Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Clothes, Body Image & Mental Climate

When I was a kid, I would wear the wildest clothes. My favourites included funky purple boots and a multi-coloured jumper dress. Mum didn’t like gender stereotyping, so I rarely had pink. I rebelled against this in my teens and declared that HOT PINK was my favourite colour.  
In university years, I had great depression and wore dark colours. I remember a favourite outfit was Dr. Martens boots or navy sneakers, with navy tights, navy mini-skirt, navy sweater, and fairy wings that a child-friend gave to me. I wore wings because I was upset about how boring the world was: how serious and uptight and money-hungry. People would stare at the wings. 
This post by Fox Woods tied in nicely with the theme my thoughts have taken the last few days, and the conversations as well.

As a child, I dressed comfortably. I have memories of favourite t-shirts displaying sharks, or Dickie Knee from Hey! Hey! It's Saturday!, and favourite shorts. I remember one skirt of a brilliantly gaudy tartan, out of place in the drawers. No pink. Never any pink.  I wanted to dress like Princess Leia on Endor in Return of the Jedi. The fashions that came and went in the playground just weren't a priority for me.

The worst thing that happened to my stunted dress sense was puberty.

As a child who was unhappy with and went to lengths to avoid attention, the sudden appearance of breasts - huge ones - was horrible, awful, terrible and a trauma that haunts me to this day. First girl to sport them in your year level? First girl in a bra? Suddenly running was an act to be feared, and all those enforced sports afternoons went from disliked to dreaded. 

"Do you push up?" We were camping at Barwon Heads. She was at a nearby site. We had just got back from the beach, and the group of them, girls and boys, were sitting in a hammock. I was confused, honestly having no idea what she was talking about. 
"The hammock?" 
They giggled. "No." She tossed her hair, put her shoulders back. "Your bra." 
11 years old and painfully self-conscious, a body full of sexual awakening and a mind that wouldn't consider boys or girls for years to come, they didn't believe my denial and I walked away, upset and humiliated and unsure why. 

 From then on, clothing became about hiding my body. Big baggy t-shirts, jeans and boots. Everything designed to hide my shape. Dressed to be invisible, to draw as little attention as possible, and if attention was directed at me, dressed to deflected it as quickly as possible. Breasts and hips that were more forward than my personality could cope with.

I look at this photo and. Oh, girl. Arms folded to try and hide how much my breasts jut out, and also supporting them, and plain grey, and shoulders forward, and the awkwardness of an adult body is painful to behold. I am 17 years old. One boy has kissed me. No others have shown interest in me. I do not understand how to want to make myself attractive. There are no beauty role models for short curvy Eurasians.

After leaving home I became something of a chameleon, copying styles from the people in my life, which is another sort of cultivated invisibility. I was terrible at it. My refusal to accept my body shape meant it was impossible for me to dress my body well. Branching out from t-shirts into tops that I might like the shape of, but did not fit me. Skirts that did not suit my hip-width to leg-length ratio. Endless black cloth, because ill fitting clothes already made me subconsciously self-aware of the hopelessness of my presentation and somehow I knew that adding colour co-ordination as yet another thing I must consider would be too much at that point.

It took approximately 28 years for me to learn how to dress myself. That's a lie; for 27 years I wore clothes. In that 28th year I had a fling that gave me no choice but to accept that someone else thought my body was the hottest shit on the planet, and were so sincere with their appreciation that not only did I have to accept it, but recognise it in myself. 

Hard to believe they're both photos of me. Also; goddamn. 

I don't know that I learned to love my body, nor even like it, but I came to understand that it was not something to be ashamed of. Not all attention was bad. In fact, for a little while there I was in danger of becoming a narcissic prima donna who had to be the prettiest in the room. It was not so much about loving my body, per se, more about really liking the power my body could have over others. With that as motivation, I learned to dress myself very well in a very short period of time. 

There is something to be said for waking so late into proceedings. Having never succumbed to fashion (90% of fashions doing exactly what I didn't want clothes to do - draw attention to me) meant it had never become something I took into consideration, and thus before I knew it I had my own style. I became good at recognising what cuts were flattering on my shape, what cuts I felt comfortable wearing, and what cuts I liked. The three are rarely combined, but I learned not to compromise on any of them. Being well-employed I could afford to buy quality pieces over a fair length of time, amassing a wardrobe that would - and has - lasted years. 

As such, much as Fox mentioned above, I do tie my clothing in with my state of mind, precisely because that is exactly what it signifies. Putting on clothing isn't only choosing an impression you wish to make upon others, but it signifies, for me, the projected mental climate for the day. If, for example, I'm feeling damn perky and sassy and worthy of admiring glances then I will choose that dress which is not entirely comfortable and requires regular tugging and maintenance to keep it behaving, because I have adequate resources prepared to invest in keeping that forecast of awesomely smoking attractiveness going, and also because I am prepared for the attention that will come to me, be it welcome or gross. There's a wonderful power that lies not just in looking good, but knowing it too. It becomes a positive feedback loop, and it's a pretty awesome thing to have.

