Remember “Try” by Colbie Caillat? This super-empowering song has been adorning the airwaves for a year now, but I have a beef with it. Kind of like John Mayer’s “Daughters,” it gets stuck in your head and sounds vaguely kind until you stop and pay attention. The funny thing is that I’m usually, or at least used to be, attracted to songs based on the lyrics. Still, for whatever reason, it took me a few rounds this time to notice. Important note: the lyrics are incredibly appropriate for twelve-year-olds. If you are stuck in a sixth-grade mentality about life, then by all means, play this one without ceasing. I’m still amazed that I made it through seventh grade without putting a bullet through my head; honestly, this probably happened because my dad hadn’t moved to Tennessee and bought a gun yet. So its lyrics are incredibly useful for pre-teens and young adolescents genuinely struggling to figure out what the hell is going on, and I wholeheartedly herald them for this purpose. If you’re over, oh, sixteen, however … it’s time to grow up.
For grown women, it’s patronizing. First off, it takes a number of pleasurable activities and makes them sound wrong somehow, starting with the first verse: Put your makeup on Get your nails done Curl your hair Run the extra mile Keep it slim So they like you. Do they like you? I am all about this until the last line. But we’ll return to that later.
First off: make-up is awesome. Before I get pelted with Internet hate, let me explain. Men, for all their privilege, are stuck with the face their mama gave them. In America, they can’t cover up acne with concealer or line their eyes if they’re kinda small or put blush on after a late night out. They’re screwed, stuck with cruel insults by a largely homophobic population if they try any of the aforementioned. At the very least, it’s culturally unusual for men to wear this shit on their faces. If they’re large-girthed, they don’t even get the insulting-but-a-2-instead-of-1-on-a-scale-of-10 “you have such a pretty face!” (Which one of my favorite authors has already tackled; see: Such a Pretty Fat.) They’re just damned to the hell of ugly, in the eyes of society and all around them, save their mamas, ‘cause mothers should be the one place you can always get a “but you’re so handsome!/beautiful!/etc.” I love that I can stun a guy, feel better about life or cover up a hangover with tools that cost $3.99 at the drugstore. Beats a middle-aged man in a mustang, right? After all, ya look in the young, hot car, and he’s still old!
I know. I’m evil. Next, we have the “get your nails done” bit. Dear Lord, this is my favorite part of life. Every couple of weeks since my first year of teaching, sitting down in the salon chair to get ONE part of my life right meant that I had a chance to catch my breath, feel attractive, and get a hand massage. Do you know how many papers an English teacher grades? What? You’re sick of us bitching about it? Well, it’s a lot, and my aching hands love the TLC. Since moving to China, I’ll alternate with a foot massage, but lemme tell you, this is the definition of “me time.” Side note: it is a hell of a lot more effective and less destructive (ha! That rhymes) since “gel polish” caught on a few years ago, but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say, it’s completely feasible now to get a manicure that lasts a few weeks and doesn’t require drilling down your nail bed to a super-thin point, which was admittedly never fun.
After that, Colbie has to take a dig at the negative desire to “curl your hair.” Are you serious?! Most women today straighten it anyway; maybe Ms. Caillat has been hanging out with the Hollywood pros a bit too long, because the only reliable tool I know is a hair dryer and a flat-iron. Regardless, having come from a mother whose idea of primping involves fuchsia lipstick and getting rid of the grays (and, admittedly, that’s about all she needs, so more power to her), the discovery of the straightener changed my life.
It was the eve of my high school graduation, and my sister was in town for the event. She’d left her strange-looking contraption in our shared bathroom, and bored/mourning my first real breakup, I decided to use it on my eons of hair. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. I had hair down to my butt, and the one great physical attribute I inherited from my father is the volume. Without fail, every time I get it colored nowadays, there comes a point when the stylist takes a deep breath and says, “Wow, you have a lot of hair.” Or, if I’m in a foreign country, he mutters under his breath and goes to the back for a second vial of dye. (Less flattering attributes from Dad: HORRIBLE eyesight and a rather strong nose.)
Anyhow, I had grown out my hair in my best imitation of an Amish woman, mostly as a low-maintenance way to help others. I would cut and donate the length to Locks of Love two days later, but in the meantime, I felt like experimenting.
This first try with the flat-iron took over an hour. When I finished, having sung through an album and a half of ‘N Sync due to the breakup, the reflection looked unreal. A different girl looked back at me, a girl whose hair was shiny and smooth and just so damn professional. I even wore lipstick brighter than my mom’s just because I felt so sexy that I wanted to keep the mojo going. I felt more gorgeous on my graduation day than I had ever felt before in my life—not even when the stylist accidentally cut my hair like Jennifer Aniston instead of Jennifer Love Hewitt in middle school, and I discovered layers. And no one had said I should do it, or pushed me towards it. My little aesthetic journey was all my own, and I liked it.
