Thursday, September 29, 2011

Come as You Are: Nirvana and GenX Beauty

In the late fall of 1991, my friend Tony gave me a ride home from school. As we settled into the seats, he pushed in a tape, and I heard this jangly guitar—it sounded like it was barely plugged in, or something, somehow off, somehow disconnected—followed by this aggressive, to-the-point kick of the drums. The intro turned into the actual song, with this voice chanting Hello, hello, hello, how low?, and without knowing what I was listening to, I felt something within me twist. I could barely understand the words, but I didn’t need to; the chords, or rather the discord, said all I needed to hear. The cynicism, the apathy, the longing, the anxiety, the edge of eruption—I felt it before I heard it, and it made me want to do something. What, I didn’t know exactly, but I felt immediately and intensely uncomfortable, the kind of discomfort you feel because you know, acutely and irrevocably, that something needs to change.

But instead of doing something, I just turned to Tony and asked what we were listening to. “This is Nirvana,” he said.

Then, as now, I rarely listened to new music, preferring my parents’ Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Blood Sweat & Tears. So I wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t heard Nirvana before, even though I’d been hearing about the band for months around school; I’d assumed it was like other buzz-generating music (which, at the time, was Vanilla Ice, if that gives you an idea of the popular music scene at my suburban high school). What surprised me was how much a part of it—whatever “it” was—I felt. Without knowing it, I was a part of the zeitgeist.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nevermind, so I’ve been thinking about the stirring I felt in my friend’s car. When I remember how “Smells Like Teen Spirit” resonated with me without me knowing that I was listening to The Band That Was Changing Everything, I have to credit factors larger than either Nirvana’s musicianship or my own musical sensibilities. Without blathering on about what people far more qualified than I have already written about the disillusionment of GenXers: I’d seen the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Rodney King videos, Exxon Valdez, Jeffrey Dahmer, Magic Johnson’s AIDS announcement, and Nintendo. I’d seen my country invade another for reasons that were unclear to me, this after my enchantment with an earlier era in which our country invaded another for reasons that were also unclear to me, and the main difference seemed to be that while our parents took to the streets, my generation—including me—was doing jack shit. I don’t want to overstate the case here, but we had a lot of reasons to be cynical, withdrawn, and discordant. There was a reason I heard those jangly guitar chords and instinctively knew they meant something.

Now, there’s been plenty of ink spilled over what Generation X really was, and if the whole apathy/cynicism bit really held true or if it was just a handy marketing tool, or what. All I know is that I was a product of the early ‘90s, and it showed in the way I dressed myself and put on makeup: Believe me, I cared fiercely about how I looked. But the ways in which I was trying to look good reflected what was going on at the time. I was earnest about wanting to be seen as pretty, but lackadaisical about how stringent I needed to be to get there. I styled my hair by teasing it a little bit up front and brushing it constantly, but except for special occasions there were no curlers involved, and flatirons were seen as extravagant. Few of us wore foundation, though we agonized plenty over our pimples and tried as many concealers as our allowance would allow. I thought I was freaked out over body hair, but really I just felt normal teen-girl embarrassment about the stray hairs on my upper lip—a “bikini line” in 1991 truly meant the line of a bikini, tweezing stray hairs when we’d go swimming and not giving a damn the rest of the time. We didn’t wear much blush; it looked too...healthy. We didn’t reject fashion and beauty by any means—I spent hours in front of the mirror trying out various hairstyles, none of which ever saw the light of day—and we eagerly gobbled up products geared toward us. (Bonne Bell Lip Smackers survived the grunge era.) But our laid-back ethos seeped into our self-presentation. We didn’t know what tooth-bleaching was.

Spot the '90s! 1) Flannel around my waist. 2) Tucked-in T-shirt. 3) Cutoffs over hosiery. 4) VHS tape pile topped by Stephen King books. 5) Tie-dye. 6) Converse (in background). 7) Black eyeliner applied after melting tip of eye crayon with lit match to make it go on heavier/messier. 8) Pendant (you can only see the chain in pic #3 but trust me, there was a big ol' ankh at the end of it). 9) Small flower pattern dress. 10) Smirk.

