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There’s a photo of me at 4 years old in a flouncy white dress, with a pencil in hand concentrating on what looked like homework. I remember that moment. It actually was not a handwriting exercise I was absorbed in but rather my favorite pastime: designing dresses. That day in particular, I was imagining the evening gowns my Barbies would wear at a Miss Universe pageant.

Throughout my life, I wanted to be a great many things: a novelist like Judy Blume or Laura Ingalls Wilder, an army nurse bringing care to the wounded, an archaeologist (I was fascinated by dinosaurs and anthropology), or the next Oprah Winfrey (a girl could dream, right?). These professional dreams changed as my understanding of the world changed, but the one career dream that remained constant was how I longed to be a fashion designer or stylist.

A few years after that photo of 4-year-old me was taken, I learned to pick up a needle and thread because none of the store-bought doll clothes quite captured my fancy. My creations were poorly sewn scraps of fabric, undoubtedly comical to anyone but me. I thought of them as great works of art, worthy to be sold as exclusive designs—and I really did sell them to my peers. (God bless their parents for humoring me!)

Into my middle school years, I had stacks of sketchbooks filled with costume history, from the early Roman era to the twentieth century. I was fascinated by the art of femininity expressed outwardly, as a sign of the times. I marveled at how artists have portrayed the singularity of femininity. Flowing dresses, graceful movements, and demure smiles—femininity has historically been regarded as alluring and mysterious. I guess you can say that this fascination with fashion was a study of anthropology (and Anthropologie!). The more I learned and engrossed myself, the more I harbored dreams of attending art school and studying fashion design.

But then high school happened. Because I enjoyed wearing skirts and dresses, the boys would refer to me as “The Princess” or “My Lady.” They told me I carried myself with class and this fascinated them. Not so much for the girls. My girlfriends referred to me as “the fashionable one,” in a tone that meant more judgment than affirmation. To them I was overly girlie, and girliness was the exact opposite of feminism. It didn’t communicate a strong, independent, intelligent woman in their minds. Like the 1999 classic 10 Things I Hate About You, my friends were Kat Stratfords—the jaded girls masked in self-protecting cynicism. I was perceived to be the Bianca Stratford of the group—pink and bubbly and wide-eyed. I stuck out like a sore thumb among my post-modern public school peers.

While I was unabashedly feminine, I did grow to resent being accused of vanity and superficiality. I began to rethink my interest in sartorial expression. As the time to choose a university came about, I began to wonder if my peers were right. Was it vain to care about how I look? What if my interests were impractical? Should I choose a more intellectual major? I tossed aside my interests in design and art and chose a no-nonsense, globally aware course of study. For fear of vanity, I put aside “girlie” ensembles and stepped on to campus armored with practical and minimal clothes.

But sure enough, it wasn’t me. And the more I tried to suppress this side of me, the more I felt I was hiding who I was. Not just my interests. Not just my hobbies or personality but my very identity as a woman. I was denying myself that which was the core of who I am—my love for pretty fashions and feminine beauty and design. Others weren’t getting to know the fullness of who I was—who I am. They were only getting the annotated version of me. The quirks, intricacies, and details of my self were missing from the whole picture. It was as if they were looking at a blurry or pixelated portrait of me.

Feeling like a shell of my former self, I thought back to the comment from the high school girls that was echoing in my mind. “Too girlie,” they told me. But how can I be too much of what I am? How can we be told to be genuine, to be ourselves, if in the end we will be criticized for it? Perhaps some of my interest in looking my best was a matter of both nature and nurture. Hispanic etiquette, much like Southern rearing, taught me that to look presentable was a matter of course. Dressing well is a mark of respect to others—and oneself. But as much as dressing well was part of my culture, it was also just something I truly loved.

Feminism and modern womanhood shouldn’t have to mean a rejection of femininity. My high school friends thought that to be a feminist, I needed to embrace a style perceived as being more powerful or serious. On the contrary, supporting feminism means embracing and celebrating that which makes us unique and sets us apart as women. As fashion designer Catherine Malandrino once said, “Femininity is a strength, not a weakness.” Women, she said, should not need to give up being feminine in order to feel empowered.

This is not to say that the only expression of femininity lies in lace, pearls, and ruffles (I personally don’t like lace or ruffles). Femininity will look different for each woman, as we all have our uniqueness and individuality. I am not advocating that every women embrace girlie attire. I just want to tell you what no one told me back then: It’s OK for every woman to embrace whichever style feels most comfortable and empowering to her.

I wasted too much time denying a core part of who I am as a means of trying to fit in. Once I stopped caring whether or not I was being feminist enough, I began to live out my femininity unabashedly. I say it proudly now—“This is who I am”—and I shouldn’t need to explain myself to anyone.

Now, whenever someone says, “You’re always so stylish,” I smile to myself because whether they meant it as a compliment or a critique, I know I am not vain, materialistic, or superficial. I know who I am, and I love who I am. Embracing this part of myself—again—has made me feel more fulfilled than adhering to the style of a certain crowd or social agenda.

Expressing our individual femininity is a great gift to the world. We are bringing beauty, wonder, awe, and delight. There is nothing wrong or shameful about feminine beauty. Quite the contrary—it’s powerful. If artists inspired the masses with graceful depictions of womanhood . . . imagine the effect of being a real-life representation of such grace. What an honor, then, to be living works of art. That’s exactly what we humans, however we express ourselves, are.

Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller