Throughout my adolescence, my mother never refrained from telling my my brain wasn’t developed until I turned 25. Then I turned 25 and she stopped telling me that. I am a few months away from 26, not even a year into my fully developed frontal cortex, and I now realize that 20-somethings are basically infants without parents. No one picks me up when I’m crying. Rarely does anyone coo when I look cute. The 20s are filled with perils and problems we must navigate alone.
And a woman in her 20, well, she roils in paradox — just trying to figure out who she is and what to be and where to go to be it. Do we cleanse or not cleanse or only cleanse sometimes? Do we do Bikram or CrossFit or road races? Do we do tinder or do we bet on chance?
Do we have girl swag?
My friend and I were having dinner the other night to celebrate the end of a grueling weekend of parent-teacher conferences. We enjoyed fat, overpriced glasses of wines and we felt exultant when our fatter, overpriced pastas arrived. Between bites, my coworker told me her friend was pursuing a college teammate of mine. I perked up in my seat because I always loved a game of “Who do you know?” She couldn’t remember the girl’s name, but knew she would recognize it. I thought of the all my potentially single teammates living in Boston.
I sat across the table, deeply focused, and tried out a name.
“No,” she shook her head, “he said that she had girl swag.”
Instinctively I blurted out a name and leaned forward — crouching above my pasta —waiting.
It was right.
“What the fuck is girl swag?!” I wailed, throwing my hands up for extra drama. I was aware that I had profaned the restaurant. I am sure the woman sitting near us was making a face. This wasn’t the time, I thought, to give a crap about appropriate dinner niceties. Girl swag was both terribly vague and terribly precise! I didn’t care if I upset everyone in the neighborhood!
My friend mentioned another girl who exemplified girl swag.
“Oh, come on! SHE has girl swag?” I wailed again, detesting this other girl with girl swag.
“She does, she totally does,” my friend confirmed. My friend was way more mature than I, despite being younger. She was a kinder and more reasonable human. She always had a good head on her shoulders.
Then, in a low voice, thick with deviance and envy and desire, she said, “I want girl swag.” She crouched low over her scallop risotto. We were monsters.
I have been stuck thinking about it since: this impossible paradox of perfection and attraction; of just the right blend of masculinity and femininity; of an androgyny typecast by J. Crew Jenna and Cara Delevigne; of Budweiser and a lowball of Maker’s Mark; of hiking Grand Teton and not showering for days but looking awesome; of the Dos Equis man’s “one who got away;” of simply being who you are.
I listened to a podcast about Christina of Sweden and thought of girl swag. She was a 17th Century queen who the midwives mistook for a boy (dim lighting?), and her father raised her like a prince. She was petite and fair and could string a bow like a bad ass. She was not a great queen and she didn’t want to be one. When she was crowned at 23, she had already laid the groundwork to abdicate the throne. She didn’t want to marry her cousin, so she didn’t. She converted to Catholicism and the Lutheran Swedes bade her farewell.
She wore pants!
She was the quintessential tomboy.
She had 17th century Swedish girl swag.
I investigated girl swag some more. I asked my friend, Pete, for his definition: “Shotgunning beer in throwback high top kicks. Also….ponytails.”
He then quickly added, “Knowledge of old school hip-hop jams and ability to groove to some nutritious jams. What is it to you? How did you guess correctly?”
I told him I thought a girl with girl swag is the epitome of cool, she’s super athletic and fit, never wears makeup because she is beautiful and doesn’t need it ever; she’s the life of the party, very funny, an ultra-winner at life, and probably wears a lot of cool flannel shirts.
“Yeah. Exactly. That’s what I was thinking.”
A female contributor wrote that a girl with girl swag had a (to quote her quoting Kanye West) “because my life is dope and I do dope shit” air about her.
To another woman, girl swag meant: “One is a whole number. I know, I know, my ethnic feminist mother repeated this into my brain, and it’s pretty dorky. But I do think it’s essential to the way you carry yourself — that a girl defines herself and depends on no man to define either her happiness or her sense of self.”
My friend asked her guy friend to clarify his original meaning of girl swag to define my teammate.
“My dream girl is dripping with girl swag,” he wrote. “She can eat burgers and drink beers with the boys one minute and can enjoy wine and cheese with the gals the next.
“She’s the girl who can crush the dance floor by herself to her favorite song, knows about the bands and brands that no one’s heard of yet, and wears all the right stuff. You can tell from a distance that her friends look up to her and she doesn’t really give a shit what you or your guy friends think.
“I think girl swag also includes intelligence and intellectual curiosity. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, correct you when you’re wrong, and holds you accountable for your words and actions. She does all of this without being better than anyone.”
There is a fine balance to girl swag, though. She bends the right rules just enough. It’s a science. It’s an art. If it’s too obvious or if it seems too forced, it is the opposite of cool. If she only has guy friends, she’s shit out of swag and luck.
“Some girls think it’s cool to just have guy friends. It’s not. Girls need girl friends,” Pete said.
I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. How do you find or get or aspire to being a girl with girl swag? Can you? Is it all based upon how you were raised in your formative years?
Unearthing the mystery of the Roanoke settlement might be easier.
Girl swag appears to be a generational conundrum of just the 20s. At Starbucks, I bumped into a colleague and asked him what he thought it was. He, a white man in his 50s, said, “That.” He pointed to my purse. He didn’t get it.
Colleen, my 30-something best friend and colleague and mentor and quasi-sister etc., answered, “Clothes? Gear?” And then after more prodding said, “I guess 30 year-olds don’t think about it or it doesn’t matter. By that time, most people are married with kids. You’re just lucky to get a shower in.”
I asked her husband what he thought of girl swag and he had no clue what I was talking about.
Later, Colleen had an epiphany. “It’s Mary,” she texted, “Something about Mary. She has Miami girl swag. Add flannel shirts, a folk festival or two, and an outdoor activity, and it’s New England girl swag.”
It is something. Besides being elusive, girl swag is also regional.
What a disastrous, muddy thing this venture was turning out to be. Girl swag was Herculean and mythic and impossible and maddening. Even being yourself, or just the idea of trying to be yourself, in the end is not an inviolate endeavor. If you are the right you, and you happen to like wearing flannel shirts and sneakers and a scrubby ponytail, you actually slip right into another category, for better or for worse.
What if flannel and sneakers and Budweisers and cheeseburgers aren’t you? According to my research, your demographic is not a part of girl swag, ipso facto, no one will find you attractive. Buy a dog, or better yet, a cat, and learn to cook meals for one forever!
Or, don’t give a fuck at all and do what you want. Don’t be the queen if you don’t want to be the queen.
One day you might wear a ponytail because you were late to work and you were out of coffee, so you might feel a little deranged without your usual caffeine. And you might have the best comeback you have ever had in your life on that day, or the worst one, and you might kick ass on a business proposal, or it might kick yours. But you will laugh at yourself, and someone on the other side of the conference table or coffee shop or bar will hear you and think, “She’s got some serious girl swag.”