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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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Embracing Our Body Hair

By: Sindura Vuppu

I was only nine years old when I first used Veet hair removal cream to get rid of the shame and insecurity that came with my “unwanted” hair. Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif, the face of Veet in India back then, said I’d feel more beautiful if I did so. Thick dark hair on my dark skin didn’t help meet the beauty standards of a South Indian. Ever since, I’ve tried various ways to “clean up.” I covered up most of the time and waited desperately to visit the salon and get waxed every month just so I could wear clothes that I liked. I felt less pretty. I felt less feminine. I wondered how femininity or masculinity had anything to do with how hairy one was. 

Until a few decades ago, being hairy wasn’t so problematic. In fact, people saw beauty in facial and body hair. Indian Actress Kajol sported a unibrow in the 90s and was considered beautiful. Unibrows became trendy among Indian women. In the Middle East, as well as East and South Asia, unibrows were considered alluring in both sexes. Additionally, pubic hair is seen as a sign of sexual health and fertility In Korean culture, and many Korean women got pubic hair transplants. Similarly, many foreigners have reported that they are often surprised to see unshaved private parts in Asian bathhouses. The West, too, was comfortable with body hair until the 20th century. In the Middle Ages, Catholic women were expected to let their hair grow as a display of femininity. The only “requirement” was to keep it concealed in public. However, being hairy wasn’t that big of a deal for a long time. As we go further back in history, we can find the possible reasons why the obsession with hairlessness  began.

Charles Darwin’s book “Descent of Man” (1871) associated hairy bodies with “primitiveness” and “inferior races.” According to him, having less body hair was a sign of being more evolved and sexually attractive.  Not-so-surprisingly, these ideas targeted women more than men, establishing control over women’s bodies in the most misogynistic and heteronormative way and linking their femininity and sexual attractiveness to the lack of body hair. Scientists drew a clear distinction between masculinity and femininity based on body hair, calling this distinction “higher anthropological development” in race. At the dawn of the twentieth century, changes in fashion that exposed more skin encouraged less body hair. In 1915, Harper’s Bazaar, the first women’s magazine, launched the anti-armpit hair campaign, calling clean armpits a “necessity” for sleeveless clothes. The first Gillette women’s razor was also launched around the same time. Soon, middle-class white women desired smooth, “clean,” and white skin. Gradually, this influence spread across the world, combined with a development in various hair-removal techniques. Today, hair-removal has become so common among men and women, especially women, that most religiously opt for hair-removal as if they have no other option. As if it was a requirement to feel feminine, hygienic, and respected.

The way women are expected to have hairless bodies and smooth skins like children is a form of oppression. Making grown women feel pressured to remain young in the way they appear and behave makes it easier for the patriarchal society to establish control and dominance over almost every aspect of their lives. The term “pretty privilege” also applies to this viewpoint. While beautiful and attractive women who fit societal standards of femininity seem to receive more respect in their professional and personal lives, women who challenge these standards are often looked down upon. Recently, women letting their “unwanted” hair grow out has become associated with the desperation to be “different” and prove a point. While this might be true and is just a form of expression, rather than a personal choice, letting body hair grow has become a sign of “rebellion.” By mocking such choices, society increases the pressure on women to follow the norms and be more “modest and respectable.” Additionally, getting rid of body and facial hair has become so deeply associated with femininity that men doing so is often mocked. This stems from queerphobia and the desire to eliminate anything that isn’t heteronormative. This notion only strengthens toxic masculinity and the need to prove one’s masculinity or femininity. However, such ideas are now being challenged on a higher level. 

Frida Kahlo exhibited one of the earliest and the most significant forms of defiance by growing out her facial hair and embracing it. More recently, celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Julia Roberts, and Paris Jackson to name a few, are encouraging the idea of embracing one’s body hair by publicly displaying their unshaved armpits and legs. In addition to being the first razor brand to show body hair on television, Billie, an indie razor brand, has launched campaigns such as the Body Hair Project and Red, White, and You do You Campaign with ads and videos celebrating the choice to shave or not shave body hair. It is also the first brand to show pubic hair on its Red,White, and You do You Campaign.  Januhairy is another campaign started by students  Laura Jackson and Ruby Jones in 2019 that encourages people to grow out their body hair for the month of January and share images of themselves online. There are many more such campaigns that strive to normalize body hair and empower hairy people. As years pass, we can expect the world to be more tolerant of all body and skin types. 

It’s time to normalize body hair. It’s also important that hair removal should remain a choice and should not be forced upon. There is nothing wrong if, as a feminist or a supporter of this movement, you choose to remove your own body and facial hair. It’s not hypocritical, but rather a personal choice. Having more or less body hair does not make one more or less feminine. Our body hair does not define who we are. Excessive or unwanted hair can occur because of several factors such as genetics or hormonal imbalance. It is normal to have more of it and it is equally normal to have less of it. The slowly fading dark patches in my armpits that came with hair removal creams, the bumps of ingrown hair that came with shaving, and the dreadful hot wax that burns my skin every month, continue to bother me.  I’m still learning to get rid of my insecurity of having a hairy body, but it is sliding down the list of my priorities with each passing day. While it’s not easy to readjust a brainwashed mind, it’s never too late to try. Let us learn to embrace our body hair, slowly and gradually. Let us appreciate what we have and be kind to ourselves.