Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Put It Up

Sometimes things burrow beneath my skin and I can't shake the ill feelings that they cause. Slights and grudges and misspoken words take up space I'd prefer not to give them. I wish it weren't the case, especially at those times when the discussion is, if I think about it for a moment, far removed from me and this life that I'm living. But some feelings can't be helped because I know that the words igniting them are tied to bigger, nastier ideas.

At 3:20 AM on Saturday, May 19th, I sat in a Lake Tahoe hotel suite with a small group of friends as we waited for things to begin. I had arrived only three hours earlier after a number of travel woes. Too exhausted to sleep, I snatched a 90-minute nap before the day's festivities. And so while running on fumes with a navy and white fascinator on my head, a lounging jumpsuit and fancy robe on my body, and my laptop set on the coffee table in front of me with Twitter open, I settled in to experience a wedding I'd been waiting months to watch.
For my own well-being, I have steered clear of most of the wildly racist commentary that has been, well, everywhere since the world became aware of the relationship between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But there was always going to be talk that found its way around my carefully constructed walls. The smaller, insidious comments have a way of sneaking in, and I shouldn't have been surprised that these painful pricks arrived via an area of my life that I leave the least protected.
Fashion Twitter, of which I consider myself a marginal member, is full of nitpickers. Where else can one find people yelling excitedly about someone flouting the theme at the annual Met Gala? Generally I find this social media corner a comfort. Here are other people who care not only about clothes but also about what people are trying to say with their clothes. It was no surprise then that when Meghan and Harry was confirmed, and especially after her Vanity Fair cover and subsequent appearance by his side at the Invictus Games in Toronto, the fashion media sat up and took notice. Women in such positions have the ability to make or break brands. Sometimes the making can lead to the breaking. This wasn't only about pretty clothes. It was also about business and symbolism. To ignore her choices at that point would have been foolish.
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex (née Markle) is biracial and not in the business of allowing anyone to forget that she is half-black. I have no official data on this front but it wouldn't be wild to assume that there have never been that many black people in St. George's Chapel at one time. Despite my body feeling broken on that still dark Saturday morning, my mind was delightfully awake and looking forward to the black gospel choir, the black bishop, and the black cellist who were to be part of the ceremony. As we watched the guests arrive, I was full of joy and thoughts of romance. And then, all of a sudden, I was full of red-hot rage.
It took quite awhile for my somewhat adolescent giddiness to subside after the engagement announcement, and so it wasn't until her third post-engagement official event in a rainy Cardiff, Wales that I begin to notice that one of Meghan's hairstyle had been termed a "messy bun."

I didn't see anything messy about it but then, outside of the sculptural coifs I remember seeing in pictures from the hair shows my older sister took part of in the 1990s, I have grown a personal distaste for hairdos that are stiff and shellacked. To my eyes, her hair looked relaxed and protective, a simple fix for anyone who has to worry about the havoc humidity will wreak on naturally curly hair that has been straightened.

A spot of emotional rot began to bloom within me, and as I realized that the conversation after her first official event with that hair had moved beyond basic descriptor to whether or not said "messy bun" was appropriate my uneasiness only grew. "Why not call it a loose chignon?" a friend asked recently. It was a good question coming from a rational place. But then she was not part of the demographic I was concerned with. Most, although not all, of the criticism was coming from the mouths of white women. A tweet saying that the updo wasn't "royal hair" floated across my timeline soon after that Cardiff event, and I was left wondering what exactly constituted "royal hair." I already knew the answer. My ears are attuned to dog whistles about black people, especially those concerning black women and girls.

