My grandmother was the kind of woman you would have painted. Delicate, refined, and always perfectly styled, she was just a distant stare and a small lapdog away from being in an 18th-century royal portrait. And few things make more of a lasting impression on a young girl than watching a woman like that put on a dab of Chanel No 5 and saunter out to do her daily errands. There was this idea instilled in me from a very young age that, yes, some women are just perfect.
Living in a big city can only reinforce this, of course. I live in Paris, as it happens, but it could be anywhere. I’ve seen it elsewhere. Not only do we have the universal force of advertisements and entertainment showing us exactly what beautiful looks like and how to attain it — with the right amount of time and money, of course — but we get to cross hundreds of women a day who simply embody it. In a cafe, waiting for the metro, even picking out the ripest avocado at the grocery store, there is always someone who looks just so much better than you. You can spend your entire morning putting together the most flattering outfit, styling your hair into painful submission, and applying that rare kind of invisible makeup that you only achieve maybe once a year — and still run into a woman in a simple trench coat and heels that makes you feel as though someone smeared you with a generous handful of dirt. It’s the kind of encounter that leaves you hating what you put on that morning, longing to run into the first boutique and overspend your way into a better outfit to go to lunch to.
The pressures of dressing, of presenting oneself, in the kind of metropolis where street-fashion photographers scurry around like pretentious mice, is often the stuff of nightmares. Even a simple walk to the corner store must be done with the utmost attention to aesthetic. You never know who you could run into — and even the judgmental glare of passerby is enough to dissuade that comfortable-but-resigned combination of yoga pants and a loose sweatshirt. It’s this kind of subtle nervousness, of knowing you are always being watched and there will inevitably be something better to look at, that can drive even the most confident woman into an acceptable kind of insanity. Perception becomes distorted, and after a while we simply get used to the idea of paying far too much attention to how we look.
I remember my grandmother saying — only once or twice, in what she undoubtedly considered her weaker moments — that she felt this immense pressure, as well. Her process of preparing for the day lasted from the delicate creams she used the night before, to the tiny compact she would carry without exception for the errant touch-up. To be caught with a bare face, with hair ravaged by humidity, with a tear in her skirt — it was showing the world that she was not just imperfect, but that she didn’t care. She didn’t put effort into herself the way she should; she didn’t think she deserved it. This sentiment, of course, is ridiculous. She was incredibly smart, with a biting wit and a sense of elegance that extended far beyond her string of pearls. She could have valued anything in herself, she didn’t need to spend an hour in the mirror analyzing crow’s feet. I suppose that too much time around beautiful women, in competitive cities, under the harsh glare of others in chic restaurants had left her thinking the inside didn’t count if the outside didn’t match.
And there are moments when I catch myself doing the exact same thing, feeling acutely uncomfortable in the metro if I know my shoes are scuffed or my coat is pilling on one sleeve. I know the slight exasperation when a woman walks in whose feet seem not to touch the ground, so light and nimble are her steps. I know the amount of money I’ve spent on impulse buys in overpriced stores because they were conveniently placed and my sweater wasn’t sitting right. I can consider this objectively, acknowledge its absurdity, and still not control it. Perhaps cities intend to place this pressure on us, to remind us of our place in things. There will always be something more chic, more beautiful, inherently better.
Whether it is my grandmother spending an hour in the mirror before a run to the corner store or me aching to buy a cardigan on the spot because, well, that one will be the perfect one — it’s all the same thing. It’s the idea that a city, one famous for being beautiful and filled with living embodiments of aesthetic perfection, is something to be lived up to. We are all in constant competition — for jobs, for dates, for the approving regard of strangers — it’s something to be accepted and adjusted to. But perhaps, once in a while, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking an A-line dress and corset is appropriate for picking up a gift from the florist. Only in movies do people move through their entire life with such inhuman perfection — and let’s be honest, if you actually have a full day of errands to do, there’s only so high a heel you can possibly wear. At the end of the day, we only have as much pressure as we put on each other. Perhaps we just need a day off — a day to wear jeans and tennis shoes, eating a big, greasy burger with wonderful impunity. A girl can dream, right?