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Keeping up appearances

staff note

My alarm goes off at 7:45 a.m., 50 minutes before my first class of the day begins. Even though the lecture is just across the quad, I give myself nearly an hour to prepare myself for the day ahead. After drowsily scrolling through my social media notifications for a minute, I roll out of bed and begin my morning routine of picking out an outfit and applying a full face of makeup. While I blend my contour and decide which shoes pair best with my sweater, I listen to biology lectures and look over my developmental psychology flashcards. It might be a strange sight to some, but this has been my morning since I was 13 years old, and college has done little to discourage me from getting up early to primp. 

My relationship with my appearance, like most girls, has been a tumultuous one. I had a seemingly endless awkward phase, beginning at the tender age of eight and ending before I entered my senior year of high school. While I was often praised for my intellect and my sunny attitude, I never earned any compliments for my appearance. I was told this was an asset — that it was better to be smart than to be pretty, that all the cute girls would be consumed by superficiality while I chased academic success — but this was no comfort to the bespectacled young girl who didn’t understand why the boys made gagging noises around her and stole her possessions. 

I started wearing makeup at the age of 11, hoping to hide my crooked teeth and pale skin behind lip gloss and foundation. In retrospect, I had no urge to wear makeup; it was a decision born out of desperation to be liked as I made the terrifying transition from elementary to middle school. I begged my mother to let me shop at the popular stores, ducking into the dark, seductive mall shops like Hollister and Abercrombie for a new wardrobe to replace the pink frills in my closet. My attention shifted from academics to appearances as I strived to fit in and mask what I saw as unforgivable flaws.

Although I eventually began to enjoy makeup and dressing how I liked instead of religiously following fashion trends, I am still unable to leave the house without at least product on my skin or liner around my eyes. I cannot shake those years of being less than just because I was not conventionally beautiful — I feel like I must still chase that unattainable standard of beauty if I am to have any sort of worth. That feeling is only amplified by the competitive academic environment at Duke, where it is difficult to be the best at anything with so many exceptional students partaking in the same activities. I was accustomed to supplementing my lack of physical beauty with academic excellence and artistic pursuits, to being the best in other arenas without having to worry about being the prettiest as well.

However, at Duke, I am no longer able to be the smartest or the most creative, which leaves beauty as my lone alternative. The summer before I came to school, everyone I knew told me I would have to abandon my time-consuming beauty regimen. Instead, I only extended it, knowing I wanted to be as conventionally attractive as possible. The pressure to excel at Duke is not just limited to academics, especially for girls. We’re expected to attend classes and meetings and events, to be active during every waking hour while maintaining our appearance through strict routines and exercise. It is difficult to be taken seriously as a girl if you show up in sweatpants or with a bare face: We are held to a higher standard. I feel the pressure to craft an exterior that makes me look confident and perfectly put-together so that no one will suspect that I am still the insecure young girl who hated herself for being ugly. 

I like being considered pretty. I like being conventionally attractive. I like being skinny and made-up and well-dressed. But I know that my enjoyment of these features stem from deep insecurity and a society that demands these characteristics from me with the promise of isolation if I fail to live up to these ridiculous standards. I hope to one day be confident enough in my personality and my achievements that I will not have to set my alarm for an hour before my classes begin or spend outrageous amounts of money on makeup to mask my natural appearance. Reaching this goal will be difficult as long as girls are still expected to present a certain way, but I have faith in myself to outgrow my traumas and love myself for who I am beneath my concealer and lipstick. Until then — I set my alarm and wait.

Sydny Long is a Trinity first-year and Recess staff writer.

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