Of course, getting my sense of self to a point at which that previous photo was possible took a significant amount of time and work, and it takes very little to undo it all. 

Glasgow was not unkind, but not easy either. A hard punch of depression combined with winter and a stodgy diet and the fat I put on is still sitting around my hips and belly. I've been fortunate in my life to be pretty consistent in my shape and weight, but Glasgow, oh Glasgow.

I tried on one of my favourite tunic dresses the other day, and it no longer fit. 

This is a blow to self-confidence, which is already shaky simply because in the last year and a half of jeans and t-shirts I've forgotten how to play dress up with myself and feel like a fraud when I put on my lovely things. Suddenly, a great swathe of my wardrobe is no longer accessible to me and I'm faced with the reality of having to buy new clothes because I'm too big for my current ones.

Now, I am not brave enough to be attractive, but nor do I wish to hide in frumpiness either. I don't have the emotional fortitude for daring clothing that requires constant adjustment, that is bolder than I feel, or familiar clothing that no longer sits well. 

"You can tell, you know, when you're having a bad day." The shop assistant could talk. We'd already covered the introvert/extrovert gap and that it was great she was in retail because she could talk all day. "My friend, she loves crazy undies, like cartoon undies and colours, that sort of thing. That's normal for her. But if she's having a bad day? Plain black, that's it. You know if you're having a bad day when you look at what you're wearing."

For the record, I was wearing all black.

New clothes that will fit, that I will not view as some ridiculous symbol of defeat. Jeans. Jeans that will slide under the radar at work, that will neither accentuate nor hide my shape, that I won't have to worry about blowing up in the breeze or showing my butt crack when I sit. Fabric that does not irritate me, stiff fabric that will stop the flab from wobbling so. Dark colours. Clothes that compromise between comfort and confidence.

Much discussion on fashion, style and appearance centres on what others can take from your image, and there is power in that. There is a different power to be found in what your clothes can do for you alone which is often forgotten at the edge of the spotlight. 

It will be some time before the weight is shed, let alone before my state of mind is strong enough that I wish to be a bright spark in the room. I am not as comfortable in my body as I was, but I am comfortable in knowing that the foundation has already been established. It isn't just about what I look like, but what I believe I am worth looking like.

I can strike this balance between bravery and bashfulness, and strike it in my own style.


  1. It's funny you should write this now, because I'd considered writing something related a couple weeks ago, after spending half an hour in a dressing room when I got a bug up my butt about maybe owning one cute dress. I've already packed on some extra weight from six months of anxiety, but I managed to find a few that fit. But those that fit ... were still not even remotely attractive on built-from-spare-parts me. I contented myself with a couple of texts full of woe, went back to my jeans and t-shirts, and tried to forget I had ever bothered with any such thing - and the same scene has played out once every couple of years since I was a teenager.

  2. There is a lot of ire to be pointed at the fashion industry and the large disregard for the multitude of different body types, absolutely. My wardrobe is the product of years of hunting. I envy anyone who can go out and just buy a whole lot of new clothes on a whim, knowing they'll fit and look good. Gah.

  3. My aunt is one of those people. It's a running joke with us these days that she can walk into a mall and walk out with $200 in clothes - and NOT HAVE TO TRY ANY OF IT ON. We spent a day at Tanger Outlet down in Myrtle Beach - she bought a ton of clothes, I bought... a Merida doll at the Disney store. It's funny, but it's also really frustrating. Any time I feel like maybe I might try being the least bit girly, the fashion industry says NOT FOR YOU.

  4. Nadiecakes18/4/13 12:05

    My lovelies, I join you in your corner. I don't have it as hard as Jaime, but it's still damned difficult to find things that actually fit properly. It was easier before I put on weight, but now?

    Dammit, they don't make clothes for a white girl with a ghetto booty.

    Tess, you have my unending sympathies over weight gain. I packed on pounds when Jacob was born and never really lost them, and a few years ago, during the incredibly depressing custody trial, I packed on even more, and it's been so hard to make it go away. And yes- I dress to hide it. I dress to try to hide the belly roll that folds over the waistband of my jeans, and the extra fat on my arms that looks a little bit like bat wings, and the /ass/ omg the ass that doesn't fit into jeans that are the right length for me.

    I'm fortunate in that my chosen beloved doesn't give any fucks at all about any of that, and manages, against all the odds stacked against her in my brainmeats, to make me feel beautiful anyway. :3 But it's still hard.

    For what it's worth, I think you're gorgeous and always have done.

  5. Unfortunately, the privilege of wealth has a lot to do with maintaining some sort of mental balance when it comes to clothing and appearance. I've had clothes that I've really liked tailored to fit me properly, and it isn't cheap at all, but the end result is fabulous.

    Having someone who sees you with different and loving eyes also helps a lot.