We all use visual aids as shorthand to denote our subcultures. If we're big Harry Potter fans and we see you wearing a Hogwarts scarf, we're more likely to approach you and start a conversation than we would be with someone who wasn't wearing one. Or let's say we're gay and you're wearing a rainbow-flag t-shirt—we'll assume you'll know gay acronyms without us needing to explain them to you. And if we all have tattoos and piercings, we have shorthand in place to talk about body modification and the way the procedures are performed.
In other words, Shmoopers, the ways we presents ourselves send messages about who we are and what other people can expect from us. Look around your cafeteria next lunch period, and we think you'll see what we mean.
In our book, once Virginia has her eyebrow pierced and her hair dyed purple, she says:
It was like I was seeing myself for the very first time. (22.46)
That's really powerful stuff, right? She's a teenager, but for the first time she feels like the person staring back at her from the mirror accurately represents the person she is inside. By taking on a more punk look, Virginia's using shorthand to align herself with a subculture, which is great, because mainstream culture hasn't exactly been nice to her (we're looking at you, Dr. Shreves and kids at school). Virginia is taking control of her body and her appearance, laying claim to who she is and sending the message that she doesn't want to be anybody else.
To be clear: it's a huge moment for Virginia, and not only does it symbolize her coming into her own and learning to accept herself for who and how she is, but it also represents the shedding of shame. This is really big coming-of-age stuff.
It isn't all positive body modification for our main girl, though, and when she cuts herself, burns herself, and kicks a dressing room wall, Virginia modifies her body in a negative way. While she generally keeps her self-harm in check, these are still small moment of body modification, and they represent just how at odds Virginia is with herself and her life.
Appearances may only be skin deep, but when somebody's change as much as Virginia's do, they can provide clues to more meaningful transformations. This is entirely the case in this book, so keep an eye on what Virginia looks like to gauge where she is in her process of self-acceptance and love.