by Jamie Lauren Keiles
Begin by finding your face shape. Hold a pencil against your nose to calculate the arch of your brow, then add a statement necklace to transition your look effortlessly from day to night. What is your dress size? Your inseam? What is the name of the doctor who did your cousin’s nose? Squat over a hand mirror to examine your cervical mucus. Are you pear shaped? Apple shaped? Do you have your mother’s breasts and your father’s eyes, or vice versa? Are you classic? Wild? Flirty? Ethnic? A Samantha? A Shoshanna? An Abbi cusp, Ilana rising? Multiply your BMI by the cost of your foundation, then subtract the number of times in 1990 you never read Naomi Wolf. Turn this magazine upside down to tabulate your score, record the number in a softcover Moleskine, then throw it in the trash.
Welcome to the golden age of expressing yourself. Forget everything you’ve ever been taught about assembling your human for public consumption, because where we’re going, we don’t need “investment pieces” or beachy waves. This is 2015, and getting dressed isn’t just about looking good anymore — it’s about communicating an elaborate and complex theory of self grounded in reflexive post-post-structuralist ideals. In the fifties, your grandma wooed your grandpa from across the dancehall with her slender waist and shapely gams. Today, we dress to recruit other genderless entities into our polyamorous sex pentagrams so we can network with them and monetize our personal brands. Pretty is an insult used by men on the street who tell you to smile, and people just don’t accessorize with dogs like they used to — they identify as them. Log on to Tumblr and you’ll find fourteen-year-olds who can problematize Foucault under the bus. Our current cultural moment is a perverse Disneyland of subcultural weirdness, and to say that I’m over the moon about living on the frontier of identity politics would be an understatement. The constant negotiation of ethics and aesthetics gives my existence an arbitrary sense of meaning, and the rapidly expanding menu of available self-presentations makes getting dressed every morning an acid trip into a terrifying and thrilling abyss. Put down the neutral eyeshadow palette and step away from the neatly folded stack of basics. Now is the time to live your weirdest fantasy of self.
This, of course, is easier said than done. For all the liberation of identity that late capitalism has granted us, it has not exonerated us from the commandment to buybuybuy. In fact, these new identity categories might just be a way of inventing new consumables and problems that consumables can solve, but try not to think about this. The point is, if you hang around in the identity supermarket for long enough, odds are you’re going to want to buy something, like a merino wool choker from Zara for your Shaker Chair-goth vision, or a Sertraline nameplate necklace from Etsy for your nineties psychiatry babe throwback look. If you have tons of money and no conscience, then by all means indulge, but for those of us with shallow wallets and deep existential misgivings about consumerism, buying loads of disposable crap isn’t an option. Here are some free, cheap, and emotionally costly tips for optimizing your flesh prison. Use these exercises as a tool for taking your identity experiments of theory and into fabulous, flawless, or even deliberately abject practice.
Occupy Your Body
There are few non-negotiable truths in life, but the fact of the matter is, we have to occupy bodies whether we want to or not. For as long as this is the case, I encourage you to own your flesh prison as much as possible. Everyday, tons of outside players bid on the opportunity to commodify or medicalize your human. Science and doctors and the beauty industry and nervous Jewish mothers can be assets to improving your existence, but they also have a lot of opinions about which elements of your body are yours to own and change. Remember, there is no ethical obligation to contend with these pressures when they outlive their usefulness.
Start by trimming your own bangs with a nail clipper. Once you’ve got your sea legs, excise a wart from your foot in the garage. Join a gym and spend four months getting ripped. Then, spend four more becoming gloriously, sumptuously fat. Fist your own ass, or try feasting on canned tuna at every meal for a year. Eat your boogers alone at home, then eat them out in public. Do many drugs, or do none at all. Sleep for hours on end and realize that while some external conceptions of your body may be helpful, you can opt-out experimentally when you want in order to experience a previously unexperienced version of yourself.
Set An Intention
Now, do a spot check — what are your trying to accomplish with your look? Perhaps you want just want to articulate your truest self, a noble if not unachievable goal, but I encourage you to get more specific in order to make the most of this guide. Maybe expressing yourself means affecting prettiness, sexiness, intelligence, curviness, or some combination thereof. Maybe it means looking depressed, unapproachable, bitchy, or like an abject bag of trash that masturbates while checking her student loan balance online to save time. There are no bad goals. Heck, you don’t even have to express yourself at all. Maybe you’d rather wear a costume, or the flesh of the most popular girl from your high school class. The term “poseur” was coined by a Zumiez executive in 2003, so feel free to indulge your desire to be somebody else. Your aesthetic intentions need not be bound by pleasantness, nor authenticity, and articulating a goal from the outset may help you to feel more satisfied by the look you eventually create. If you aren’t even trying to be pretty in the first place, then you don’t have to feel like a failure when you aren’t.
