Long before catfish got verb’ed, I discovered the power of lying on the Internet. Of course, being 15 with a sketchy (and screechy) dial-up modem meant I wasn’t very good at it but seeing as that’s never stopped me from doing anything I forged right ahead with my deception. What was I lying about? My looks. Of course. Little did I know then that virgin high school girls were a hot commodity on the Internet back in its wild west days so I might have actually done myself a favor when Sandman55* asked me to describe myself and “leave nothing out” and I panicked. In all my time spent on ICQ and in primitive chat rooms – remember when we used to send each other elaborate ASCII roses or birthday cakes?? – no one had ever asked me what I looked like. My immediate response was to tell him what I wished I looked like: “I’m 5’8″, long black hair, green eyes and freckles.” (Basically I wanted to be Aerith from Final Fantasy, in case anyone isn’t sold my utter geekiness yet.)
Alone in my basement room, I shivered with anticipation as I waited for his sure-to-be-glowing response. Instead I got, “What’s ur bra size?” Ah, my first netsex request! Don’t worry, I turned him down.
But imagine my surprise a year ago when I looked in the mirror and realized I’d become my own dream girl. At least in the effect that I had long, shiny, thick black hair, green eyes and freckles. (At 5’7″ I’d missed the height requirement by an inch.) Only problem was that none of it was real.
I’m about to make what is possibly my most embarrassing confession on here yet. I don’t know why but admitting this next part is more humiliating to me than ‘fessing up on here to being sexually assaulted, having a dead daughter whom I routinely invoke in casual conversation or my eating disorders of all stripes. Here goes: I was about as fake as a girl can get without surgery or needles.
It started with a mistake. In a hurry to use up my HSA money by the end-of-year deadline I’d hurriedly tried to order a year’s supply of contact lenses. Probably because I’d waited to the last minute, they were all out of my usual kind. So I just clicked the next box assuming I could return them and exchange them for my real lenses when they got back in stock. They were green contact lenses. When I got them of course I had to try them on! They turned my eyes the most horrible shade of Zombie puce you could imagine. Plus, every time I blinked, they would slide quickly over my pupil and temporarily blind me. I sent them back that same day. But it had sparked a thought.
Why not change my eye color? I hated mine anyhow. See, I was born with giant olive-black eyes that used to cause strangers to remark on their beauty with some frequency. And for reasons that I still can’t explain they’ve got much lighter as I’ve grown older. Much, much lighter. My eyes have changed so much that when I got my driver’s license renewed and I checked the “brown” box for eyes, the woman actually corrected me. “Check the hazel box, honey.” But they’re not hazel. They’re kind of a light muddy brown now with flecks of gold and green in them – which makes them sound prettier than they actually are.
So I exchanged the green contacts for “enhancements” or contacts that are lightly tinted (blue actually) to make your natural color more vivid. It worked! All of a sudden I had beautiful emerald green eyes. Again, people were stopping me to tell me what gorgeous eyes I had. And every time they did it made me squirm. First, because the contacts had a tendency to wander when my eyes were dry, leaving an eerie bluish crescent on the white of my eye and I never knew when that was happening until I saw the look on the other person’s face. And second, because I felt like a big faker.
But that wasn’t the end of my fakery. You may recall that after Jelly Bean was born, my hair fell out in clumps (as is sadly normal after having a baby) but it just never grew back in. I also blame the Mirena IUD as hair loss is a known side effect. But whatever the cause, it kept thinning until my hairdresser pointed it out to me and I started crying, right there in the chair. If losing your hair is embarrassing for a man it’s eleventy times worse for a woman! And, just like my eyes, I used to have gorgeous thick, curly, dark hair. It cascaded to my waist in such glory that my sister christened it “Mother Eve hair”. And now it was fine, limp, thin and straight. (Did you know pregnancy can change your actual hair texture? Yep. Mine flipped back and forth between curly and straight, unfortunately ending on straight-ish with Jelly Bean.)
So I got hair extensions. They, like the contacts, worked amazingly well. At first I just had the clip-in kind hawked by Jessica Simpson. My close friends noticed when I wore them but no one else did, as they blended so perfectly with my hair. But clip-ins are a pain in the neck (literally) as the little claws dig into your scalp and you can’t wear them when you’re working out or swimming or sleeping. You also have to be careful with the way you style your hair so the clips don’t show. (Pony tails are the worst – want proof? Check out Brittney.) Plus the little clips have an evil streak and will pop open at the most random moments causing you to drop a whole hunk of hair into your water glass at dinner.
Then I was watching a show about the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders one night and watched as one girl got extensions sewn onto her head. I’m not sure if this makes me racist or just really naive but up until that point I never realized white girls could get weaves too! Getting one became my new mission. Unfortunately getting those kind of extensions can cost anywhere from $400-$3000 and I don’t have that kind of cash. I ended up buying the tape-in kind off the internet for $50 and put them in myself. Viola! I could now do everything in them that I could with my real hair! They were beyond perfect! Maybe too perfect? I remember the day after I put them in showing up at the gym and my trainer Steve exclaiming, “Look at you Barbie!!” and playfully flipping my hair. Then he added, “They look good but 2 inches longer and you’ll be in stripper territory. Just so you know.” Considering he’d once been a celebrity trainer in LA I figured he knew his strippers from his Barbies.
