At the end of the summer, I had a four-week gap between the end of my internship and the beginning of school. Having more free time on my hands than I’m used to, I made a goal to read as many books as possible. I typically lean toward fiction, but I’ve been trying to broaden my literary horizons — poetry, nonfiction and biographies began to find their places on my ever-growing bookshelf.
I decided to pick up a biography on Coco Chanel. As someone who’s mildly interested in fashion, I knew very little about the designer. There’s a lot to know. One passage that stuck with me — besides the fact that Chanel was an elitist who toed the line of being an anti-Semite — was one that described Christian Dior’s view of pre-war France. When asked about the growing vibrancy of fashion in Paris, Dior said, “Fearing the inevitable cataclysm, we were determined to go down in a burst of splendor.” And that they did.
Fashion — womenswear in particular — transitioned from mere clothing to expressing a tactfully cultivated style; clothes grew tighter, accentuating previously hidden curves, bringing an allure of femininity that was too often suppressed to the foreground. This personified the newfound rules of an unrestrained France before the fall. Pieces in men’s fashion began finding their counterparts in womenswear. In a pre-catastrophic France, rather than perpetuate a more muted, monotonous style, which would have matched the political mood at the time, designers and consumers alike began to gravitate toward extravagant pieces. There was a massive disconnect between what was expected and what was done. Like the French fashion scene, I tend to deal with problems on the horizon via unconventional means.
Personally, I tend to spiral. As awful as it is when one thing goes awry, be it an assignment or a failed personal project, it seems as if everything begins to snowball. I know it’s unlikely that all aspects of my life will come together all at once. I know I should work toward maintaining balance as opposed to chasing highs and trying to ward off inevitable lows. But I nosedive into self-inflicted distress anyway.
For example, during my senior year of high school, before college acceptances, I was beyond the realm of stress. I didn’t know if I should take the SAT again, where I would go to university, where the money to fund said university would come from and — most importantly, of course — what I would wear to the ever-important prom. As a response to these increasingly stressful concerns, I thought of actions I might take. A tattoo? My mother would certainly not support a stress-induced but very original floral tattoo, so that was out of the picture. A piercing? Not my first choice because I harbor the irrational fear that I am severely prone to infection. A haircut? Perfect.
Despite the fact that I had made it a personal point to grow out my hair for a full two years before that, cutting my hair seemed like a perfect idea. I pulled myself out of bed at the reasonable hour of midnight and told my grandmother that I wanted to cut it all off. She asked me if I was sure. I’m always sure, I responded. Chop chop. Two years of intent down the drain, two years worth of inches gone in an instant.
To say I regretted my decision would be an understatement. But thinking back on that decision forces me to wonder: What is it about ensured distress that pushes me to do something I know I shouldn’t? I haven’t cut my hair since starting at Yale, but I’ve noticed that this tendency has manifested in other ways. Rather than go to the gym and sweat out the stress, I pick up an extra cup of frozen yogurt at Franklin College. Instead of simply starting my problem set, I’ll scroll through Twitter for anywhere between a minute and an hour (it’s almost always an hour.) What is it about self-destructive behavior that is so irresistible? I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the unattainably high expectations that we place on ourselves as Yalies. Driven people often have a habit of holding themselves to a standard to which they would never hold anyone else. Why is it the case that we offer sympathy and understanding to a friend who receives a few marks off an exam, but we don’t offer that same sympathy or understanding to ourselves? What is it that changes when a friend is going through a hardship, inspiring compassion in us, a compassion we don’t provide to ourselves?
This year, I’m trying to be more conscientious of my actions. I’m going to do what I would advise my best friend to do in a similar situation. I’m going to try to view myself the way I view others. I’m going to try and view myself with empathy. Instead of avoiding “cataclysm” by doing something different — whether that be, in the case of Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, creating novel fashion trends, or, in my case, cutting my hair right before senior prom — I’ll face it head on. We grow by facing adversity. This year, I’m going to grow.
Leila Jackson is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.