Now that you are pretending to understand your motivations, you can give your look more credibility simply by naming it like the work of art that it is or will soon be. Nothing breathes new life into a dull closet like a concise thesis meant to establish artistic ethos. Today, we have available to us a long list of prefixes and suffixes that make this process a breeze. Soft-, -wave, -core, hard-, -queer, -post, proto-, and -sexual are all readily available appendages, but don’t limit yourself to countercultural jargon. Try something like “Twice Divorced Middle Aged Jewish Department Store Heiress” or “Sort of Imperialist Homosexual Collector of Taschen Books Lounging in His Casablanca Riad.” A single, well-phrased title will go farther and hold up better than a hundred bags of clothes from Forever 21.
Man/woman, butch/femme, basic/fleek, chill/”guy who talks about raw denim too much” — the dichotomy has historically been a very popular tool for conceiving of and discussing the self. In recent times, we have expanded this two-dot model and become somewhat down with the idea of people identifying along a spectrum between the two traditional and opposite extremes. For instance, between butch and femme, we now have soft-butch and hard-femme. Where we once had male and female, we now have things like genderqueer or trans (which are not aesthetic categories themselves, but can be strong influencers of outfit choice, at least for me). Any identity you conceive of will be inherently valid, but to be honest, the spectrum as a conceptual tool generally sucks in terms of imaginative potential. It’s a false promise of limitless fantasy grounded in the inherently limiting concept of a line with two defined endpoints.
Rectify this injustice by imagining a graph with four quadrants (or for those of you just wishing someone in adulthood would ask what you scored on your SATs, a Cartesian plane). Label the ends of each axis with the two opposing points of a dichotomy, so like, masculine/feminine on X and punk/prep on Y. Observe your dumb pseudo-mathematical representation of a complex, holistic idea, then erase the whole thing. Plot some random points on the page and connect them, or don’t connect any of them at all and just doodle in the space between. The whole thing is bullshit. Welcome to the big, cool future where we are no longer limited to imagining ourselves as the reconciliation of predetermined labels in tension. In other words, we are living in a moment with more readily available quinoa brands than personal brands, and this must be stopped. Opt out of gender. Strive to be pretty and ugly at the same time. Labels are useful and meaningful for many people (including me), but they should be a voluntary opt-in situation, not something we are unwillingly bound to so that processing bureaucratic paperwork can be two percent easier for some office somewhere. Use the spectrum and the dichotomy as they are useful for your own project, but also feel free to strike out for uncharted lands.
Use Your Senses
Often we conceive of identity projection as a visual project, but go ahead and fool around with the side chicks known as “your other four senses.” Consider how you perceive others. Appreciate how a hot dress looks interesting on a woman with a lumbering gait, or how a heterosexual frat boy with a fey and lisping voice can lead you to question all you have come to believe as true. Usually, people use these non-visual incongruities to tear others down, but learn them carefully and you can harness their powers to construct the most imaginative version of yourself. Try out a swag or completely un-swag new walk. Eat frozen mango in a hot a bath while listening to Nancy Sinatra. Fart at a black tie cocktail hour, or talk louder or more quietly than you are accustomed and watch as the world changes its response. Results may vary, but it’s always good to have more weapons in your arsenal.
Retire from the Game
Projecting a coherent and awesome aesthetic vision can be thrilling, but it is tiresome work and definitely not an obligation. When we get dressed each morning, being badass and freaky are not the only considerations that come into play. Sometimes, things like personal safety, passing, group identification, and religious beliefs need to be taken into account. Make sure you give yourself permission to put these concerns ahead of any aesthetic projects when necessary. There is nothing wrong with the path of least resistance, and it is okay to wear jeans, or sweatpants, or a dumb Ann Taylor sweater set when you need to. People are racist and transphobic and otherwise violently disgusting, and acknowledging this truth to make your day easier is in no way the same as giving up or selling out.
These tips are built for a maybe-utopian future in which people can opt in and out of identity experiments as they please. Try them out and see if they work. Or whatever. If not, enter offer code “BLEAK” at UrbanOutfitters.com to receive free two-day shipping.