I Dressed as a Goth, a Party Girl, and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl — Here's How My Friends, Partner, and OKCupid Reacted
Seven years ago, I took an introduction to sociology course at my town's community college. We spent most of our time sitting around in a circle with our professor, talking about cultural stigmas and stereotypes as well as the clique dynamics within our individual cafeterias (at the time, I was convinced I was living in North Shore High School).
For our final project, we were assigned to do something outside our comfort zones, with the intent to elicit reactions from those around us, as well as learn something about ourselves. Because I was friends with the emo/goth hybrid kids in high school, I decided to spend a day as one of them, aesthetically anyway. Black hair, black lips, red and black eye shadow, incredibly thick eyeliner, spiked chains and Hot Topic clothes (this was back when Hot Topic sold actual alternative-wear, mind you). And what I found was the not-so-shocking realization that humans are pretty cruel.
Everyone from my brother (who I considered my best friend) to the hostess at our favorite Italian restaurant (who sat us in the most hidden, secluded corner of the restaurant despite it being empty) tried their very best to steer clear of me. No eye contact. Snarky smirks. And an overall cattiness that left me emotionally drained after just one day.
In the years since, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how harshly we judge others based on their fashion choices. We all do it to some extent or another, and I admit to being guilty of it myself — whether toward the cheerleaders at my high school who packed on the foundation or the wannabe hipsters of my university who pride themselves in their ability to recite Howl from start to finish (which, I'll admit, is pretty impressive).
Because my "style" has changed so much from childhood to my early '20s, I've seen a lot of mixed reactions from both acquaintances and passersby to all of my different looks, be they punk girl, tomboy or anything in between. That in mind, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to revisit some past fashion choices and see how friends, family and perfect strangers reacted to them now. It's been a while since I've totally revamped my wardrobe, so this experiment was fun for dress-up reasons as well as its more profound sociological implications.
Initially, my plan was to spend a full day dressed up in each look to note people's reactions in person, but I realized that the area of Britain in which I now live is extremely alternative and accepting — the total opposite of the highly Republican New Jersey town where I grew up. So instead, I took to the World Wide Web, creating a dating profile for myself on OkCupid. Through the week, I changed my photos daily (all taken in the same location, with the same lighting), keeping the actual bio information unchanged (a single paragraph detailing my love of literature and writing, my obsession with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones and my desire to meet new people and make some friends. I also made my profile open to both men and women.)
Besides noting the reactions of random people online, I of course showed my partner and his parents each of the looks in person, and sent the photos to several friends via email. Because, you know, sometimes it's the people closest to you who have the strongest (and in some cases, most striking) reactions.
Goth Girl, Circa 2007
I wanted to revisit the goth/semi-emo look because it was my experiences with this style that led me to thinking about humanity's biases when it comes to aesthetics and fashion. Back in 2007 when I took that sociology course, Sophie Lancaster (the 21-year-old girl attacked and killed in the U.K. by a group of teen boys as a result of her gothic fashion) was headlining the news. That something so tragic and so heinous could happen based on someone's clothing really struck me and has stayed with me ever since.
My look was based on friends I knew back in high school, and it's definitely a slightly tuned down version of a lot of gothic fashion. But its heavy reliance on black (both in the clothes and makeup) undoubtedly makes one stand out.
Let's be sad together — from a 19-year-old guy
What the hell is wrong with you? Some friendly advice, watch Skins and learn how to dress, or better yet, pick up an issue of Cosmo — from a 28-year-old man
I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but can I help you somehow? — from a 23-year-old woman
You're depressingly beautiful. Get it? Because you're beautiful and I am betting depressed — from a 25-year-old man
From my partner:
I think my high school self would've really liked you.
From a friend:
I hate to say it, but if I saw you on the street and didn't know you, I would be very worried for your mental and emotional stability.
Night-Lifey (Or As the English Say, Chavette)
For this look, I wanted to do a night-life-deluxe thing. I wore a dress that (though I think it's lovely) I'd normally reserve for raving clubs (which, let's face it, isn't my scene at all), and packed on the heaviest makeup I could fathom. Liquid foundation was caked on. I broke out the Barbie-pink lipstick. And I totally went to town on my eyebrows, literally using up half of my pencil.
In England, there's this word: chav, or chavette for its female equivalent. Though it's somewhat derogatory, it has become used by the general population to refer to a person who is quite loutish and wears a lot of fake designer stuff. That's kind of what I went for, thus the make-believe bling. There is undoubtedly a lot of stigma toward women who dress what is so often called "provocatively," so I wanted to put this ensemble to the test.
Babe, you look like you're ready for a good time, and I wanna give it to you — from a 23-year-old guy who I actually had a class with at university
You know what they say about a girl with big eyebrows? She's got a big appetite for, you know — from a 31-year-old man
I'm looking for friends too! Want to hit the club with me? — from an 18-year-old girl
You look like you know how to use that body — from a 26-year-old man
From my partner:
I have really conflicting feelings. If I didn't know you and my before-you-self met you at a party, I would probably try to go for a one-night-stand. But because it's you, that just feels so wrong.
