How To Look Like A Reddit Troll’s Worst Nightmare

Don’t even bother to tell me how I shouldn’t decorate my own body. I don’t listen to that kind of noise.

Words and aesthetics are the substance of my consciousness, the means by which I form, interpret, and express my thoughts and beliefs. Arrangements of letters and sounds, a vast and ever-evolving assortment of visual cues: these are the primary tools I use to derive my understanding of the world and communicate with others.

Language and looks — or, more broadly and accurately, stuff-that’s-meant-to-be-looked-at, i.e. visual art — that shit ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at! But often I feel that my arsenal is awfully puny.

I shouldn’t—given the effort many people who enjoy a surfeit of societal power devote to policing the exchange of ideas and expression of beauty—but I’m fucking human, and a wordy human at that! My own strengths can be turned against me by opponents who would prefer I remain silent and small. Dehumanizing, denigrating words have a way of sticking in my brain and affecting my thoughts and behaviors, even when I know they’re wrong, malicious, and should ideally roll right off of my metaphorical back.

I’ve developed defense mechanisms to protect myself from narrow-minded cruelty, of course. Most often I flat-out ignore it. If it doesn’t exist to me, it can’t affect me, you see? I float on a serene pink puffy cloud above the yammering of more-privileged people who would criticize me for innocuous shit that doesn’t affect them at all. It’s a peaceful way to live!

So when my friend Nina Szarka added me to a closed Facebook group called 35 Days of DON’T early this year, my initial reaction was a big inward eye-roll.

My own strengths can be turned against me by opponents who would prefer I remain silent and small.

Nina is a poet. She’s one of those excruciatingly earnest people who will rip open her chest to show you her own beating, bleeding heart in real time. Nina is exceedingly lovely in intention, in appearance, and in verse (goddamn!), but “GIRL,” I thought upon laying eyes on her newly birthed group’s About page, “what the literal fuck?” ’Cause, you see, this wasn’t just one of the ubiquitous secret internet groups women form to survive daily misogyny and dearth of on-the-ground emotional support, this was a group created with a mission in mind.

In that instant, I thought the mission was stupid. “Um, you’re going to fight the patriarchy with selfies that are…the opposite of what some randos on Reddit said women should never do? That were listicled and publicized to deliver some outrage-clicks to THOUGHT CATALOG? Gurl wut.”

Lolol. Fucking rich coming from me, right?? A nice little cocktail of internalized misogyny and snobbery — it’s an acquired taste. But! Being some level of hypocrite just like everybody else on the planet (hopefully less than some), I stayed in the group anyway. I love Nina! I love a number of individual women who signed on to participate. I’d stay on and see what they created, I thought, and toss off a selfie of my own at some point because I take “don’t” selfies all the time anyway, right? But I refused to look at the compiled list of DON’Ts. I would NOT let those words cross my eyes and imprint themselves on my brain. Not again. Not anymore. Not in my headspace, NUH UH.

Prior to my introduction to the 35 Days of DON’T list, I hadn’t thought about the underwear I wore from age 16 to…24? in a long, long time. Underwear that wasn’t my personal preference based on comfort, but when a boy I adored in high school commented repeatedly on the “ugliness” of visible pantylines….I adapted! I was self-conscious about my breasts for years after overhearing a conversation between some teen dudes I didn’t even like on the subject of ideal nipple size and shape.

I don’t think I’ve worn a hairstyle with a center part since I heard some kid shout “BUTT HAIR!!!” at a shining-tressed, flawlessly styled center-parted girl across my middle school gym. Shit, I’ve never since seen the colors purple and green paired without hearing the male voice of a fellow third-grader sneer, “Ewww, those are BARNEY colors,” a deadly insult at the time because we were like, eight, and Barney was for kindergarten BABIES. Words stick with me, man, especially really stupid nasty ones! I wasn’t gonna take any chances on picking up new Reddit-sourced turns of phrase, particularly in the era of Herr Pussy-Grabbing SCROTUS.

I DID look at the photos that immediately started rolling in, however, and my attitude toward the whole endeavor took a dramatic, skirt-swishing turn to the positive. Every time I looked at my Facebook feed I saw, amongst the plethora of “THE WORLD IS BURNING!!” headlines, a handful of femme faces and bodies positioned in joyful defiance. Their fuck-you smirks, their extended middle fingers—the photos felt like my own not-so-little, semi-secret army of fellow non-compliants. They made me smile, each and every one, and each picture gave me a little infusion of strength to stand up, to do my work, to look at the news, to write my shit-head local representative when I felt too anxious to call, to hop into that Facebook comment thread and tell my friend’s racist relative to shut the fuck up.

