(Caption: I wish everyone would post their outtakes and call them “real selfies.” The throw away ones are better.)
I thought that being Basic Jenny for a day was going to be hilarious. I was entertained by the vision of me going from a white Punky Brewster middle-aged bi-sexual gender non-conforming sass house to being a white rich heterosexual conventional deferential dolled-up blonde cis-woman. I figured the change would be a good laugh. Basic Jenny was also a cathartic and sardonic way for me to express my increasing frustration with the current dominant cultural establishment. Bonus points were added for explicit jabs at white supremacy and misogyny. My mission was not to mock women who adhere to traditional gender norms and love make up and fashion, but to make fun of the social norms and pressure of gender performance and expectations. It was also a piece for my ongoing distaste for shallow social media “influencers.” In the USA, I believe we’ve got our priorities all fucked up in late stage capitalism and it shows. The most blatant exhibition of bigger is better consumerism is on social media where people are the product and the currency is money through likes.
(Caption: I call this outtake, bubblegum vagina face.)
As a mental health therapist, I work with young women, teens and girls. I watch in real time the damage caused by the constant stream of photoshopped expectations and hype consumerism messaging. While women and girls have always had a damned if you do damned if you don’t dilemma with appearance, it has gotten worse in recent years. Anxiety and eating disorder clinics are full and waitlisted in my large Seattle metro area. It’s not only girls, I have more young boys coming in saying they are fat. On top of that, the way youth socialize is changing dramatically. Face to face interactions, vulnerability, loyalty, and intimacy are all greatly compromised. I have had some kids come in recently talking about how afraid they were of being “canceled.” Yes, I really do hear the kind of slang I wrote in the Basic Jenny blog in my office. This was a new one to me and when I asked what canceled is, they said, “You know, like when you hit unfriend online. People do it all the time now in real life, for any little thing, they just cancel you. You go to school and they won’t look at you. Most of the time you don’t even know why. Sometimes they call you out and it’s over some little thing you said. They don’t even give you a chance to talk it over or apologize. You’re done. Dropped. Friends are disposable.” That’s a recipe for paranoia if I’ve ever heard one and close to the Black Mirror episode Nosedive. Our throw away culture has extended to people in the worst of ways. Online forums make it easier to say whatever you want and do what you want with little repercussion. It emboldens people to act like that in their in personal lives. Bullying is easier and bigger. People are lonely, yet over stimulated. They are isolated yet cannot get away from blatant peer pressure and advertising. It’s a shit show out there. Enter Basic Jenny. My snarky alter ego to bitch about the establishment. What I didn’t expect was the increasing anxiety and then panic that set in as I went about my day.
(Caption: This is one of the influencer shots I used as inspiration.)
First, it took forever to get ready. All the shit you need to be “girly” is expensive and takes time and space. As I put on the make-up and tight clothes, I increasingly had the feeling I was in drag. It was a mask and costume I rejected long ago for the physical discomfort it gave me. I never feel like my skin can breathe! As my heart rate increased, I started to feel the psychological tole that feminine expectations bring up in me that I had forgotten. I left the boat I live on and noticed as I went up the dock that my walk changed, my voice changed. Everything was lighter and more dramatized. I was genuinely shaking my ass keeping one foot in line with the other. I would flick my hair to the side and shake out my long mane with a smile and a twinkly laugh. It was second nature, like going back to my southern routes and my grandmother telling me love secrets like: “The secret to keeping a man is keeping the baseboards clean and your hair nice. No man wants a sloppy woman. Always keep your toes straight and in front of one another when you walk and sit with your ankles crossed and back straight. It’s important to have something that smells good cooking all the time, they won’t leave you if you feed them right. Always laugh at their jokes and make them feel important. You know you are being a good wife if they don’t beat you.” Not sure how many years of therapy it took to work through all that, but it was expensive.
(Caption: Same day before make up.)
As I walked about the Ballard neighborhood and went place to place, I noticed something very foreign to me these days as a middle-aged woman: attention. Everywhere I went people looked. Nobody else knew it was a costume unless you got close. Only a few people laughed that day and it was because they got close enough to see that it was a wig and watched long enough to see the ridiculous photo shoots I was doing. Mostly, women looked me up and down with suspicion and judgement. Men’s eyes did the same scanning gaze but with the old familiar objectification of my youth. They were assessing the goods to be fuckable or not. I even had a couple men give me super explicit flirty eyes and solicitous smiles. The familiar entitlement and expectation that I enjoy their focus was there. I found myself subtly frozen, a deer in the headlights. This is when the panic set in. As a survivor of sexual assault and abuse and someone who was trained young to be an object of desire, these exchanges are a danger zone for me. For me, those looks are the first steps to rape and my body responds as such. It was triggering as hell. Luckily, I have amazing skills from many more expensive years of therapy to use in these situations. On top of that I was getting fucking MAD. At forty-four and without the tremendous effort to look younger or adhere to my prescribed social uniform, I am used to being invisible no matter how much I smile and give eye contact as a friendly curtesy. Ageism is an inherent part of sexism because women are not supposed to age. If they do, they are nothing. Women are told to fight aging at all costs. Adhering to some bullshit cultural norm all of the sudden gave me a steady stream of recognition. A familiar rage bubbled up for the culture that breeds this type of shit in both women and men. FUCK THAT NOISE.
