When I was in my early 20s, he noticed every time I visited my middle-aged psychiatrist with a new hair color or tattoo – all beautiful, small, done by a famous tattoo artist, and planned in advance – that he always noticed this change with one Sound that suggests the beginning of the end. How was my mood last week? He considered drastic changes in a woman’s appearance to be a sign of instability. Eccentricity and impulsiveness are not granted to civil women when it comes to their appearance – despite the fact that boy band members give themselves and each other new tattoos when they are bored in their hotel rooms. Bangs, bleaching jobs, getting a bob … these are things that happen after bad breakups or a nervous breakdown. The memes are a joke, I know. But no one has forgotten Britney’s 2006 haircut, still a punchline, still an image she can’t escape, and we all believe it contains a core of truth.
As someone with borderline personality disorder, it has been a tool for me to change my appearance from time to time to get to know myself better. A key symptom of the disorder is a shaky sense of self, which doesn’t mean I don’t know who I am – I have a strong sense of ethics and principles, and I know my personality very well. The thing is, I see myself as a Sims character a lot, and while it’s a Sims character that I know and love very well, it’s still a dissociation that can be numbing. Whenever I change my looks (the palette of my eyeshadow, my hair from Salma Hayek to up and coming Pat Benatar, the decade that inspired me), I’m on an eternal honeymoon with myself. Each “era” has certain colors, scents, songs and places associated with it. In this way, I also use beauty as my life’s scrapbook.
In college, I wore oversized sweaters with cropped shorts and opaque black tights and combat boots because I loved Angela Chase. In graduate school, I hardly wore mini dresses with huge flannels and combat boots because I loved Courtney Love. My hair was every length, color, and texture that chemicals and scissors would allow me to use.
I know what it is like to feel familiar with your favorite rock and roll icons. Therefore, although I am a writer, I see myself more as a performer. I plan my books like albums, my epochs of beauty are punctuated by the time I spend promoting them on social media – you know, like pop stars do. My first book, The Undocumented Americans, was commonly referred to as a punk memoir. Inspired by Meg White and Kendrick Lamar, the aesthetic was part nirvana, part pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Knowing that this helped me ground myself and it gave me strength during a difficult time in my life: when I was without papers.
When I started working on my second book, I deleted almost everything on my social networks and started over. DREAMGIRL is a teenage novel about an undocumented teenage music writer in the downtown New York music scene, loosely based on my own teenage years. While my voice is the same, this is a new era – I am thinking of a Virgin Suicides vibe. I’ve made playlists of first crush and first heartbreak for my readers, leaning on my babydoll Doc Marten aesthetic from high school. It helps me see this novel as a book I write about teenagers rather than a book an adult writes to teach teenagers. It is insulting to think that teenagers are not interested in aesthetics and how they permeate everything. Have you seen the LED lights on TikTok?
This way of thinking might seem specific to artists, but you also have eras. You can’t look at pictures from a period of time without remembering other things – the blogs you read, your internet friends who became IRL confidants, beauty products you loved that smelled like pregaming on Friday night, Beauty products you longed for but couldn’t. Can’t afford songs you heard on the subway at a camp party, your first girl crush, how your bathroom looked like in your first adult apartment. From these your aesthetic choices have triggered. The perfume you wore when you were with your first boyfriend or girlfriend. Whether your nails were made of acrylic or have been forgotten. Steve Madden platform mules. Knee socks. Baby bangs. Platinum blonde hair. An undercut. A septum piercing. Shave your hair and opt for a natural diet. Take care of your locomotives. Your eras can be as intentional (or spontaneous) as you like. All of these versions of you are worth loving, scrapbooking, keeping, and reinventing over and over again.
– Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Photos about the author