*   *   *   *   *
I tend not to get too worked up about Problems Facing Girls. Or rather, I tend not to think much has changed over the years. There’s a reason I’ve never mentioned Toddlers & Tiaras on here, or gotten excited over the Botox mom; like Virginia Sole-Smith writes, “By focusing only on these extreme, headline-grabbing stories, we get to outsource the issue and blame the victims.” And in my case, I tend to think that “the issue” is the same old thing we’ve been talking about for more than 20 years (is it a coincidence that The Beauty Myth came out the same year as Nevermind?). When I read about the looks-based anxieties girls face today, I tend to superimpose my experience onto theirs. Without belittling what girls and teens go through—having been there, you can’t help but respect it—there’s also a loud part of me that says, But that’s how it’s always been. Nothing has changed. The topical issues might shift, I believed, but the underlying causes never have.

I still think that the roots of appearance anxiety are essentially the same for a 15-year-old girl today as they were for me when I was doing jumping jacks alone in my bedroom to the B-52s. Girls are succeeding just a little too much to maintain the status quo; all the better to feed them diets and eyelash extensions to keep their eyes on a different prize. But it wasn’t until I gave some thought to that moment in my friend’s car that I thought about the ways other cultural forces shaped the way I regarded my grooming choices. If the ethos of my time seeped into my way of presenting myself, that means the ethos of today’s time is doing the same thing. And I know I’m probably late to the party here—yo, Madrano, things have been harder on girls for a while now—but if the ethos of today is about putting a heavier premium display and individuality through appearance (Lady Gaga, anyone?), that’s worming its way into girls’ minds in ways my generation was spared.

If you watch The X-Files today, it’s shocking how ill-fitting and shapeless Scully’s clothes were in 1992; no wonder people freaked out about the length of Ally McBeal’s skirts in 1997 (which, for the record, now seem totally normal). Compare wardrobes of The Real World with that of The Jersey Shore. And does anyone remember the fashion item that Julia Roberts made enormously popular in 1991? Blazers. And not cute little cropped blazers, but loose men’s-style blazers that enveloped my teenage body, giving it relief from being appraised for the size and shape of what was underneath.

I don’t have any sort of treatise here; I don’t think that returning to 1991 would necessarily do us much good. Hell, the retro-grunge fad from a couple of years ago showed that: Millennials were told to achieve the grungy bedhead style through products. (The truth is, most of us in the early ‘90s just didn’t do a damn thing to our hair except dye it with Manic Panic, or, for those of us less committal, Kool-Aid. We weren’t nearly as greasy as today’s magazines would have you believe.) In some ways this post may just be a mea culpa to the world at large for not having paid closer attention to the differences between what young women experience today versus my experience as someone who came of age at a time when baby tees hadn’t yet been invented. I maintain that the root issue isn’t that different. But more has changed than I realized.

There was plenty working against teenage girls in 1991, which is part of why I felt so anxious about how I looked back then even though the end result of my efforts were of the times—low-key, a tad sloppy, free-flowing. But I’m only now realizing how much was working for us back then too.


  1. Love those 90's photos. I fear I burned all of mine because while I was the epitome of grunge gal, I was also super insecure about my big bossoms and went out of my way to hide them in good-will stock. My mom would lament each day that I was making myself look ugly, but man did I feel COOL and like, "F-U world! I am so much deeper than you will ever understand..." Fast forward to the end of my college life and I am in miniskirts and skin-tight pleather. Guess I was just a lost young lady...ah, reminiscing is nice. I love the 90's!

  2. I was a teenager in the early to mid 2000s and your experience is probably more similar to my older sister's than to mine. I think the internet must also impact the expectations on girls today. I don't know, though. I don't know many teenage girls, so it's hard to say if what they're going through is the same or different than what I went through. All I know is that I am never surprised when I hear studies saying that some crazy percentage of 10 year olds want to lose weight because I'm pretty sure I did, too.

  3. It's interesting that in my head The Beauty Myth came out AGES ago but Nirvana seems like just a few years ago! Makes me question what "progressive" means to me (or how it's perceived).

    I was just noticing the other day (as I watched old Star Trek: TNG episodes. Nerd alert!) that when I grew up in the 90's actors were people who also happened to be attractive. Now it seems tv/movies are filled with SUPAH attractive people that directors are fortunate enough to discover can sometimes act too. I think you are right - maybe we were lucky and didn't even know it. The ultimate privilege!

