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Looking Good

AN-FlareJBWay back in 1980, when I was a 19-year-old Mathematics major at Memorial University of Newfoundland, I entered the Flare magazine $1000 Question essay contest. The question: Looking Good: Will it still matter in the liberated 80s?  Apparently what I wrote resonated with the editors, because much to my surprise and delight, I won the national competition and the $1,000 prize of Chanel accessories –– a leather purse, a scarf and two belts (which, incidentally, I still have). My article was published in the April 1980 issue and it included words like ‘fabulous’ and ‘smashing’ as I made the case that women didn’t have to look anything less than amazing as they did everything males could do.

“Yes, we’ll look good, better than we ever have,” I wrote, “for that’s part of our liberation. We’re just as good as the men we love, just as able to succeed. We are only restricted as they are restricted. It’s a two-sided coin. We don’t have to give up looking good to instill this realization; we don’t have to give up anything. We’ll just add to, enhance and broaden the meaning of “woman” to its greatest, most special potential.”

Flare 1980 article
The young Jacqui Barron’s award-winning essay as it appeared in Flare’s April 1980 issue.

Reading the short article 35 years later –– it starts on page 38, and is continued on page 110 –– my first thought is I would have worded things differently now. But more importantly, I am reminded that the house I grew up in made it extremely easy for me to write, with youthful exuberance and certainty, that equality was in fact possible. In my world, in our home, it already existed.

I have two older brothers, as regular readers would know, and we all grew up with the mindset that we could do anything we put our minds to. But gender had nothing to do with our unique talents or shortcomings, obviously, and so whatever level of success we attained wouldn’t be tied to whether we were female or male.

To be honest, I don’t recall ever hearing that boys were better at some things than girls (like science), or vice versa. Come to think of it, in the all-girls high school I attended from 1975-1977 –– Holy Heart of Mary –– the top class was expected to do the most difficult science subjects so they’d have the prerequisites for anything they might want to do at university. Between my father and mother, and my teachers, I had some incredibly strong role models. So I grew up knowing women and men were equally capable, equally strong… just equal.

Boots fit for a Lieutenant.

I’m not sure why I was reminded of that article when I recently came upon a pair of lace-up, calf high, black leather boots while shopping. I guess the mind really does work in mysterious ways. My first thought was the boots would be the perfect dress footwear for Stephanie Shylock –– in addition to being not-quite-patent-leather shiny, they had straps and buckles that made them especially stylish while still being entirely practical. They were even her size (and mine) –– 9.

Stephanie, as some readers will know, is a character from my son Kenneth’s Champions series. I actually bought her a pair of boots once… Or more precisely, I bought a pair for the model who played Stephanie in the Champions photo shoot back in May 2012. Wardrobe and accessories were a huge part of that memorable day. But that’s actually a story for another time and I’d best resist the urge to go off on a tangent and start talking about sourcing exactly the right items from places as far away as China and unlikely as Victoria’s Secret.

If you’ve read Whitecoat and any of the following installments, you’ll know the series’ two female lead characters –– Lady Alex Smith and Stephanie Shylock –– are accomplished young women. They’re also youthfully exuberant and confident. Stephanie, as her bio points out, is “smart, headstrong, and capable. Her godfather, the slightly-notorious gunfighter Cameron Kard, started teaching her to shoot as soon as she was as tall as her dad’s rifle. Her mother started teaching her to read and write around the same time.” She’s a graduate of Memorial College in Newfoundland, and a Lieutenant, the first human female to earn a commission.

I have to admit that as mother, as Iceberg’s Editor-in-Chief, and (in my other life) as an Associate Vice-President, it makes me more than a little proud to see strong female characters with prominent (often the most prominent) roles in all our series –– Alex and Stephanie in Champions, Karen McMaster and Lia Hawke in Defense Command, and Ursla and Liz Hastings in the Equations series, to name just a few.

In these stories, gender equality is as inevitable as breathing. So is mutual respect, and a commitment to doing the best job possible.

As for appearances, no one in these books spends much time talking about whether ‘looking good’ is important. They don’t need to, because in a way, that’s a given too. Taking care with appearance –– which includes everything from having the right military footwear (like those black leather boots) and perfect accessories (whether those be Browning Hi-Power pistols, or green nail polish) –– is simply an extension of being and doing the best you can. Characters take the same kind of care with their appearance that they’re expected to take in every other aspect of their lives. It’s not overt; it’s not the topic of conversation; it just is.

What I didn’t write back in 1980 but would write now is that looking good is always important. But looking good isn’t about being classically beautiful, or wearing a size 2 designer dress, or erasing the wrinkles earned during a life well-lived. It’s not governed by anyone else’s definition of how ‘good’ looks. Looking good is about pride in self, about strength and confidence, about meeting the expectations you set for yourself, and about being and doing the best you absolutely can.

And if that happens to be while wearing a pair of kick-ass boots or booties, and a tailored shirt with necktie under a double-breasted jacket, well I’m just fine with that.

Looking good while saving two worlds: Lady Alex Smith and Lieutenant Stephanie Shylock, from Champions.
Looking good while saving two worlds: Lady Alex Smith and Lieutenant Stephanie Shylock, from Champions. Kenneth also insists I name the third  lady in this photo: HMCS Sackville, who proves that looking good isn’t restricted to humans.