I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
I started reading Seventeen when I was about twelve years old. It was a portal into a future world, one in which I was fashionable and going on dates and old enough to have my driver’s license. It’s no accident that I stopped reading around when I was actually the age of the magazine’s title — by then, I’d caught up with the fantasy timeline, and realized that it wasn’t waiting for me in my senior year of high school after all.
I also like to think I’m aware of the ways that those years of reading Seventeen shaped my life and/or brainwashed me. There’s the hyper-awareness of how to hide the lumpy parts of my body, my surprising deftness with an eyeshadow palette, the belief that a cold rinse will give me shiny hair.
All of those ideas float like a patriachical miasma around me day to day, but recently — as I found myself cleaning up my eyebrows three days before a semi-important work meeting and timing out an exfoliation schedule that would leave my skin refreshed, but not raw — I knew I was once again in the thrall of a two-page Seventeen spread that has haunted me since approximately 1995.
It was a simple guide for how to get ready for a big date. Or, perversely, not even a big date, just any date at all. The tips were reasonable: don’t eat anything garlicky for lunch, put cucumber slices on your puffy eyes — I remember the premise of the date-goer needing to de-puff her eyes because she’d watched a weepy movie the night before, a real blow to those of us who naturally always look like we’ve been punched in the eyes — and don’t curl your hair too many hours in advance. But the real perversion was that this routine spanned a full day.
How debasing, to spend your entire day getting ready to go out with a guy whose date prep consisted of finding a clean shirt, if you’re lucky. How absurd, to think that you don’t have anything better to do. (Almost as vividly as I remember the article itself do I remember the letters to the editor that came in the following month, with all of the objections above.)
And it’s true, the date prep was extreme, exaggerated, and unnecessary. But also … kind of amazing? What an indulgence, to have a full day to spend that way. To have all that time to tick all those boxes, to feel — as if this were ever a possibility — fully prepared, fully your best self.
I believe that if someone’s going to love you, they’ll do so even if your eyes are puffy or your blow-out has started to fall flat. (I also believe that almost no straight man, especially those in Seventeen’s dating demographic, could even identify those differences.) But at the same time, I love the idea that with enough time and the right ministrations, I can make myself lovable or, at least, control my fate.
I’ve barely ever applied this probably fucked-up mindset to dates. But I have, in the past, started meditating for a week leading up to a job interview so I might be a little more centered. I’ve drunk extra water for days leading up to a big event hoping for slightly better skin. And in the lead-up to that semi-important work meeting, I did my eyebrows, exfoliated and moisturized, made sure my cuticles were passable, and pulled my blazer out from the back of my closet two days in advance so it could get some air. The day before, I painted my nails. The day of the meeting, yes, I built my morning schedule around having enough time to get ready but not so much that my make-up would be four hours old instead of two by the time I got to the meeting.
Even though I was heading into a meeting that had nothing to do with my appearance — it wasn’t a date, or an audition — I suppose I believed that all of this primping and prepping would somehow help. I’d be more focused, or look prettier, or sit up straighter, which would … make people like me more? Tilt the world a bit toward my desires? I knew the meeting wouldn’t go badly if my eyebrows were a little wild. But was I hoping to skew the subconscious impressions of the people I’m meeting with, or my own?
Because that’s what I think that insane Seventeen article was about, or what its value was, anyway. (Aside from the very legit reminder to not eat a garlicky meal — the article posited shrimp scampi; the advice was to chew parsley— for lunch the day of a date.) While that article was telling me to spend an entire day making myself more attractive for a boy, what I heard was how to control what I can control when I’m venturing into a world that I absolutely can’t. Putting cold tea bags on my eyes doesn’t change anything about my dark circles, but they’re better than nothing, somehow.