An Extension of Myself: Physical Appearance and the Real Me

“I [feel it is] important to explore the issue of why women, living in a “post-feminist” society, have such a premium placed upon their appearance, pushing many to the point of obsession and most to spend a great deal of time and money attempting to recreate themselves”

Judy Cooperman

Judy Cooperman - Foils II

As a young woman of today I’ve traveled through many stages of my physical appearance, constantly rediscovering how this outer shell affects or is affected by my inner self. This presentation is an inherently human trait, though it is women much more than men who are and have been the ones logging hours in salons, boutiques, cosmetics aisles, and in front of the mirror getting ready. Women’s work of maintaining physical appearances and the pressures to do so are a persistent and pervasive part of our everyday culture. So after years of fighting for equality and freedom from society’s patriarchal structure, how many of these hours spent constructing and maintaining our image are really our choice?

In a recent experiment with hair extensions for an upcoming piece of performance art I found myself with a new grooming responsibility very telling of this dilemma.  The work of maintaining my new head of hair had become an unpleasant addition to my original routine.  To be honest, the first week or so of extensions was fun; it was a chance to experiment with my appearance and multiple personas.  However, once the 24” strands I had tied to my own began to die and their natural texture became so unruly, I couldn’t wait to take them out.  What began as an artistic accessory for tying myself to another woman using the lengths of our hair, soon morphed into a daunting reminder of how we as women are constantly tied to the upkeep of exterior beauty. I was now spending hours blow-drying, straightening, and ripping combs through this mass.  But if this was all so unbearable (painful, tedious, a waste of time?) why was I continuing to carry out these actions?

Between the First Sip and the Last (Performance)

The truth is I had now become identified with these long locks.  Since day one of their addition I had received so many compliments (many from strangers who assumed I was blessed with this hair), that I began to feel oddly connected to these artificial roots. But for every kind comment I received, I couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a phony.

As the days and weeks wore on and I was yet again combing through my hair for an extended amount of time, all I could think about were the countless other women who invest just as much, if not more time, energy, money, etc., into maintaining their looks— much of which involves artificial additions to what physical features we were actually born with. 

We as women are confronted with these situations much more than our male counterparts, striving to modify, enhance, and therefore improve our looks.  And even though the initial purpose for my extensions was not an attempt at achieving newfound levels of beauty, I certainly began to feel some positive effects from the compliments they acquired for me.  As I found myself thinking back over the process of gaining and maintaining these extensions, and how the resulting positive feedback made me feel, I began to really question and confirm the reasoning for my continued participation in their upkeep.  Deep down I knew it is these moments, this validation that keeps us going back to the mirror, hoping what is reflected back at us will be appreciated by others.

The approving, accurate confirmation of our hope-to-be identities is why many of us women submit to the pressures and keep up these routines, no matter how ridiculous or destructive they can sometimes be.  Because in the end we do what makes us feel good, what makes us feel whole and true and appreciated.  And in our culture this feel-good sensation is largely a result of praise based on the appearance of things.

-Elena Katsulis, Gallery Intern

Photo from performance with Nikki Zaleski at Dispatch Gallery

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