-agony because the writing and female representation was simply so excruciatingly terrible. One such Youtuber was Alex Day, in whose videos he reads Twilight, dismayed that the author could have possibly received a literature degree and yet produced such a, to loosely paraphrase him, “worthless piece of garbage.” It is difficult to find the exact quote because his Youtube videos have since been taken down after allegations of inappropriate behavior with women. Alex, under the guise of feminism, is just one of many people that partook in viciously putting down all the principal women associated with a successful franchise, undermining their qualifications, merit and skill.

In their incessant hatred for Bella Swan and her creator, men such as Alex in their enthusiastic “feminism,” as they instruct and remind Stepenie Meyer how to write women characters and tell other women why they should not be like Bella, forget the sheer popularity of the franchise. According to Forbes, at its peak, the franchise earned Meyer more than $40 million (Pomerantz 2010). People decried Meyer’s mind-numbingly horrible writing (their words) and engaged her in often unwarrantedly violent competition with other female writers (I remember one comment about how if she were placed in a ring with Suzanne Collins and JK Rowling, she would “get beaten to a pulp”). The hostility did not stop with Meyer, however. The lead of the movie adaptations, Kristen Stewart, was similarly ripped apart for her terrible acting, which, according to one writer, was “frustratingly emo” and “emotionally hollow” (Kim 2016). But despite the rabid, vindictive, violent antagonism towards the franchise, no one can deny its success. Its success speaks to the fact that as people were busy criticizing and disdaining it, the franchise, for whatever reason, appealed to millions of teenage girls across the country. Girls who felt drawn to the story, to Bella, who may have seen themselves reflected in her. But the people around them were too immersed in denouncing a fictional character as weak and insulting to pay attention to the actual resonances the character had with these female teen viewers. 

Scorn is not a new feeling for women as a group, historically. Whether it was by scorning women who were interested in science, in politics, by demeaning their literature as “chick lit,” their interests as vain and frivolous, women are used to not being taken seriously—for wearing makeup, for not wearing makeup, for paying attention to their appearance, for not. The young members of the Twilight fandom got an early taste of their feelings being scorned and dismissed by those who felt morally and intellectually superior to them.

 Even before the fateful personality test, the term “strong female character” had rubbed me the wrong way. Something about it bothered me and now I know why. In an effort to encourage and empower women, society is doing what it always has–setting an ideal for women to aspire to, telling them what qualities they should strive to embody, that one set of traits is more desirable than others, and in the process, undercutting, deriding, and dismissing all of the women that do not fit in to this prescribed profile. 

I understand how the term came along and its possible motivations, but I am bothered by the word choice. Back when it was almost entirely male writers and directors creating the female characters we saw on screen, any woman that displayed basic human emotions such as anger, or basic human subjectivity through opinions, was lauded as “strong.” A historical example of this was how a 1688 murder testimonial was notable in the way that it presented its female defendant as a “self-conscious, speaking subject” (Dolan 35). This was seen as a subversive risk. For that time, she was a “strong” female representation, merely because the author of the testimonial made the decision to include her feelings. In this way we see how “strong” characters are different from strong people. The character’s strength rests entirely in the fact that she was more accurately depicted than other women of her time and not necessarily her own qualities. Therefore, this representation was “strong” for a female character at the time simply because it was human. But to continue to call female characters “strong” today seems patronizing as though women have a different or lower standard of strength, as though having opinions or expressing anger, something all women do, is something remarkable. 

The “strength” is, therefore, seems to be an evaluation of the depiction and the responsibility lies with the male creator. So a more accurate term instead of “strong” female character, would be a more “realistic” female character.  But does that responsibility still exist when female-identifying authors create female characters? What if she is drawn from personal experience, thereby automatically making her more “realistic?” I think a “realistic” female character can be any that is created by or in some way resonates with women. 

Thus, by virtue of the fact that there are women out there that do like or relate to Bella, she is a realistic female character. And to tell women that they are weak for that connection is counterproductive and dismissive of their realities. 

