We never get to choose how others see us
I was recently on a webinar about entrepreneurship for a fashion retail brand and was asked what my style was. Because of COVID and my inability to leave my desk, I haven’t really thought of my style or what it’s evolved into since turning 35 and now 36 in a global pandemic. After a while, as I tried to envision my my former pandemic self, I found myself landing on the same word, over and over again. “Princess”.
I remember mentally rejecting it at first because, why would a woman in her mid-thirties equate her style to something that is typically the dream of pre-pubescent little girls? I stayed on the word for a while and realized that it wasn’t the look of a “princess” that my style was centered on; It was instead, everything that she represented in American culture that I have never been able to truly access myself.
Depending on the type of princess you’re envisioning as I type this, I can imagine the nose wrinkling-disapproval happening on your face right now as you may picture a traditionally fragile, helpless , dependent creature unable to save herself from her suitors or from the simplest things in life. This is definitely the way society has painted who a princess is, and something that many women are fighting against being seen as. Listen, I know.
But as a Black woman, now entrepreneur, the ability for me to be fragile, helpless and dependent on someone else was never really truly a part of my story or my upbringing. Unlike some, I didn’t grow up with the privilege of having someone dote on me, or spoil me or do things for me in the soft, playful ways that things are done for little girls. Now, don’t get me wrong, I had parents and they definitely provided me with love and shelter and gave me the things I needed, but, just as they were never spoiled with tender care and affection, finding that muscle in the process of child rearing was not always possible. This is something my twin brother and I often speak about. Our mother was a mom who provided and supported us at all times, but having lost her own mom at age 12 there were just some things that didn’t come natural to her- and we never penalized her for it.
Because my mother was often stretched for time, and in some cases, money, I was mostly an independent kid. This was both because I was born with an impatient temperament but also because the idea of burdening someone as busy as my mother with a request for childish things was paralyzing to me. I wanted the things I wanted and waiting for someone to give them to me was not my idea of living. Eager to avoid the typical parental run around of “we’ll see” I found ways to get the things I wanted for myself, or, I vowed to get them once I had the money and resources to do so (and I always found a way to get them). As an adult, much of the same is still true, only the “finding” is much easier because I have the ability to do things without my parent’s permission.
The thing is, unbeknownst to me, if you’re a women who can get things on her own, find her own answers and solutions while climbing a corporate latter, you get put into an interesting societal box- one that may have started out as positive but often strips you of all the other aspects of who you are. These types of women are labeled by onlookers as “boss ladies” and “independent women” often without any choice in deciding if that’s who they actually are.
In my case, these labels are not how I see myself, but I’ve recognized that I’ve been put in boxes and labeled for various reasons my entire life. The labeling process is often unsolicited, and typically stems from others who are attempting to categorize me for their own self comfort. For instance in some cases, my dark skin labeled me as attractive but undatable, and my afro-textured hair positioned me as a Black-power activist on one hand and a neo-soul, tree hugger on the other. My college education and assertive demeanor labeled me as unattainable for some men, my ability to move to new cities to chase new dreams cast me as a strong, independent woman, and now, me running two businesses has positioned me as a boss lady.
All of these labels came from people telling me who they thought I was, but I’ve never claimed any of them for myself. That’s the thing about labels- you rarely have a chance to establish any agency in how people see you.
With those labels came a stripping of fragility, and assumptions of me not needing any help or support. In fact, if I had a tagline built by the people who have labeled me, it would be “oh that’s Whitney. She’s always going to be fine”. This perspective has continued to color the lenses that people see me through, lenses that conveniently erase all of the vulnerability, sadness, helplessness, or feelings of loss, desperation and confusion I may have been feeling in different moments throughout my life.
It’s been assumed by some that I encounter that I never cry, and I’ve been asked if I do by many other people (surprise- it’s other women!). I’ve been told by many who view my inconsistent, once every three-month Instagram posts that I’m living “the life” and that all things look great on their end- what a horrible assumption.
Somehow my lack of patience and my desire to have the things I want more immediately has put me in a box where everyone assumes I’ve got all the answers, and I’m always okay and “making it”. Because of this, I found myself having to be strong and having to be independent, but not because I felt that I was those things, but because I’d been forced to do so on my own.
This has created an eagerness in me to outwardly OVER emphasize my weaknesses, mistakes, f*ck ups & vulnerabilities to people out of a desperate need to not be characterized as “always okay”, and I use style to personify the warmth, softness and fragility that people often erase from my personhood and/or refuse to see me as being associated with.
So yes- my style muse is “princess”; not queen, not boss-chick or anything that has to deal with ruling a kingdom, or a castle. The definition of my style is based on my own terms. Whether I’m an urban princess or a sophisticated princess, or a boho-princess, is ultimately up to me and my chameleon-like style shifting choices. But at the heart of all of it, is a desire for all of my layers to be seen, recognized and acknowledged from a society that keeps putting me in a box not of my own choosing. Like little girls everywhere, I too dream of being helped, aided, catered to and doted on like the traditional princesses we’ve all grown up with.