From a friend:
Well, I think the dress really suits you, but you do look really easy.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Film critic Nathan Rabin popularized the phrase "manic pixie dream girl" or MPDG when writing about Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. He described this type of gal as, "that bubbly, shallow, cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." It's since been used to describe Zooey Deschanel in pretty much everything she does.
I kept my makeup minimal with the exception of some very bright blush (because I guess it seemed quirky) and took to the festival-inspired items in my wardrobe (and my basically-mother-in-law's). I even added a beautiful and somewhat mystical-feeling stone necklace to complete things.
Can you teach me about crystal healing? — from a 24-year-old woman
You look like you're from a storybook. I'd like to take you to a bookstore and read some old fables with you — from a 22-year-old man I've met multiple times at Lush
I want to make new friends, too. Let me know if you'd be up for having a chill night of Game of Thrones followed by psychedelics — from a 21-year-old man
I bet you're quirky, like Zooey Deschanel — from a 26-year-old woman
From my partner:
I just don't approve of the ridiculous amounts of blush.
From a friend:
If you were a stranger on the street, I'd just assume you were a bit of a lost hippie.
I Woke Up Like This
To celebrate Beyoncé as well as accurately describe this look, I'm choosing to title the ensemble, "I woke up like this." Because I literally did.
I'm not wearing a single drop of makeup, and didn't bother to try to get my hair into a coherent form. My leggings and baggy T-shirt are totally mismatched, and the addition of Keds sort of screams, "I just don't care." My goal was to see how people react to just me: to my normal, no artificially added products, self.
You seem like a nice, humble girl. Can I buy you some tea? — from a 21-year-old woman
Part of me really appreciates that you'd post totally unaltered photos of yourself on a dating site, but another part of me thinks you're mad — from a 22-year-old man
You're kinda cute but look a little sickly. I'm not really into dating girls who are sick like that Fault in Our Stars shit so just let me know cutie — from a 24-year-old man
Your leggings are so, so good. But I don't know about that tee-shirt. Think about reevaluating; you might get more messages — from a 28-year-old woman
From my partner:
This is my favorite look.
From a friend:
I don't think I've ever seen you look so tired.
These days, vintage-inspired apparel is my go-to fashion choice. I love the cuts and silhouettes of the '40s through the '60s and find the subtle red lipstick and cat eyeliner to complement my complexion quite well. But for this experiment, I tried to vamp up my traditional style to a bit more of a classic look. Pearls, rosy red cheeks, and a waist-cinching belt did the trick.
Because this is a pretty "traditional" look, meaning something that's come in and out of fashion for decades and always received pretty well, I thought it'd be a good test of how people react when they see women in clichéd, standard, womanly wear.
Wow, you're stunning. I'd love to take you out to dinner — from the same 26-year-old man who told me I look like I know how to use my body only a few days prior
Your hair, lips, eyes and dress are stunning. I want a friend like you — from a 21-year-old man
You look like you shoulda been born alongside Marilyn Monroe. Striking — from a 32-year-old man
Such wife material — from a 24-year-old man
From my partner:
Very pretty, sort of like Maria-plus.
From a friend:
Eeee you look so, so gorgeous. Can you do my makeup like that?
I began all this with the slight hope that in the seven years since my last fashion experiment, people had become slightly more open-minded, and less horrible. But the thing is, they really, really haven't.
Undoubtedly, the most intense reactions came from my goth and night-life ensembles. The former was met with the notion that I was depressed, in need of help and in one instance, completely deranged for wearing such an outfit, while the latter came with blatant presuppositions of my sexuality. Dressing a bit quirky was mostly met with the idea that I must also be into things like crystal healing and LSD, whilst not wearing any makeup at all and doing the "slouchy" thing made most people think I was ill.
What is really interesting is that my classic look — the vintage style — was the "best" received. There's definitely a reason women like Marilyn Monroe are regarded as classic emblems of beauty, but what was so shocking was that the same man who spoke about my body in the most sexual (and blatantly offensive) of ways when I wore the second outfit turned around and told me how beautiful I was as soon as I traded in the bodycon and liquid foundation for a pretty dress and red lipstick. I don't doubt that this ensemble was "liked" as much as it was because it fits into the traditional images associated with femininity, gender roles, and the idea of how a woman is "supposed" to look.
The one comfort through this whole thing is that my partner's favorite look was my basic "I woke up like this." And yet, even he felt deeply conflicted when I put on that party dress and broke out the Estée Lauder. It seems once again that we are shallow, shallow creatures. We put people into boxes. We put ourselves into boxes. And my biggest worry is that this isn't something that will ever change.
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Images: Marie Southard Ospina