To sum up: I like control, and makeup and hair tools make it way easier to look good, a fact I appreciate. In addition: my dirty secret is that I believe very few people are naturally beautiful. In fact, I think 90% of “beautiful people” are attractive because, oh, I don’t know, they give a shit about how they look. Which leads me to the last egregious line of the opening verse: “Run the extra mile, keep it slim.” Is this not an awesome thing to do? Nine out of ten times, if I’m depressed or it bleeds into an existential crisis, I can figure out why in about two seconds: because I haven’t worked out. I once had a doctor write “work out daily” on a prescription to avoid taking anti-depressants, because I realized in her office that I hadn’t exercised in a year, and that was probably why I felt so shitty.
And let’s not start on our nation’s obesity problem. Could Colbie really not muster up a stanza about the ways Americans mindlessly feed ourselves and embrace gluttony in all its forms to avoid dealing with crap? Did she really have to insult things that make women feel better? Besides that, even in Las Vegas, where the public school teachers closely resemble the cast of Zooey Deschanel’s group on New Girl (ranging from super hot to super … loved by their mamas), I can count on one hand the number of women who generally put make-up on every day (and yes, I was one of them). It’s not considered a prerequisite, even in a city obsessed with the most vapid of appearance (L.V. is like L.A.’s super-shallow kid sister. YEAH).
Here in Beijing, it’s the same: we have one gorgeously Barbie-ish woman who generally gets it on, but even she shows up un-shellacked every once in a while. Other than her, there is the gym teacher with purple eyelashes and the rest of us with the bare minimum to keep people from thinking those circles under our collective female eyes are purposeful. Yup, I just included myself in the less-covered. Still, I love the feeling I get when I take the five or ten minutes to do it well. Again: to be able to improve oneself from the mere application of cheap drugstore products is kind of thrilling.
Finally, we reach the truly troublesome portion of the (*cough*) first stanza (no, I won’t drag you through the whole song today): the horrible, ugly, egregious assumption found in the last line: “So they like you. Do they like you?” With this, she destroys so many of my happy times with her awful, depressing assumption: that the vast majority of women would rather be unattractive slobs than fit, reasonably well-put together females with massaged hands. Forget the part where I didn’t actually discover hairstyling tools till right before graduation, make-up till after college, or nail salons till my first real-time job, yet loved myself apart from the aforementioned years in middle school. I started to work out during my undergrad because I decided that as much as I love my mom, I don’t want to be obese, so I should make different choices. I LOVE my mother, but I realized that I didn’t need to be like her. And here’s the downside of embracing the “accept yourself as you are” ethos espoused in Colbie’s song: people don’t really do it. They just accept being unhappy.
I am lucky enough to have two older sisters who have provided me with rich wisdom and many adorable nieces and nephews. Both are lovely. One doesn’t wear makeup; neither is grossly overweight. One works out and limits what she eats; the other doesn’t. And you know who is happier with who she is? The one who dealt with the baby weight. I have baby weight and I’ve never had a baby. This is entirely my fault. I’m still amazed that they had children, but my point is this: the sister with the extra weight used to weigh less than I ever did. She is a conservative Christian, avoids fashion mags and all “sexy shows,” and has the most doting husband in the history of the world. And she still isn’t happy, either because she thinks or knows that she can do better, or she hasn’t learned to give herself grace yet (she has a ton of freaking kids under ten). None of this is because of external pressure. To flip it around: no matter how much we tell her she’s beautiful, she doesn’t quite believe us. Which brings me to the truly sinister side of this oh-so-sweet song: it makes women the victim of external circumstance. I hate that. Ever since I let my subculture tell me who to be and ended up in a very unhealthy place, I have despised the idea that women are hapless, stupid creatures with no brains who fall prey to every single ad, idea or post about fucking “thigh gaps.” If your confidence and intelligence are BOTH so low that fashion magazines define your reality and expectations for yourself, SOMETHING IS WRONG, and it isn’t society. Throughout my life, I have been told to be chaste, pure, and never let men lust after me; to be a fox in the bedroom and a lady in the street; to be sexy all the time; to be all natural; to be a Stepford wife; and you know what I found? That old adage that you cannot please everyone all the time, ever.
If you are a grown adult woman and you are working out, putting on makeup, doing your hair and getting your nails done because society has told you to do it, then … well, actually, I still don’t think that’s so bad! What is the worst thing about it? You feel pretty? I know a man (and hell, maybe me too, even though I’m a woman) would be roasted for saying these things, and if I’ve hurt anyone, I’m sorry. But I despise the way this song assumes that most women just do these things to please others. Tomorrow, I’ll address the ironic side of the whole bit, but suffice to say: my worst enemy is not society or its expectations of my appearance. It is the unrealistic standards I put on myself as a type-A person, and occasionally includes choosing to put the wrong people around me. Ultimately, though, I think that taking care of how I look is far more about loving myself than giving a damn about anyone else. And it makes me sad that Colbie focuses on not just young girls who deal with this shit, but lumps in half of the adult human race. We’re not victims, sweetie. And we don’t need your sympathy. At least one person kind of agrees with me.