A Goodbye Of Sorts To Pre-Partying

"Do you want to come over beforehand and we can get ready here?"

My friend Gchatted this message one recent Friday afternoon, and although it’s a question I’ve asked and received countless times in my life, this time, it stopped me in my tracks. For nearly a decade, pre-partying defined my social life, maybe even more than actual partying. Then, all of a sudden, it was something that was embarrassing to do, and worse yet to admit to. (Maybe this is the difference between being a woman and a girl.) It was too much work, and it happened too late. Isn't it easier just to meet there, anyway? Most of my friends started to feel the same way; it had been three years since someone had even asked me to "get ready" together, and three years since I'd had to respond. I hesitated.

Starting in college and extending well into my 20s, pre-partying was as integral to my weekends as eating and sleeping. We’d pile into a friend’s tiny bedroom and take turns perfecting our cat-eyes in front of the mirror, playing the role of YouTube DJ, and plugging our phones into the only working outlet in the wall. We’d borrow (and then forget to return) going-out tops, lace tights, and cheap earrings. I barely remember the names of the hook-ups we’d strategize about meeting, but I still remember the elaborate plans we concocted. Since we didn’t have money for more than a single well whiskey at the bar, we’d split a fifth of something cheap at the corner liquor store and chase it down with a 7/11 fountain drink. We’d enter that tiny bedroom one by one — bare-faced, dressed in leggings and oversized sweatshirts — and exit as a battalion of painted, outfit-coordinated babes.

If you are a woman, came of age sometime in the ‘90s or later, and have at least one other woman friend, you’ve most likely pre-partied like I pre-partied. In part, the rationale behind the ritual is purely practical: When the legal drinking age shot up to 21 in the mid-‘80s, the habit of covert drinking before heading out for an evening became a national pastime. And even if you had a fake ID, pre-gaming was a means to get properly drunk on the cheap. As such, it’s a ritual that my male friends also share — but it’s not the same. There’s a warm glow that women ascribe to pre-partying that men simply don’t feel, because we do it differently.
Illustrated by Isabel Castillo.
For many women, there’s more to the pursuit of pre-partying than can be answered with just a drink. “It’s about choosing your outfits, putting on your makeup and doing your hair, and anticipating what’s going to happen,” says sociologist Anna Akbari, PhD, former professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. “Women downplay the party aspect” — i.e. the drinking — “whereas men focus on it as their main event.” In short, the protracted ritual of getting dressed together is definitely a feminine one.

First, subconsciously, there’s an even more important utility in getting dressed as a group. “Pre-partying is very validating,” says Dr. Akbari. “In junior high and high school, girls are constantly coordinating what they’re wearing, and dressing according to a clique. And to a certain extent, we don’t grow out of it that quickly. Pre-partying gives you the comfort in knowing that you’re in good company with other people who are on your team. It’s...I have a crew. I have a group of people that have my back no matter where this night may take us.”

But also, it just makes sense. There’s always someone there to help you zip up, get your eyeliner even, and act as the tie-breaker between two pairs of statement shoes — a helping hand makes getting dressed much more fun. And for some special occasions, you may actually need those hands. Says NYU business student Isha Vij, who attends up to six weddings a year that require a sari, getting ready is actually a necessary group effort: “Tying a sari is so hard! Some people are better than others; when my friends and I need to do it, we’re usually watching a Youtube video with directions on repeat, with three to four people all involved in getting one person’s on.”
Saris provided by Luxemi.

Other crews require other skills. For Lauren Stern, bassist in the Brooklyn-based band Scully, an evening out often involves playing a show. Stern and her bandmates' pre-party is about getting into the right headspace: “It’s fun to have a drink at someone’s house while we do our makeup, go over our set list, do a vocal warm-up, or decompress before a night out.” Her bandmate Courtney Gray agrees: “It gets our vibes in synch with each other.” Says Scully guitarist Caroline Partamian, “As long as I surround myself with my friends before a party, I feel good and grounded about whatever weird vibes the world is putting out.”

"Weird vibes" is a decidedly kind way to put it — an evening out, for a woman, is typically a long litany of being on the defensive. Regardless of your appearance, your outfit, your sexuality, or your relationship status, there’s always the pressure to "perform."

“There’s always the male gaze,” says Dr. Akbari. “There’s the assumption that the night’s success can be determined by what you look like and the beauty element. It’s how you’re going to be seen, how you’re going to demonstrate what can or can’t be done...or what you’re game for.” The feeling that you need to be dressed up is worthy of its own conversation, but doing that dressing-up communally, in a positive, empowering environment, can make a matte lipstick and a leather jacket feel as bulletproof as armor.
Oddly enough, the communal armoring metaphor has roots in history; says military historian Barry Strauss, the chair of Cornell’s department of history, “Arming scenes are a central feature of ancient literature. The most famous come from Homer’s Iliad, and ancient Greek art has many arming scenes that are often communal. Perhaps they’re meant to show warriors bucking up each other’s courage.”

Obviously, I don’t mean that an evening out is literally like preparing yourself to die at the hands of a sword-wielder — but if there’s one constant in presenting yourself in a public place, surrounded by men, it’s the threat of violence. Unwanted sexual attention that leads to sexual harassment, assault, or rape is a constant concern in a woman’s life. Campus rape has become a national talking point. Go on Amazon, and you’ll find tutorials that instruct men on how to game their interactions with women for a better chance at sex by capitalizing on female insecurities. And then, on a daily basis, there are the hundreds of casual acts of injury that a young woman suffers because of her appearance.

It’s not an easy thing to protect yourself while also having a good time (you’re still going out, remember?) — and for many women who haven’t yet developed the thick skin of adulthood, the pre-party is crucial to feeling like you’ve got control of your evening.

All this brings me back to that Gchat my friend sent. At this point, I can’t even remember where the shot glasses are in my kitchen. The idea of lugging multiple outfit options to a friend’s home now sounds more like a punishment than a privilege. As we become older, we are less in need of that verbal validation that our outfits, our hair, and our vibes are on point. Going to a party alone used to terrify me. Now, I regularly do it for work, and I actually enjoy the freedom of aimlessly making the rounds, not feeling obligated to say hi to anyone. I’m in a place financially where I can afford to buy the kind of drinks that won’t make me feel like hell the next morning, and I don’t feel like I’m less of a woman for rejecting people who insist on buying me a shot. More important, the clothes I wear and the makeup I put on are for me alone; I don’t feel the need to ask anyone if the look "works."

And yet, every once in awhile, I travel to a new city for a high school friend’s wedding or do a girls-only weekend trip. Suddenly, it seems perfectly natural again to get together with buddies whom I haven’t seen in a decade, crowded together in somebody’s hotel room, singing along to Meatloaf (sorry, not sorry) while swapping lipstick shades. The distance between us melts completely when I fix the curls on the back of someone’s head or help someone figure out the best way to avoid an ex. And facing high school-grown insecurities a decade later feels manageable — a mild challenge, no more — when you’re able to walk into the place with a comrade at your side.

With all that in mind, I sat down to respond to my friend’s pre-party Gchat invite: “Definitely,” I typed, “I’ll bring the Jameson as long as you let me play Celine Dion.” It might be my first New York City pre-party in a long, long time, but it definitely won’t be my last.

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