  4. I was a teenager in the 1990s, and I definitely remember feeling pressures to look a certain way. Yeah, we wore flannel shirts and jeans, but they had to be specific kinds of jeans. You could wear t-shirts but they had to be specific t-shirts. Girls were still expected to have "good bodies" and nice hair and wear make-up. I'd say the big difference is that nowadays the expectation seems to be a lot more heavily sexualized than it was in the 1990s, but then that seems to be the case for women of all ages.

    I do think that the best part of being a teenager in the 1990s is not so much that beauty expectations were absent (because like you said, they weren't), but that popular culture was filled with women for us to look up to. I wasn't into riot grrrl, but you didn't have to be to take part in girl-centric culture in those days. I admired women like Shirley Manson and Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco and about a billion others, and yes, those women are all white and thin and conventionally attractive, but they were also pretty unconventional in many ways. I mean, I'd rather have Fiona Apple, with her "this world is bullshit" speech than Katy Perry, you know? So I'd say that, in terms of cultural representation, it was definitely a good time to grow up.

  5. I was talking about this with a friend my age just yesterday! We're both straightish white women our mid-twenties, and we both tend to date men closer to than us to generation x. I was talking about how seldom I wear full face makeup, and it wasn't until I started reading your blog earlier this year that I realized that most women, including cool girls (like you!) spent time and eneregy on the stuff.
    This friend and I have frequently discussed the way we feel about how we look, and how we're looked at, and neither of us are conventional beauties, but at the risk of sounding vain, we're both attractive young women, just shaped from a different mold. She said that she felt like there were more look options in the '90s, enough to accommodate more types of feminine attractiveness. And that the time was much friendlier to weirdo girls who like contemporary visual art and comic culture and experimental literature.
    It seems like grunge and the mass-cultural ironicism of the 90s had more space for women to be cool through a diversity of signifiers, rather than these fractured 2010s. And while I wasn't even there, really, I think it's something worth longing for.

  6. "If you watch The X-Files today, it’s shocking how ill-fitting and shapeless Scully’s clothes were in 1992..."

    Isn't that amazing? My boyfriend and I have been watching "My So-Called Life" (which I'd never seen), and the costumes are endlessly fascinating. Oversize plaid as far as eyes can see. Also, it's surprising how 'natural' Claire Danes looked compared to modern teenage leading ladies.

  7. Cameo, it's so weird to think how my style changed from grunge to college--I wasn't really a pleather-wearer but I know I was wearing stuff I NEVER would have as a teenager. Part of that was just appropriacy but I also think the culture at large was shifting. I definitely wore more revealing clothes later on.

    Courtney, it's weird because that's how I felt too--that I had all that shit going on when I was 10, but yeah, I can't help but think it's worse now. Maybe not so much with body image--that has less to do with fashion and more to do with self-esteem, I think--but with the actual choices?

    ModernSauce, isn't that funny? I had to double-check to make sure I had the years right even though I knew full well they were both 1991. Excellent point about people who also happened to be attractive vs. hyperattractive people. Seriously, I'm on this X-Files kick and Gillian Anderson is amazing--obviously she's a beautiful woman, but she's styled in SUCH a different way, as is Claire Danes in "My So-Called Life" as mentioned below by Rebekah.

    Caitlin, yeah, I think women of all ages are more sexualized today than they were back then. (Again, I'll reference the X-Files here.) And like I was writing to Cameo, by college I definitely presented a more sexualized appearance, even though I probably dress more revealingly now than I did then, ha! I guess the difference now is that I'm more comfortable with my sexuality and aware of the messages I'm sending, and able to handle the image I'm presenting--as a teenager, obviously I wouldn't have been equipped to do so. And YES about better role models then. Shirley Manson was on the cover of CosmoGirl, you know?!

    Emily, did you ever watch Daria? It was later in the '90s, maybe '97, but it's sort of incredible to think that there was a bespectacled super-smart bookworm cartoon character who was seen as awesome and pretty in her own way--as opposed to, say, Meg on Family Guy, whose glasses serve as the default signal of "hey, remember, she's not supposed to be cute." I was looking at my yearbook when writing this post and there's definitely a range of what was considered cool--certainly the preppy girls still had their perms and whatnot, but like you point out, those were just signifiers. There was more room to breathe.