As someone who personally can relate to Bella, to her awkwardness, her quietness and her clumsiness, this judgement of strength in women is not limited to fiction. A family friend was once visibly upset by my shyness, saying my lack of assertiveness was frustrating to her as a feminist. I’ve been told that I need to “smile more,” “be more argumentative,” that I look sad all the time by friends as jokes. The irony of it all is what was funny to me. If a woman’s demeanor, natural personality or inclinations, if the choices she makes about how to present herself is offensive to one’s feminist sensibilities, then that is not feminist. If a woman feels pressure to prove her “strength” by changing her behavior, not out of her own volition, but to meet the approval of society, then that is not feminism. I myself work on being more confident everyday. But the decision to change myself should be my own, whenever and if ever I see a need for it myself, and not because my previous version of existing—notably one that was still kind and respectful of other people—was seen as unacceptable, purely because it did not fit society’s new definition of how a woman should behave. When I see shy girls, I also want them to feel safer to be themselves, more proud of who they are. But the way to do that is not by calling them weak as they are now. It’s by allowing them the space, time and patience to evolve as they choose, whether that means making the choice to change or stay the same because they accept themselves the way they are. 

The idea of the “strong” female character also makes me think we should reevaluate our definition of “strength” as a society. Our conceptions of strength are heavily cultural and to create a sweeping, single definition of it which we use to evaluate all the world by is ethnocentric, racist, sexist, and exclusive. Back when gender was viewed as binary and gender roles were associated with certain qualities, traditionally “masculine” qualities of loudness, political leadership and stoicism were primarily associated with strength. I wonder if that same ideal for strength is what still exists today, just now for everyone. We see it play out today in quintessential “strong” female protagonists of dystopian stories, the Katniss Everdeens and Tris Priors, the glamorous martyrs, the faces of revolutions, the athletic risk-takers. But this narrow view of strength excludes strength expressed by everybody in different ways–by quiet people, by people who cry a lot, by people who are not leaders but are discerning, critical and thoughtful in who they choose to follow. Yet these qualities often are not associated with “strength,” even though emotional vulnerability and expression takes courage, silence can be powerful, and it is from followers that leaders derive their status. All people display resilience in their lives, all people navigate complex situations and make difficult decisions. All people are strong.

What we need is for female-identifying individuals to have the space to share their stories, create their characters, and for their audiences to have the freedom to identify with them or not identify with them as they wish, without judgement from society telling them because a female character does not fit into society’s idea of “strength,” she and all those for whom she resonates with are weak and unacceptable. 

You can dislike Bella. You can disagree with her. Maybe you, personally, find her annoying. Maybe, you, personally, would not lead your life in the way that she did or make the same choices. Maybe you see her as heavily flawed, because she, like everybody, is flawed. But flawed should not mean unacceptable. Being flawed does not mean deserving of hate. In fact, I want to see more provocative female characters like Bella that evoke strong negative reactions, that spark discussion, that are full of behaviors that are looked down on by society but are seen as relatable by millions of women. Because the simple fact that they relate to her, even though millions of others might not, make her real, and therefore strong. 

When I received the results of my personality test, I was not really all that surprised, because I had noticed the similarities myself. But for a moment it did make me wonder if I should be concerned. That reaction in itself made me realize the need to make a case in defense of Bella Swan, and by extension, myself, and all of the other flawed, unlikeable, clumsy, awkward, resting-sad-faced women out there. Because she is not weak, and neither are we.

 So let’s leave Bella alone. And maybe reductive, exclusive, counterproductive labels, too, while we’re at it. 

Citations:

Dolan, Frances Elizabeth. Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Kim, Kristen Yoonsoo. “The Moment Kristen Stewart Stopped Being Hollywood’s Most Hated Actress.” Complex. Complex, April 20, 2020. https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2016/06/kristen-stewart-hated-then-beloved-now. 

Pomerantz, Dorothy. “Inside The ‘Twilight’ Empire.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, July 11, 2012.https://www.forbes.com/2010/06/22/twilight-kristen-stewart-robert-pattinson-business-entertainment-celeb-100-10-twilight.html?sh=564b88e15761.