I have been going to school in Switzerland for the past year and a half and nothing has challenged me more than my host-mother’s boyfriend Werner. Between his frequent trips to the bathroom, he takes it upon himself to interrogate me on a selection of random and inaccessible European facts, the equivalent of me quizzing him about Coco Rosie or the names of David Sedaris’ sisters. Whenever he’s feeling particularly touchy he’ll attack my political views, nationality, gender and my after my offended silence ask: “Doesn’t that university provide you with professors who teach you to think?”
I am never fast enough to respond with comebacks about the Milankovitch cycles or spew out the timeline of Scottish history. I have resigned to placations like “Oh really,” “how interesting,” or the passive “hmmmm.” At first, I was afraid that his suggesting tone was right: what if I didn’t know anything? I used to live in fear of people misinterpreting me because of the way I act and look. I love literature and art but I don’t resign myself to the solemn dress of the modern intellectual or the condescending tone of a superiority complex. I have an annoying laugh, dye my hair blonde and wear black lingerie, no matter the occasion. I can’t spell. I listen to Dolly Parton.
I used to think it was important to dress the alternative-intellectual part, confining myself to earth tones and jeans, because if I did anything else, it would look like I was trying to attain some superficial ideal of beauty; I was sticking it to the man one itchy sweater at a time. But then I watched Pedro Almodovar’s Volver and was transfixed by the colors, the patterns and the women in them. They moved with an understanding of their bodies. Their sexiness was for no one but themselves.
I bought my first pair of wedges. I started investing in floral patterns and the color red. I started listening to what I found attractive and not what the conventional counter-culture told me to be. I didn’t stop reading, writing or spending days in libraries. In fact, I did more. I became a feminist. I began to care less about who I was supposed to be and more about what made me feel good.
But there are always the Werners, the people who refuse to see past your surface, and chart you into haves and have nots, cans and cannots. Rather than attempting to beat Werner at his own game—which, without fail, makes me want to start hurling my host mother’s porcelain in his direction—I chose to live shamelessly and respect him while doing it. Recently, celebrated the completion of a brutal week of exams by painting my nails a “come hither” red. Werner saw me and scoffed, “So you’re into beauty,” he said in more of a sneer than an observation. I looked him in the eye and said: “Yes. Yes I am.”
I believe in the power of trusting oneself.