When I was in my early 20s, every time I visited my middle-aged psychiatrist with a new hair color or tattoo—which were all gorgeous, small, done by a famous tattoo artist, and planned ahead—he’d always remark on the change with a tone that suggested the beginning of the end. How had my mood been for the past week? He thought drastic changes in a woman’s appearance were a sign of instability. Eccentricity and impulsivity are not afforded to civilian women when it comes to their appearance—nevermind the fact that boy band members give themselves and each other new tattoos whenever they’re bored in their hotel rooms. Bangs, bleach jobs, getting a bob… these are things that happen after bad breakups, or during nervous breakdowns. The memes are a joke, I know. But nobody has forgotten Britney’s haircut in 2006, still a punchline, still an image she cannot escape, and we all believe it holds a kernel of truth.
As someone with borderline personality disorder, changing how I look every so often is a tool I have at my disposal to better know myself. A key symptom of the disorder is a shaky sense of self, which doesn’t mean I don’t know who I am—I have a strong sense of ethics and principles and I know my personality very well. The thing is, I often view myself as a Sims character, and although it’s a Sims character I know intimately and love ferociously, it’s still a dissociation that can be numbing. Changing up how I look (the palette of my eyeshadow, my hair from Salma Hayek sleek to aspiring Pat Benatar, the decade I derive inspiration from) keeps me in a perpetual honeymoon phase with myself. Every “era” has specific colors, scents, songs, and locations attached to it. In this way, I also use beauty as a scrapbook of my life.
In college, I wore oversize sweaters with cutoff shorts and opaque black tights and combat boots because I loved Angela Chase. In graduate school, I wore barely there mini dresses with huge flannels and combat boots because I loved Courtney Love. My hair was every length, color, and texture allowed to me by chemicals and shears.
I know what it’s like to feel intimacy with your favorite rock and roll icons, which is why, although I’m an author, I like to think of myself more as a performer. I plan my books like albums, my beauty eras punctuated by the time I spend promoting them on social media—you know, the way pop stars do it. My first book, The Undocumented Americans, was widely called a punk memoir. Inspired by Meg White and Kendrick Lamar, the aesthetic was part Nirvana, part pre-gentrification Brooklyn. Knowing that helped me ground myself, and it gave me strength through what was a difficult time in my life: when I was undocumented.
When I started work on my second book, I deleted almost everything on my socials and started new. DREAMGIRL is a young adult novel about an undocumented teenage music writer in New York’s downtown music scene, loosely based on my own teenage years. While my voice is the same, this is a new era—I’m thinking a Virgin Suicides vibe. I made first-crush and first-heartbreak playlists for my readers, and I’m leaning into my babydoll Doc Marten aesthetic from high school. It helps me think of this novel as a book I am writing about teenagers, instead of a book an adult is writing to teach teenagers something. It is insulting to think teens don’t care about aesthetics and how they permeate everything. Have you seen the LED lights on TikTok?
This kind of thinking may seem specific to artists, but you have eras too. You can’t look at pictures from a certain time without remembering other things—the blogs you were reading, your Internet friends that became IRL confidantes, beauty products you loved and smell like pregaming on Friday nights, beauty products you pined for but couldn’t afford, songs you were listening to on the subway to a warehouse party, your first girl crush,, what your bathroom looked like in your first adult apartment.. From those precipitated your aesthetic choices. The perfume you wore when you were dating your first boyfriend or girlfriend. Whether your nails were acrylic or bitten to oblivion. Platform Steve Madden mules. Knee socks. Baby bangs. Platinum blonde hair. An undercut. A septum piercing. Shaving your hair and deciding to go natural. Taking care of your locs. Your eras can be as intentional (or spontaneous) as you want. All of these versions of yourself are worth loving, scrapbooking, keeping, and reinventing over and over.
—Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Photos via the author