    Rebekah, it IS amazing, and it's something you don't realize until you actually go back and look--just remembering it, it's like your mind's eye adjusts it, because it didn't seem abnormal in the least at the time. And heh, my boyfriend and I had a "My So-Called Life" marathon last year and commented in the same way--RayAnne's hair! The flannel shirts! Leto Hair! Funny to think that Danes went on to develop "eyelash hypotrichonosis" and shill Latisse.

  8. I found this post through Mara/Medicinal Marzipan's blog and I love love love it! I'm 19, so I was just a wee little one in the '90's, but it's funny-I have a romanticized image of that time-there was rugrats and Nirvana and no one washed their hair. Haha. So I may have been wrong, and also there was the Kate Moss Calvin Klein add, but it does seem accurate that there was still more "room" for girls to be how they want to be than now. I've felt immense pressure being a teen in the 21st century, and it's amazing-maybe I would be different had I grown up in a different decade. Even though I was not a teen when Nirvana was around-I absolutely love their music-maybe for those reasons: they represented something unusual, revolutionary, and against social norms. I wish there was more of that now.

  9. Hannah, glad to meet you! It's interesting to me to hear from younger women on this--to hear you say based on reports of the era that there was more "room" for girls to be their own creatures, for example, highlights the truth of that. In any case, we were a *little* unwashed, rest assured! It's funny how it's represented as this total greasy era, though... Here's to hoping for a return to excellent music.

  10. Hi -
    I'm REALLY late to this party, but I'd like to say that my experience of being a teen in the early '90s was different from what I've heard so far here. I graduated HS in '93, in a suburb of NYC. Now, I teach HS for a living, outside of Boston.
    I remember thinking, when I was a teen, that things were just getting better for women. There was this hope: we had, as someone mentioned, women to look up to. Feminism was cool to some, and at least talked about by almost everyone. It was cool to be smart, to wear baggy, un-revealing clothes, and to play headlining sports instead of being side-lined in cheerleading.
    And then, sometime between then and 2003, when I started teaching, everything changed (I think) for the worse. From where I sit, at the front of the room, it looks to me like girls don't have many female role models anymore. They aren't thinking about feminism, and no one around them is talking about it anymore. There's this feeling that it's done -- and none of them analyzes that too deeply. And, although this last commenter and your guest poster both claim that there's a lot more room for girls to look different from one another now, it's hard for my older eyes to see much difference at all. Most teenage girls dress mostly the same, with very subtle differences to denote the groups the feel they identify with.
    The basic look of today's teen girl seems to be sexy comfort. yoga pants are a good example of this.
    I feel sad for girls, and boys, in our current teen environment. They are so polarized in a way that, in 1993, I would never have predicted they would be. In a way I thought we were fighting out way out of in the early nineties. There have always been things boys CANNOT do and girls CANNOT do, but it seems that those things are increasing in number instead of decreasing. And, now that I have a baby daughter, it seems to me that the gender-polarizing message is starting WAY younger than I ever noticed before. Why does every little girl have to be a princess now? Why does every little girl item of clothing have to have some amount of pink in it? (Just to name the two most obvious ones.) Why are we, as a society, not talking about feminism and allowing the princess culture to pervade our daughters' childhoods?
    I find all of that pretty depressing, and my bottom line here is this: It feels like the hope (and maybe the will?) of things getting ever better for women is gone. And I miss it!

  11. Beth, I'm glad to hear you bring up the genderization (word?) of teenagers and children--I definitely think that's gotten heavier since I was a teenager. I mean, my flannel shirts were culled from my father's gardening clothes! There was no such thing as a "women's T-shirt," just smaller sizes. (Though I am grateful that there are women's tees now, but whatever.) It's like the lesson of comfort taken from our generation was kept, but with "sexy" added on. And interesting to hear your perspective on how you see a homogenized look among teenagers--would love to have a sociological outing with you and Alexa (the teen guest poster) to hear arguments for each in a room of teenagers!