What the punk rock world taught me about body positivity
It took me until the second grade to realize that my parents were different. It was when my mother received a series of phone calls from furious parents, shocked by their daughters’ requests to bleach and chop up their hair, like she had let me do. It was a similar reaction to my long, hot pink hair in pre-school.
I got my first pair of combat boots and plaid skinny jeans for Christmas in the fourth grade, when my was hair striped blue and pink. I never thought of this as unusual, or somehow against the norm. l the women I knew dressed like this, and they were all sweet and lovely. My mother was covered in tattoos and fond of wearing head to toe black clothing, and she was also my hero, beauty icon, and attitude inspiration.
Since her early teen years, she and her friends have taken on a lifestyle that they refer to as DIY. It isn’t the kind of DIY with crocheted potholders and handwritten note cards. Their “Do It Yourself” way of living came mostly out of necessity. They spiked their mohawks with Kool Aid because they couldn’t afford anything else. Sometimes there was nowhere to sleep or shower, so black pants and boots became their uniforms, grease their most prominent accessory.
They made their way through the music business from nothing, my mother starting by throwing shows in a basement in Trenton, NJ, then building her own booking company and eventually going on to tour manage the likes of David Byrne and Tiesto. She met my father in San Francisco, immediately connecting with his self-made career as a record producer. He was also covered in tattoos, had John Lennon spectacles, and gnarly dreadlocks that were less of a fashion choice but more of an unfortunate side effect of being transitory in the name of rock’n’roll
I was born in the Bay Area, and was pretty much accustomed to amplifier feedback before my first birthday. We moved to New York City to accommodate my father’s career, and I was able to meet a group of girls my age, who all had punk rock parents. All of our mothers were loud and had raunchy senses of humor. They winged their eyeliner thick and piled on rings. Every year, we were sent to a weeklong summer camp in Brooklyn called Willie Mae’s Rock Camp for Girls, where we formed a band on Monday, wrote a song on Tuesday, rehearsed Wednesday and Thursday, and performed at the Highline Ballroom for a screaming crowd of over 500 people on Friday.
Besides rehearsal, we filled our days making band merch and slashing t-shirts. We decided what “look” we should have, and settled on all red and black with green hair extensions. We wore mesh gloves on our hands and practiced our devil horns. The spirit of Willie Mae Thornton, a rock legend and the original singer of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” guided us through our punk puberty. Our lyrics were about being girls and being strong, with lines like “Unicorns or dragons? DRAGONS! DRAGONS! Barbies or G.I. Joe? G.I. JOE! G.I. JOE!” I remember being ten years old and looking out at a screaming crowd above my microphone, and feeling like I was beautiful. I felt powerful and loved.
What was so special about growing up in this world, I think, is the variety of women that I was able to meet. It didn’t matter if they liked to dress like a rockabilly pin-up girl, a goth, or Janis Joplin, as long as they laughed whole-heartedly and stuck their tongue out in photographs. The word “pretty” was never used, nor was it an attribute to strive for. What mattered was originality and happiness, even in a scene that could be characterized as dangerous or raucous. The best lipstick was not a shade that complimented your complexion; it was whatever made you feel like a badass! The scene of punk rock in the late 90’s and early 2000’s was inherently feminist in that it never spoke about feminism. It wasn’t even a question, as far as I was concerned. Girls Rule. That was just a fact. Half of my t-shirts said so.
Years later, all of us punk rock kids are closer to adulthood and are decently tattooed. None of us are following a career pursuit in the music business, but we take the unapologetic outlook of the woman who went down that road to heart in everything we do. I still listen to Patti Smith while I study, and I still feel most comfortable in black skinnies, a ripped tee and Doc Martens. I try to remember “DIY” in all of my life choices, which means that I cannot wait for someone to offer me the next step, and I cannot sit around feeling sorry for myself because of gender inequality. All I have to do is get up, and do it myself.
Ruby is a film major at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is a self proclaimed comedy nerd and avid reader of self-help books.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]