(Caption: I literally have egg on my face. Appropriate.)
As Eric and I did the photo shoot I was increasingly agitated from all of this. I was also paranoid that I would look ugly in the photos. Normally, I could give a shit less about how I look in a photo. In fact, my favorites are ones where I have weird expressions and it makes me laugh. With each shot I found myself comparing to the Instagram shots I was trying to mimic. I would look at the photo and critique each little thing, hyper-vigilant of the details. This applied to the gym pictures especially. I went outside a major comfort zone and showed my forty something meno-pot belly as I bravely tried to mimic a 20 something model influencer. I got mad at Eric for not telling me I had a belly roll in one photo, for not telling me that my neck looked saggy in another, for not telling me that my ass looked too big or my expression was weird. I nagged him. I insisted he work harder to make me look good in the photos. I was shockingly acting like a monster in moments, matching the tone of a classic entitled diva. I was being a bitch. My thoughtful, kind, and loving man spent five hours on a Sunday going place to place with Basic Jenny. He was patient and grew increasingly perplexed. He kept earnestly saying, “I didn’t notice because you are beautiful no matter what pose you do. You are sexy to me just as you are.” Eventually he got exasperated and said, “Jenn, this is not you. I know you are triggered, but cut it out. Just breathe!” Later, I expected him to say he liked how I looked better as Basic Jenny, that he liked the feeling of being with pretty arm candy for a day. Instead he said, “Can you take off the wig now? I like your short hair and your crazy pants better. I’m not attracted to women who dress like this. I want my Jenn back.” Despite his sincerity, I found myself doubting him, trying to think my way out of it. A flood of old internalized messages of not being pretty enough, thin enough, sexy enough, girly enough, young enough, just directly not good enough were coursing through my veins. These are the messages most women in the United States carry in varying degrees and tones due to misogyny. It was amazing to me how dressing this way for one damn day quickly regressed me into that young teen I was growing up in a world sexualizing and limiting her. In just hours I fell off my hard earned center of more mature wisdom and gravity. How is it for people without the privilege of all my awareness, education and skills? No, Basic Jenny was not funny for me at all.
(Caption: I am not a model, Eric is not a photographer. Most of the photos looked like this.)
After I published and had almost two hundred people read my post, I was fascinated by the response. I wondered how many folks would see the pictures and think, “Wow, she looks better like this.” It fits more into a frame of what we culturally think is attractive. Most got the joke and thought it was funny, some earnestly told me I should change my look and go long blonde. I am adding the outtakes in this blog to show that the angles and filters did indeed make a huge difference. We took over fifty pictures for each pose and more. It was time consuming and exhausting. Regardless of the photos and if they looked good or not, it’s just not real. That’s the truth for most of these Instagram stars we see. It’s an illusion made from product and tech. For me, dressing like that certainly was not truth and doesn’t feel right. REAL is attractive to me. Congruence and integrity are attractive to me. Kindness and smarts are sexy AF. I have been blessed by my LGBTQ community and Buddhist sangha in helping me to socially explore authenticity. A couple of years ago some of my gender queer friends were discussing the cultural constructs of gender with me and they said, “Can you imagine a world with no gender? Can you imagine who you would be and what you would like with no gender expectations? Where people just behaved and dressed as they like, not how they are told to be according to their sex?” It kind of blew me away. It also has given me something empowering AF. PERMISSION. So, at the end of the day I took off the wig. I showered and scrubbed off all the make-up. Then I put on my crazy pants and a unicorn shirt and went out to dinner with my adoring boyfriend who looked super relieved to have his Jenn back.
(Caption: Thank god for crazy pants and a nice big sturdy ass!)
That’s all I want for Basic Jenny and any other person out there. I want them to give themselves permission to explore what real is for them. Real might even look like Basic Jenny and that’s okay. I want our culture to give permission to be vulnerable and authentic and create genuine connection and expression. I want to burn down all the boxes and encourage people to allow themselves to do what feels most alive. If a little boy wants to be a princess, great. If a girl wants to be a ninja and wear a tiara, great. If Eric really wanted me to take off that wig so he could wear it, great. It’s all good if it’s safe and consensual people. With this message, I can’t just stick with gender and women’s rights for burning establishment boxes. We need to look at ALL our bias and start deconstructing racism, classism, homophobia, mental health stigma, all of it. We need to learn to look at one another with fresh eyes. To acknowledge the old messages, reject them and implant new ones. We need more focus on our shared humanity. That also means we need to connect in person and not just online. We need to create communities made up of folks who represent different walks of life and learn from one another. We must recognize and celebrate difference and diversity in this process. We must allow people space to explore their identity without projecting our ideas of who and what they should be all over them. We need to listen to people when they tell us what their experience is. We need to learn from that and adapt. Can you imagine a world where we say to people, “You are enough just as you are. I accept you as you are. You have value in just being. I want to understand and celebrate you rather than conform you. I’m here to support you, I want you to thrive!” I can. As I said in my Basic Jenny blog: Rethink your life girl. I’m here for you when you are ready.
May we all sail in peace.
(Caption: Amazing what lots of make up, lighting, a good filter and a million shots to choose from can do. Vanity, it’s exhausting and expensive.)