At that moment I realized how much our hair says about us in our society. Not only does cut, color and length send a message but now we also share how much and how nice of hair we can afford. Once I got them in, I realized how many of my female friends and acquaintances wore them too, not to mention their omnipresence on celebs. (Side note: Since having extensions I’ve become really adept at spotting them on other people! Want to play? Generally the hair is fake if it’s thicker at the bottom than at the top – that’s just not how natural hair grows – and if their hair never lays flat against their head, even in a tight ponytail.)
It was a weird step up the social ladder. Which was fitting because I was in a weird place in my life. I was suddenly doing a lot of pictures for Shape and I wasn’t used to my body and looks being my moneymaker (aieee, remember when my butt was the featured pic on the Shape homepage for a week?) – as a writer I usually get to coast on personality alone. And as silly as I’m sure this sounds to you now, I think the pressure kind of got to me. I so obviously wasn’t a fitness model but I still wanted to fit in. I didn’t want people reading my stories to see me and be like “one of these things is not like the other…”! (Although I blew that one out of the water when I did the Vikings cheerleader piece and I literally looked like the sound person who accidentally wandered onstage during a Victoria’s Secret show.)
Fake hair. Fake eyes. I didn’t do surgery or injectables or even fake nails but I own two pairs of Spanx and a wide variety of push-up bras. High heels, flattering clothing, and makeup finished my chameleon-esque transformation. And while everything looked fab on film as long as I stood perfectly still, the cracks were beginning to show. Which brings me back to that fateful day in front of the mirror when I realized I’d become a caricature of myself. Back in my super awkward high school days, a male friend had chided me after hearing about my online persona switch, saying, “Everyone lies on the Internet. Except you and that’s what’s so special about you! You’re genuine. Don’t lose that.”
Had I lost that? I made it a point to never lie if someone asked me about my hair or eyes which made for tricky conversation sometimes – if they just complemented me, I only said thank you. But if they went farther and asked how I styled my hair or what products I used or whatever, I’d just tell them I had extensions. But while I told myself I’d just done these things to get back what I’d lost in the cute department, I had to admit that it was not making me feel better about myself. If anything, it was doing the opposite. I was constantly self conscious about what else needed to be “fixed.” My breaking point came when Jelly Bean discovered the fun of “playing hair” and wanted to brush my hair all the time – and I’d have to stop her little hands 2/3 of the way up my hair. (You canNOT comb extensions from base to tip or you risk ripping them out, especially as they grow out with your hair.) “Oh you has your fake hairs mommy?” she said sweetly. “I won’t hurt them!” OY.
Yep, that’s fake hair.
When I took out the extensions, I discovered that because I’d worn them basically non-stop for over a year that they had started pulling out what little natural hair I had left at the roots, a condition called tension alopecia. (Also known as the reason Jennifer Aniston got her infamous bob haircut a few years ago. Although she seems to have returned to her extensions.) So not only was I fake but I was making my underlying issues worse! It took a lot of tears but I put the extensions in a box and saw my hairstylist who trimmed my hair in the most flattering way possible. (And she introduced me to Nioxin, a fab non-prescription hair regrowth shampoo that has done wonders for helping my hair grow back!)
It took another two months for me to ditch the contacts. That turned out to be a non event. I quietly returned to my normal lenses and not a single person said a word. I’m 99% sure no one even noticed, not even my husband. Apparently I’m the only one who spends a lot of time staring critically into my own eyes.
So now I’m just me again. (Except for the push-up bras. I’ve had five kids – you could argue at this point they’re just necessary scaffolding.)
And this is my real hair! (And eye color although you can’t really tell in this pic) Not so bad, after all.
I think one reason why this is so hard for me to talk about (and it truly is, you have no idea how long I’ve been sitting on this post) because admitting the levels we go to to make ourselves beautiful means admitting how very much we care about what people think about us. We’re supposed to be empowered and feminist and not care about all that frippery and yet, in the end, I just wanted to be a pretty princess like everyone else. I’d become so caught up in the delusion of perfection that I’d hot glued someone else’s hair to my head.
Whether it’s make-up or spray tans or hair dye, I think most of us do some sartorial sleight-of-hand and I’m not saying I’m going to stop shaving my pit hair or anything. Honestly I’m still not sure where to draw the line between enhancement and artifice. It’s been six months (ish) since I took out my extensions and while I still have my clip-ins, I save those for really fancy occasions or elaborate updos. (Seriously so much easier to braid the hair and then attach it to your hair rather than do a real crown braid!) But now I use them more as an accessory, like jewelry. And now that my real hair is growing back I find I use them less and less. It’s only been a couple of months since I jettisoned the contacts.
While I miss my luxurious hair and show-stopping eyes, now when I get a compliment I feel like at least they’re complimenting me. And every once in a while I catch a glimpse of myself and think I’m beautiful, unqualified with an asterisk about my hair or eyes or anything else. And now Jelly Bean can comb my hair to her heart’s content.
I’m actually afraid to ask you guys what you think! I have this vision of a thousand pairs of internet eyes blinking at me and saying “Why would I want to be anyone but myself?” But I have to know – has anyone else ever had a similar experience with trying to be someone you’re not? How do you draw the line between simply enhancing your natural beauty and faking it? Any of you indulge in some cosmetic chicanery?** Anyone else ever lied on the Internet about how they look??
*Eh that wasn’t his real handle. I honestly don’t remember it now but it seems like every boy on the Internet in those days either invoked Metallica or Insane Clown Posse. You pick.
** I’m NOT saying that extensions/botox/implants/whatever are bad. If you like them and they make you feel better then I’m all for them! They just didn’t work that way for me.