How to be a Californian

staff note

Everything you’ve heard about California is true. We do live on a diet of exclusively avocado toast and protein powder. We do carry ukuleles down to the beach to play Jack Johnson following a morning out on the water. We all personally know a Kardashian (or, at the very least, a Jenner). We do all have CrossFit memberships that we attend (and — more often — talk about) religiously. And there are people who unironically say words like ‘gnarly’ and ‘shred.’

Despite the humorous and often accurate stereotypes of Californians, growing up here forced me to confront my self-image from an early age. 

Here, there is an obsession with making the unnatural seem natural. Lip injections, makeup, butt lifts — the list goes on. Women are put up to quite literally unachievable standards; unless, of course, they have thousands of expendable dollars and endless time to recover. 

Yet, the women I would see in magazines existed in the streets around me, seemingly untouched by Photoshop. As early as middle school, girls would spend their weekends holding professional-level photoshoots for each other out at the beach or in the streets of Melrose. These photos would be plastered all over Instagram, littering my feed with what felt like impossible standards.

Who I was naturally was wholly imperfect and therefore, wholly incorrect. I needed to fix it. Yet, by the time I was in sixth grade, I felt that all the girls around me had gone to a secret model school, leaving me to figure out what it meant to be a ‘California girl’ (thanks Katy Perry) for myself. 

It started with makeup. It became an obsession, a way to physically transform at a relatively low price (big shout-out to Maybelline). Initially, as pale girls know well, all the foundations I tried would  oxidize, turning my skin bright orange. I was usually a pumpkin by the end of first period. But I didn’t care — I loved the control makeup gave me. 

Soon after, it was fashion. I tried every style in the book — not for myself, but for the approval of my peers. As cliché as this sounds, I wanted to be seen as ‘pretty’ through attempting to wear something that represented me.

When I arrived at my senior year of high school, I realized I had no idea what I liked. I was trapped in some weird, inescapable void of Brandy Melville, H&M and Urban Outfitters. I went through a classic end-of-high-school identity crisis. Why do I feel the need to wear makeup? Why do I want to wear things that are uncomfortable? Why do I care so much about other peoples’ opinions? 

There is an inherent competitiveness baked into Western societal norms of femininity — and it is exacerbated in California. Women are told that there are limited slots for true success, and the battle to get one is ruthless. One’s success must mean another’s failure. Years in this cycle can begin to tear down, or at the very least, dull any sense of personhood. You become a piece of a system. 

I think a friend of mine put it best when she said the nature of the patriarchy makes these oppressive notions of womanhood almost impossible to escape. That is, the nature of a system that works against you and seeps into all aspects of the world. I am privileged that only my identity as a woman contributes to the systemic pressures I face. 

I’m not here to say that I suddenly transformed into a self-assured woman, completely free from the patriarchy and the relentless beauty standards that operate in our society. I have to make a conscious choice each day to do something for me, something that does not fit into “what it means to be a woman,” particularly a woman from the sunny state of California. I’m not hopeful that those choices will ever become inherent in my life, an unconscious effort to fight against the system. But they are steps in the right direction.  

I think Katy Perry was onto something when she shrewdly noted, “there must be something in the water,” because the people in California truly are a different breed. While I will always adore my avocado toast and may even slip into my California accent every once in a while, I don’t think I embody stereotypical California. And I’m learning to accept that. 


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