It quickly became apparent that the women contributing to the project weren’t talking to the “men of Reddit” who had authored the original list, as such. Their styling decisions, their poses, their smiles and scowls were aimed not at invisible anonymous critics but at memories of people who have personally, all throughout their own lives, told them DON’T. Their photos weren’t merely a futile attempt at “fuck you” only good for delighting bullies seeking reaction, but rather a sustained, group-powered resistance to a culture that continually disparages feminine people and a president who seeks to impose a restrictive definition of femininity upon his employees and society at large.

Their photos weren’t merely a ‘fuck you,’ but a group-powered resistance to a culture that continually disparages feminine people.

Crucially, the group heavily prioritized intersectionality and inclusion. Though the majority of members appear to be white and cis, the group’s page featured beautiful glitter-lipped black and brown faces, gorgeously lined eyes with epicanthic folds. Photos of fat and extremely thin women populated the group’s page, and frank discussions about eating disorder management and recovery took place in the comments. When a non-binary person who only sometimes identifies as femme asked the group if their participation was allowed, an immediate deluge of assurance flooded the feed. If you’re somewhat or sometimes femme and suffer the experience of patriarchal criticism during the course of or even *because* of your very existence, you are welcome among us, was the consensus.

It grew — rapidly! — into a veritable fraternity of femme affirmation, a dependable source of support and strength.

Though I steadfastly refused to look at the compiled list of DON’Ts, I ended up seeing most of them cross my feed individually. I preferred it that way. Isolated, they didn’t seem to hold the same oppressive weight as the full numbered list, and quite frankly, most of them turned out to be hilariously out-of-touch.

“DON’T look like a Kardashian,” read one of the commandments. ….so, don’t wear heavy contour, is that what that’s supposed to mean? Or waist trainers and butt padding? Don’t look really rich?? Or perhaps the OP intended an, um, extremely succinct criticism of white women profitably appropriating elements of black style with that line? (Doubtful.)

“DON’T do duckface.” Is this 2009, motherfucker? You haven’t even gotten around to hating on that index-finger-on-the-upper-lip pose the Instagram teens favor these days?

Many of the DON’Ts were the same stereotypical stuff we’ve all been lectured about forever and ever: don’t wear too much makeup (but still wear *some* so you look acceptable), don’t alter your body in ways that are pleasing to you with plastic surgery or tattoos . . . in fact, somehow just have a perfect body without resorting to any obvious effort to achieve said shape, but also make sure you’re not so thin that your ribs show.

“DON’T overaccessorize,” read one of my favorites, presumably written by some keyboard cowboy who fancies himself the second coming of Coco Chanel.

“DON’T vajazzle,” was my very, very favorite. Clearly authored by a time traveler from 2004, the vajazzle DON’T inspired a truly glorious photo response that really made me wonder *why* I’ve always dismissed the idea of decorating my genitals with gemstones out of hand.

Contributions to 35 Days of DON’T ranged from hastily snapped car selfies to truly sublime works of art. One artist currently publishing under the pseudonym “Mons Hubris” created a set of self-portraits and brief accompanying essays that drops my jaw whenever I even think about it. Her layered iconography is astounding; it was like witnessing the Beyoncé Grammy performance equivalent of selfie sets. Another artist, MaudLyn Claire, made paintings based on some of the group’s photos, rendering portraits in vivid watercolors that lent the miens portrayed a brilliant ethereality, like rainbows so bright it hurts a bit to look at them. The entire collection of work will be displayed in a gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on International Women’s Day, with funds raised from sales and donations going to the IWW General Defense Committee.

The vajazzle DON’T inspired a truly glorious photo response that really made me wonder *why* I’ve always dismissed the idea of decorating my genitals with gemstones out of hand.

When I finally got around to taking my own photos for the project, I decided— in keeping with my overall philosophy of DON’T avoidance — not to focus on any particular item from the list, but rather to gussy myself up just exactly as I damn well please. I’m pretty sure my look ended up checking several items on the list, though I don’t think any of the original DON’Ters were creative enough to include, “DON’T wear the big-headed dolls you’ve developed a freakish adult obsession with as hair ornaments.”

Though the official project period ended on February 13, I hope to continue generating the spirit of feminine FUCK YOU that it bestowed on me throughout the past month and a half. After a largely depressed, makeup-free period following the election of the most misogynist executive leader I’ve experienced in my lifetime, 35 Days of DON’T has inspired me not only to paint my face and put a wig on my head, but to stand up and take my resistance further than the surface of my own body, to push outside the confines of my internet bubble.

Thanks, Nina, for your exquisite vulnerability and indomitable ability to give a fuck. As for my contribution? What do I have to say not necessarily to some Reddit randos, but to an entire world that would assign me a role as a decorative object and then strictly dictate the terms of my presentation?

DON’T even bother to tell me how I shouldn’t decorate my own body. I don’t listen to that kind of noise.

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