TOAD Talk: What is Glitter?

"Glitter begets glitter. Joy begets joy. And when you finally think you’ve gotten rid of all it, do not worry. All glitter is impossible to remove."
An honor and responsibility for the TOAD (teacher on active duty) most Mondays is to give what’s called a TOAD Talk at the day’s Assembly. The topics of each talk are completely up to the TOAD and have ranged from sea slugs and feminism to vampire bats and music. A recent talk by Fisher Fellow Zoe Clute focused on the mysterious, ubiquities, and delightful nature of glitter. Read on for a transcript of her talk.

“What is glitter? The simplest answer is one that will leave you slightly unsatisfied, but at least with your confidence in comprehending basic physical properties intact. Glitter is made from glitter. Big glitter begets smaller glitter; smaller glitter gets everywhere, all glitter is impossible to remove; now never ask this question again.”

This quote is from my favorite piece ever to come out of the New York Times, by Caity Weaver. She informs her readers that glitter is both mysterious and ubiquitous. It is in far more products than you could imagine and almost entirely produced in two secretive New Jersey factories. It is both a staple of the tacky Christmas ornament industry and a small scientific miracle. Its true name is aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate, and it is truly everywhere. 

I, as a small child, was very aware of glitter. My mother used to call me a crow, because I accumulated shiny things at an alarming rate for much of my youth. I once owned a pair of jeans that had glitter ingrained in the denim—sometimes, when I stood up from couches, I left a trail of glitter in my wake. I was open to expansion from basic glitter applications—I had rhinestones and sequins in my repertoire, but if it was sparkly, I was here for it. 
There’s a biological reason humans are attracted to glitter, or at least a proposed one. We’ve done research to show babies prefer to lick food off of glossy plates instead of matte ones. Research psychologists believe this draw to shimmering light helped us long ago to find and appreciate fresh water sources. The reflective shine of glitter draws our eye and captivates our attention. As Weaver tells us, even if you don’t like glitter, you like glitter.
Glitter has also become, however, one of those things that’s cool to hate. On, you can send your enemies an envelope of glitter, so that they and all of the objects they own can be unexpectedly coated in notoriously sticky, hard-to-get-rid-of plastic sparkles. Makeup tips surrounding glitter often urge people not to go overboard, pushing to maintain a subtle effect. It’s easy to find “I hate glitter” t-shirts on the internet. And, like bright markers, happy movies, stuffed animals, and birthday parties, glitter can be something people try to grow out of. 
I was not immune to this glitter-hating culture nor to growing up. At some point I stopped shopping at Justice and let go of the glitter that had defined me. Outfits I wore proudly in middle school faded into the background as I moved into a large public high school and assimilated to what felt popular there. I was proud of the days I accidentally wore the same outfits as my friends, and I felt pretty cool in the sleek black dress I wore to senior prom. Whoever the fourth grade Zoe was who loved glitter, she was long gone by my 18th birthday.
But I guess the glitter never really left me, which is, of course, one of glitter’s superpowers. In college, I came to appreciate and reclaim glitter for myself, as a form of expression, vivacity, and community-building. 
You see, I think there’s a reason we talk about the sparkle in someone’s eye and the dazzle of a smile, and it’s not just because our eyes and mouths contain fresh water. We have strong associations between glitter and exuberance. Like wearing glitter, true enthusiasm is attention-grabbing. It makes people notice you in the street. It is difficult to hide and it requires a level of boldness.
And it can also make you vulnerable. When you shine too brightly or get too excited, you open yourself up to the glitter-haters. People might call you too much, or look at you funny, or tell you to be more casual. It will always be easier to wear white sneakers and black t-shirts and complain about things. It is hard to be unabashedly sparkly and joyous. 
But I regained my love for glitter from folks who wore it proudly. It would be remiss of me not to mention the queer community in this talk, who have been using glitter since the 60’s as a kind of defiant representation of euphoria and owning of the self. From Ziggy Stardust to drag queens, I follow in a long line of folks who have been glittering themselves into the spotlight. And in college, I rarely put glitter on myself—I was beglittered by others, mostly older students who were already violently glittering themselves. The application and the sharing of glitter was a way to get ready for an adventure, be it a party or a full moon mountain hike, and it was always shared. It was a way to become part of an intentionally joyful community. It was a way to shout our excitement from the rooftops, even without speaking. And, glitter being endlessly contagious and sticky, once it was anywhere, it was everywhere. 
Those older students taught me that to wear glitter is to open the door for others whose glitter may just be stifled. To be enthusiastic and to love things unabashedly is the same way. When you are thoroughly wrapped in joy, the people around you are going to get some too. They may find another speck of your joy in their life when they’re least expecting it. When they proudly share their own joy, the joy spreads. Glitter begets glitter. Joy begets joy. And when you finally think you’ve gotten rid of all it, do not worry. All glitter is impossible to remove. There is always more joy to be found.  

Oh, and P.S.: While glitter has been somewhat scapegoated by the media and big plastics as a source of pollution and microplastic accumulation, it is important to wear glitter responsibly. Biodegradable glitter options are available, and though we don’t know for sure how much better they are for the environment, they are a good place to start. Additionally, though glitter makes up far less than 1% of the total microplastics that enter the environment each year, washing glitter down the drain makes it far more likely to enter waterways. If you put glitter on your face or on your body, try to wipe it off and place it in the trash. Makeup wipes and tape can be useful for this process.

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