Once upon a time in 1993, I was on holiday in Europe with my mother and father. It was their habit to fly into London, spend just under a week in the great metropolis and then tour off to some part of the Continent for a more traditional holiday – usually Portugal for two weeks of beach-going on the Algarve. London was always my favorite part of these trips. Growing up in African cities, nothing impressed me like London (even now, after 8 years in Washington D.C. and a lot of global traveling, still, nothing impresses me like London.) At the time, I was just so overwhelmed by the magnificence of the City that I didn’t stop to think about why I was so fond of it. Now, as a grown-up I realize it all comes down to the trip in ’93 when I was 7.
One of the best things about London, and one of my favorite things in life is the Underground. I adore the Underground. Fascinated by it’s labyrinthine structures, elaborate history, relationship to culture, advertising, tourism, crime and engineering – it is a public transit system like no other. I’ve loved riding the Tube as long as I can remember. However, in terms of formative moments in my life, the London Underground plays host to one of the most important.
The event takes place either on the Circle or District line going from High Street Kensington to Bayswater, my little family was returning from dinner and an evening out on a warm night. Standing in the train I remember perfectly seeing the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She couldn’t have been older than 20 or 21, was neither remarkably tall or short. Her hair was partially shaved on one size, bleached to the spiky roots and what wasn’t shaved was a shock of electric green. Her clothes where black, tight, adorned with patches, chains and studs. She wore a ring in her nose, her eyebrow, and many more up her ears. There was a black tattoo visible emerging from the dark sleeve of her shirt that in my childhood imagination covered everything I couldn’t see, from collar (which was plunging) to the soles of her Doc Martens. She had large, oddly translucent blue eyes, surrounded by a forest of heavily made-up lashes, pale (somewhat unhealthy) skin and no less than 3 or 4 rings through her lower lip. She was gazing into the middle distance and drinking a beer. Out of a can. Through a straw.
I could not tear my eyes off this girl, she was amazing. Compelling, beautiful, shocking and somehow wise, cool, perceptive. Little girls are shown a constant slew of hopeful role-models, ideal representatives – this was the one that stayed with me. I later asked my mother why the girl had been using the straw, my mother said she assumed it was because the rings in her lip make it difficult to drink from a can (I learned this lesson for myself later on, but it’s only difficult when the peircings are fresh, at least one of those was new.)
Don’t get me wrong, there are probably millions of beautiful, stylish, inspiring women in London at any given moment, I can credit a terrific proportion of my path into adulthood to these women, but the punk rock girl drinking a beer through a straw on the Underground stayed with me for the rest of my life. She was an icon, she remains one of the most powerful visual influences in my life.
The difference between the girl on the Underground, the women I watched in London over the next 6 years (I was absorbent until I was 13, and then I started projecting.) and other people was that women in London were cool. They dressed smartly – whether they were mainstream or counterculture, they carry themselves with an air of defiance and confidence. Their aggressive self-definition and black ensembles left an indelible mark on me (Some of my most vivid memories involve my father talking about how girls in London look good in all black outfits, “they always look very stylish in all black”. No prizes for identifying the contents of my closet today.)
The message was clear, even to a 7 year old – make yourself. Make yourself. Make yourself cool, make yourself stand out, make yourself beautiful – the way you see it, by your standards. Make yourself something to see, someone to respect, command attention, shock, admiration, horror. Fear not the petty sideways glances of the masses, rise above and define yourself. It was powerful and intoxicating, and as I wrestled my way to adulthood, often embarrassed, still at odds with a body that grew too quickly to understand (I was 5’7 at the age of 10, 6′ by the time I was 15.) the image of the girl on the Underground was a beacon, a light I would follow. The idea of this remarkable young woman, probably unrecognizable today from her old self (she may well be in her early 40s now) demonstrated by the power of self-definition, the power of the different.
It is not enough in life to exist, to plod from day to day, event to event – it is essential, particularly for young women in this exact cultural moment, to grasp onto something. To shake off the desires of similarity, and to recognize that the people who have the power to do something, affect change, command attention are people who do what they want, not what they are expected to do. It is not enough to think interesting thoughts, life requires that we articulate. Triumph demands that one reject the rules of others, the limiting narratives of mass identification and instead take a deep breath, hold one’s head high and just be cool.