I have lived 35 years with my hair. I have had strangers and acquaintances and "friends" make comments that no one asked for or feel free to touch it without permission. I have watched news segments and read stories about children sent home from school because their similar hair styled in any number of ways was seen as untamed. Unkempt. Inappropriate. I knew I wasn't upset at nothing.
There is something that happens to some white women, an ugliness that rises from their chests, when a black woman is successful. The success can be big or small. It can be in any arena. All that matters is the fact that she is existing and thriving. The darkness is only amplified when the success occurs in the public eye and when the position the black woman occupies is seen as enviable. There are too many examples to list here, enough examples to fill a dissertation, but all one has to do is look at any of the coverage of Michelle Obama during her time in the White House or, more specifically if you'd like, the many op-eds that were written about Beyoncé after her most recent pregnancy announcement. I wonder what it takes to put fingers to keyboard and write something dripping with that level of irrationality and hate. But then I know the answer to that question as well.
"Words mean things," I say to myself at times while making my way through essays or news stories or the quagmire of Twitter. I'm not only speaking of definitions, although there are some who choose to ignore even that basic foundation. I'm also speaking of the text within the text. Words don't only mean things. They mean things. They have been dragged through history's muck. They are stained by it, especially when used to describe certain groups. Especially when coming out of the mouth or the pen of the powerful few.
I am not innocent here. As I’ve gotten older and, one hopes, wiser, I try to think about why I feel the urge to use certain words to describe certain people and things. But I don’t catch everything. There are times when I put my foot firmly in my mouth. In those moments, I feel shame, disgust, and remorse. These are hard feelings to allow to sit inside you. They are hard feelings to allow to do their important work. It is easier to violently push them away or ignore them. It is easier to lash out at the person who has taken up the sometimes painful task of calling you on it. It is easier to apologize without ever actually saying that you are sorry.
What would a true admission of guilt mean? That you are fallible? That you are susceptible to intellectual frailty? That you occasionally let society and the legacy of our world’s tortured history infect your thoughts? If that is what it would mean, then I welcome you to being alive and awake in 2018.
I expected there to be both positive and negative critiques of the dress. I would expect nothing less of my fellow fashion watchers, and yet my stomach was in knots even before the "messy bun" statements sent me flying into a rage. A couple of days prior while looking at pictures of Meghan arriving in Windsor, a thought popped into my head unwanted and unbidden. “I hope she wears her hair down for the wedding so I don’t have to hear anyone’s nasty complaints about it.” I berated myself for retreating to the box I subjected my younger self to in an effort to dodge scrutiny and criticism when in predominately white spaces. It is a habit that I've mostly grown out of at this point but there are moments when I backslide.

I was tired. I am tired. Physically obviously but also mentally and emotionally. A year or two ago I would have been able to brush it off. Brushing it off has always been part of surviving. Why should I care about the statements of people who aren't even aware of the shit that they have internalized? Who has time for those who want to live an unexamined life for fear of the work that living the opposite would entail? And yet here I am more sensitive ever.

Sensitive and in the right.

Thankfully the sometimes cowardly ways of a woman watching from nearly 6,000 miles away had absolutely no effect on the styling decisions that were made for that perfectly sunny day. She wore her hair up all the better to complement the neckline of the dress that Clare Waight Keller had created for her. And when her future husband lifted her veil all I saw was a face beaming happiness.

In the hours following the wedding while still too tired to sleep, I read a couple of pieces about The Dress. Both reached the same conclusion about what was being said with her choice.

At The New York Times:

It was not a Cinderella choice, not one that spoke of fantasy or old-fashioned fairy tales, but one that placed the woman proudly front and center. It underscored Ms. Markle’s own independence by divesting her of frippery, while also respecting tradition and keeping her covered up. It celebrated female strength in the rigorous nature of its line — six exactingly placed seams — the substance of its fabric (double-bonded silk cady), and the choice of designer: a British woman who, as a statement from Kensington Palace read, had “served as the creative head of three globally influential fashion houses — Pringle of Scotland, Chloé, and now Givenchy.”

At The Washington Post:

The dress, designed by Clare Waight Keller, was free of extravagant embellishments. It was not covered in yards of delicate lace. It did not have a single ruffle — no pearls or crystals. Its beauty was in its architectural lines and its confident restraint. It was a romantic dress, but one that suggested a clear-eyed understanding that a real-life romance is not the stuff of fairy tales. The dress was a backdrop; it was in service to the woman. The woman. That’s what the dress emphasized. Not bridal whimsy. Not princess tropes. Not royal pomp. The former actress, the former blogger, the formerly single lady, now has the title Duchess of Sussex. But she is still Meghan.

It's a conclusion that I also came to and one that I believe extends to her hair and makeup.

I stayed away from pieces about those items. I still had walls to maintain after all even if they were doing their job poorly. And I still had things to enjoy in spite of it all.

Images via, via