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Upon Further Reflection: My Year of 20 & 23

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCLA chapter.

Every year, I spend 364/365 days being the exact same age. Therefore, every year of my life has been tied up with one age in my memory, inextricable and forever bound together. After putting the first year of my 20s behind me and spending 364 days trying to figure out, (still not entirely), exactly what that means, I have put together my first grasps at understanding both the age 20 and the year 23.

Picasso painting of a woman with purple skin and blonde hair
Photo by Ellie Dixon

To perform or not to perform

It was my second July in Manhattan, somehow even hotter than the last. Walking down 5th Avenue I ducked into the Guggenheim Museum, the resulting blast of central air conditioning assuaging the immorality of New York’s summer air. I paid for a ticket and found myself wandering aimlessly in a familiar wing until being greeted by an unfamiliar painting. Her name was Marie-Thérèse Walter: Picasso’s 17-year-old muse. Resting her head on crisscrossed arms with her eyes closed, she appeared to be soundly asleep. According to a small blurb on a curiously sterile white wall, I learned that Picasso found the sleep state to be “the most intimate of depictions.” Even in her sleep, the most vulnerable and sedated space, she is but a muse. Without even knowing, she is performing: her femininity, her beauty, her class, her sexuality. Shifting my gaze from her, I looked around at painting after painting depicting a beautifully pensive yet troubled woman — staring wistfully into space while having her portrait done, holding a green parakeet next to its gilded cage, obscuring her face under a parasol on the beach. They are picturesque. They are poised. They are provocative. But above all else they are observed; suspended in a frozen silence while millions of eyes, mine included, dissect their every detail.

I never thought I could relate so much to a painting until I saw that of Marie-Thérèse Walter. There we both were: me looking at her, her looking at me, blissfully unaware. The day that I visited the Guggenheim, I was wearing a sundress. On my walk home, I thought about how many times I must have readjusted that dress to make sure my bra was undetectable. I thought about how many times I must have ran my fingers through my hair to make sure it fell nicely. I thought about clean girls and cool girls, strawberry makeup and tomato makeup, brown butter balayage and Scandinavian hairlines, red nail theory and “Why Men Love Bitches.” The jarring awareness of my performance came crashing down.

Therefore, it is in 2023 that I learned a forever lesson: appearance and agency do not always go hand in hand. While it is one thing to be a muse of the world out of your own volition, it is another to do so because there is no perceived alternative.

bookshelf display image
Photo by Ellie Dixon

bidding goodbye to teenage years

I always resented the idea of childish innocence, interpreting it as something of a weapon which at any time could be wielded against me to justify being treated less seriously; there is something to be said about young people and believing that our thoughts and ideas should take up less space. While this is all written in hindsight, which is remarkable in its ability to make the mundane seem anything but that, I do believe that teenage years are tinged with a heightened saturation that goes hand in hand with what we describe as childish innocence. The good parts were always somehow bolder and brighter, and the not so good parts the exact opposite. As teenagers we dabble so much more in polarity, our emotions and experiences being able to take on such extremes, rendering everything more intense. That being said, I now believe this label of innocence was never an individual critique, on me or anyone, but a communal gift. 

Because of childish innocence, at seventeen, I knew everything. Not because I knew everything, but because the world in which I was tasked to know things about was smaller. At seventeen, learning was as simple as asking questions and receiving answers. Not because my questions were vapid, but because the answers I received were only half truths.

At twenty, we enter the decade of asking questions and starting to not always get answers, or getting answers that are full truths — many of which I did not like. At twenty, I often felt I knew nothing. So, in what seemed to have taken the shape of a postmodern “tabula rasa,” I had to start anew. I asked questions and accepted that sometimes there were no answers. I cut my hair and donated my clothes. I put up walls I thought would last forever, and when they were torn down, I built them all over again. I was honest when I wanted to be coy. I changed my mind and changed it again.  

table with books and candles
Photo by Ellie Dixon

finally, the art of noticing

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, scattered throughout this reflection are my own photos of Marie-Thérèse Walter. I bring her up again, because as soon as I saw the painting, I began noticing her presence everywhere: on the cover of books in the museum gift shop – next to expensive candles, propped up on bookshelves, or organized in stacks on a table. She has also inspired the final piece of this reflection, because she reminded me about the art of noticing.

While oftentimes we think about noticing in terms of our physical surroundings, which does account for a great deal of it, I experienced a more subtle form that has since left a mark on me. Over the summer, I had coffee with my best friend in middle school, whom I had fallen out of touch with after she transferred schools. We chatted for over an hour, talking about college and our families, rehashing middle school drama along the way that had stuck with us after all these years. As I was hugging her goodbye, she looked at me, and with the utmost sincerity she told me how proud she was of me, following that by saying: “you really have built a life for yourself.” Even though we hadn’t formally talked in years, she had been keeping tabs on me just as I had been keeping tabs on her. And after we went our separate ways, I was surprised to find that my eyes had filled with tears, because without even trying, she reminded me that no one is ever invisible. There is always someone noticing you, regardless of their proximity, and there are so few things in life as gratifying as being reminded of that.

To another year of asking questions. To another year of agency. To another year of noticing.

Ellie is a second-year Global Studies major at UCLA, from Charlotte, NC. Her favorite author is Sally Rooney, and she loves re-reading books, playing field hockey, cooking for friends, and photographing them on her camera. In the summer, you can find her in downtown Manhattan peeking into a vintage store or writing in a coffee shop.