Krista Christensen

Read Write Teach Love


Opting Out of Beauty

Stars_by_ethereal_forest303_pe_girlfriendWhen I was seventeen (exactly half a lifetime ago), I worked in the the Juniors’ Department of a major department store chain. One day, I wore a knee-length skirt. A coworker, also seventeen, and heavily made up, gasped in horror at my legs.

“You don’t shave?” she squealed.

“Nope,” I shrugged.

“Do you ever, you know…” she began, then faltered, working to formulate her question. “I mean, what do boys say? Do you ever get asked out, looking like that?”

Like that? I laughed. The truth was that I had a boyfriend, and I’d had several prior to that. I’d never had a problem with interest from the opposite sex. “Sure. I mean, yeah, I get asked out. If a boy doesn’t like my legs, why would I date him?”

Recently, a spate of op-eds and columns have addressed the implicit sexism that suffuses women’s appearance. This is not just a question of female insecurity: women today are not considered completely dressed until make up is applied and hair is neatly coiffed, a standard that is not applied to men. This article noted that the time lost constructing a well-dressed female form was, in itself, a penalty for being female. And this recent article in the New York Times hit home the notion that, as women continue to kowtow to today’s expectations of dress and appearance, they struggle to teach their daughters how not to value appearance over merit.

Nowadays, I do shave my legs. Originally, it was to please a few conservative family members at my wedding reception. Once I shaved (for the first time in six years), I realized that the tattoos on my legs looked nicer–realized that I myself liked looking at them more. I continued to shave, and still do, not because my partner likes it, or because I fret over my job security (usually I cover those tattoos anyway).

I shave for me.

Throughout my teens and twenties, though I didn’t eschew make up, I rarely wore it. I owned one tube of lipstick, which I trotted out perhaps a half-dozen times a year, and some tinted Chapstick, and a compact of translucent powder. For a short time, I wore mascara, but after a grain of sand lodged in my eye and had to be medically removed, I gave up decorating my eyes; black clumps clinging to my lashes only reminded me of the painful foreign object.

In my thirtieth year, I visited a specialized salon and had my waist-length hair knotted into dreadlocks. I’ve worn this hairstyle for nearly three years, and I spend about as much time on my appearance as my husband does on his; a few times a month, I twist my roots and otherwise neaten and tidy my hair. Most days, for work, teaching college composition classes, I sweep it back into a bun. I pat some translucent powder over my nose, forehead and cheeks, both to dim the shine that will build over the day and also to provide a bit of sunscreen. I dress conservatively, in comfortable skirts or pants, a plain shirt and a cardigan sweater (working in that department store taught me that fully dressed for work is three pieces, and I never fail to follow this rule… one which applies equally to men and women). I put on a set of comfortable 1/2 inch heels and am out the door.

Thing is, now that I’ve revealed to you that I didn’t shave, that I now have dreadlocks, that I reject make up, I will be labeled. Perhaps even now, the dreaded H-word lingers on your lips: hippie.  But I remain unconvinced that any response other than outright rejection of an industry built on capitalization on female insecurities will win what women fear they continue to lose, what women fear they cannot teach their daughters–to value themselves for their abilities, for their heart–while trucking about makeup-ed and in four inch heels. Because those women–brilliant, intelligent, successful women–fear the backlash that rejecting the fashion industry might bring.

The problem with this logic, however, is that the whole debate, the whole farce of the feminist rant against make up and fashion, misses the point completely. Yes, it’s unfair that today, men do not have to concern themselves with their appearance as much as women do. But just as the mommy wars keep women battling one another, so does casting the problem of female preoccupation with image as one of feminism, as one of inequality between the sexes, miss the point.

The issue is, at its core, one of blind consumerism. Companies of all kinds prey upon consumers and highlight their supposed deficiencies in order to convince them of their need for products to alleviate said deficiencies.  This kind of advertising thrives on competition, on the consumer’s competition with her peers. Underlying this competition is a fear: of looking bad, of being judged, of some terrible fallout sure to occur, should a successful woman suddenly be revealed as unpolished, average and normal, in a candid Instagram photo.

