My Signature Look Is My Own Armour Against the World

Yahoo Beauty
Woman with upper arm tattoo, bright red lipstick, and badass bangs
A look can be a protective barrier against the world. (Photo: Dey Street Books)

In the new book Hi, Anxiety, beloved food writer, editor, and commentator Kat Kinsman expands on the high profile pieces she wrote for CNN about depression, and its wicked cousin, anxiety. In an essay exclusive to Yahoo Beauty, the author explores how hair, makeup, and signature style — while often seen as frivolous — can serve as an empowering source of confidence. We call makeup “war paint” for a reason.

I’m standing right in front of you, hiding. I’ve got a signature look: bun atop my head, Bettie-ish bangs, seriously swoopy eyeliner, bold lip color, and a statement necklace. It’s calculated to stand out — mostly so you don’t see what’s hiding behind it.

I’ve always been odd-looking, with an outsize nose, pale skin, and dark hair that made me look like an entirely different species from the large-haired, aspiring sun goddesses I grew up with in Northern Kentucky. There was no way I could ever fit in — and I didn’t want to — so I didn’t. Aggressively. I found an aesthetic kinship with the Goth and new-wave movements and molded my looks to their contours. It kept me at arm’s length from people who might have judged me, if I hadn’t visually snarled first. A picture of me at age 17 with spiked hair, black lipstick, and a dog collar (at my Catholic school!) is pretty darling in retrospect but felt so defiant in the moment. You think I’m ugly? Tell me something I didn’t already write all over my leather jacket.

Now many years later, my look isn’t chasing or staving off any particular group identity, but it does mask something pretty significant: I’m afraid to get my hair done at a salon. It’s not the loss of length; with hair down to my navel, I could afford to get a foot snipped off and it wouldn’t make a difference. (That happened the last time I got my hair cut professionally — and a fellow patron screamed as if it had been her own. I laughed.)

It’s a few factors: Having to talk to someone on the phone (yes, plenty of salons offer online booking, but never the ones I want) and getting to the appointment on time, for starters. But I’m also terrified of small talk, being deemed insufficiently sparkling for the style I have chosen (“Hmmmmm — no. That’s tres vamp. You’re just sort of … damp. How about a nice safe perm?”), or just somehow socially screwing up. I’ve never been especially at home being pampered, but if I’m being honest with myself, that may be because — contrary to 45 years of L’Oreal ads — deep down I don’t know if I’m worth it, and I’m afraid that someone will be able to tell.

So I wear my hair up in a bun and trim my bangs myself. A few years of working at CNN and occasionally going on air gave me a great crash course in applying makeup as a sort of avatar. Hey world, you might not like me or what I have to say, but my eyeliner and bun are on inarguable point. I made a uniform for myself as well — maybe a holdover from Catholic school, who knows — but with a fit-and-flare Ted Baker dress (I don’t own pants), an aggressive boot or shoe (inevitably John Fluevog), and a statement necklace (usually Tatty Devine), I feel flanked and accompanied out in the world. It’s a formula that works for me, and I cleave to it. Much variation, and I find I hang my head lower, get shy, try to disappear.

My clothes, makeup, and hair are my exoskeleton in public. At home, I slough them off and let it down and slump into comfort (still no pants). Is that ideal? Maybe not, but I don’t know any other way to be. It just suits me.

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