The fears only have power because women, collectively, validate them. If a woman rejects the implicit notion that she is somehow deficient, the need for the product–eyeliner, hair dye, cuticle lotion–disappears. The more women play into the fear of never looking their best, the more money companies make off of them. That collective insecurity dooms us all, yet insecurity is a choice. We can choose confidence instead. We can reject judgments, rather than whine about them. If a person has a problem with my appearance (beyond the basic modesty and hygiene required for the proper execution of my job), the problem is not mine. No, that issue lies with the person doing the judging, not the person being judged.

Let’s teach our daughters and sons that buying products and keeping up with the Jones’ will not bring happiness: not with make up, not with four-inch heels, not with new cars or bigger houses or bigger salaries or matched bedroom sets or coordinating separates. If a daughter will learn to value herself for what’s inside, she will learn it from her first, and most loving, teacher: her mother.

As for me, I will busy myself teaching the future husbands of those daughters, my sons, the true nature of beauty.


Leave a comment

The Malleability of Words

When I teach my developmental English classes, one of my first exercises is on the malleable nature of words. I drag out that old standby, the word that is fabled to be but is not actually the longest word in English, antidisestablismentarianism. Then, methodically, I coach students through recognizing the prefixes and suffixes, one at a time, until we are finally to our root word: establish.

Carefully, we sally forth through each affix until we’ve finally decoded the meaning of the word. As much as possible, we determine the meanings of these roots and affixes as a class, rather than looking them up.

  • Establish. We know that buildings are established, therefore we know this means to make or to build.
  • Establishment. Technically, the suffix -ment refers to a process, so this would mean the process of building or making something. However, we know, too, that an establishment is also a free standing thing, a building, a government, a place of business. (Usually I do not go into the specific establishment that the word references, the Church of England, but if the question is posed, I’m game for the digression).
  • Establishmentarian. Here, we discuss suffixes that shuffle words into different categories; -arian is a suffix that shows support for some idea or concept, sometimes a person like librarian  or disciplinarian, or sometimes  a adjective like egalitarian or humanitarian. It is at this juncture that we can begin to see the cumulative nature of these affixes, and to determine, based not on a dictionary but on our own understanding of language, that establishmentarian means to be in support of the establishment.
  • Disestablishmentarian. This one is often a gimme for students, and a welcome break from the nebulous suffixes of –ment and -arian. Dis-, they know, means separate, or apart from. Now they know that disestablishmentarian means to be separate from those in support of the establishment, or even more simply, a person or belief in destroying the establisment altogether.
  • Antidisestablishmentarian. Another gimme here, and now students begin to feel as though this word is making sense (though many still determine it to be a foolish kind of sense, and at times I’m inclined to agree). Anti– means against, we all know, so now antidisestablishmentarian becomes easy, almost old hat: against those who want to destroy the establishment.
  • Antidisestablishmentarianism. The –ism initially confounds students, but they soon recognize their old friend; the list of –isms they collaboratively build in class is quickly long and varied. Because it simply “belief-ifies” a word, students know now that antidisestablishmentarianism is a belief that people should oppose those who want to break down a particular establishment.

Hardcore grammarians will perhaps tsk-tsk, as the true root here is the word disestablish (disestablishmentarians desired the disestablishment of the Anglican Church as the state church). Still, the sense of the definition that we arrive at communally is, for remedial students, serviceable. What’s important here is not that students understand the nuances of the word, but rather, that they appreciate the malleability of words, and the process by which words are broken into their component parts.

The full effect of this lesson can’t be conveyed in a blog post; there’s too little room for scribbled notes on whiteboards. Still, the purpose of such an exercise is, for developing writers, to demystify words. Too often, people are shuffled through our education system without developing a true depth of understanding in any one concept. But, to understand fully the fluidity of words and their component parts is to understand thinking itself. It’s a worthwhile endeavor for, not just writers, but humans.