I like clothes. I like make-up. But I have to say, I dress for myself, and no one else. Of course I care what people think of me (far and away too much), but when I get up and get ready for the day, I don’t think about “the male gaze” (or a woman’s gaze for that matter). I think about what will make me feel good, what looks good on me. It must be a small curse to feel pressure to dress for someone else. Or maybe not. I can imagine some women enjoy dressing “for men”. I just don’t.
Sorry for my long hiatus. It’s been a while since I’ve felt strongly enough about something I’ve read to write about it. Three articles caught my eye in the last two days: “The Dowdy Patient” by David J. Hellerstein in the NY Times, “How Backpacking Changed the Way I Looked” by Laura Yan in Jezebel (thanks Wendy!), and “Women Who Cover Up (Even as the Temperatures Climb)” by Amy Sohn again in the NY Times. Obviously, they all deal with body image, beauty, and societal pressures. I’m also going to write about trauma because unfortunately it often coincides with some of these things.
In Hellerstein’s article, he talks about his “dowdy” patient (he’s a psychiatrist) and how in all the time he worked with her, she wouldn’t change her look. He says, “Which was a shame, not because I cared how she looked, but because Greta herself so deeply yearned for a romantic relationship.” Needless to say, Hellerstein was eviscerated in the comments section, and rightly so. Why didn’t he work with her on possible intimacy issues instead of concentrating on her style of dress? some commenters wrote. Why did he have in mind some sort of adherence to gender roles and “what men like”? wrote others. These are good questions.
So it was refreshing to read the other two articles, where Laura Yan describes letting go of some of her clothes fetishes and dressing comfortably when she started to backpack in South America and Asia, and where Sohn interviews women in New York who dress for themselves. One woman interviewed said “If someone really likes you, they’re going to see how you are anyway.” Another woman said, “If the goal of dressing is to be accepted by boys and society, that’s kind of ridiculous.” Sohn’s article, which is mostly an ode to hipsters and fashion, is kind of ridiculous, too, but at least it showed women who weren’t tarting up “for men”, if that’s the goal of tarting up. However, it did mention the brand American Apparel, so out of curiosity I went to that website. Indeed, it showed beautiful women with the top half mostly covered, but with short shorts. I mean REALLY short shorts. American fashion can’t seem to get enough of some (large) amount of skin.
In Laura Yan’s article, she says that in order to travel the world, “I’d decided to leave behind the New York fantasy I had built for myself, a fantasy built in no small part on clothes.” Still, she couldn’t bring herself to buy “clumsy, heavy, ugly” hiking shoes until she was truly miserable, and she did bring along her Ferragamo flats. Yan admitted to loving the “transformative power of clothes”, but cut her hair short, went without make-up, and dressed in tattered clothing even when she got back to New York. “The only thing I’ve left behind for good is the performance of beauty. . .I don’t spend too much time before the mirror.”
Beauty, and the clothes that help make us beautiful, are such conundrums, such the double-edged sword. I remember a beautiful woman I knew in college complaining of a local man following her into a computer lab. Exasperated, she said, “I get that all the time.” She wasn’t trying to give herself a backhanded compliment. She was in genuine anguish. I have often been glad that I’m not considered beautiful, because I couldn’t handle that kind of attention.
I suppose I’m a bit dowdy myself. I wear clothes, like I said, that I think look good on me. That flatter (or I think they do). That suit my age and station in life. But it could very well be that I’m considered unfashionable and frumpy. That’s ok.
It could be that Hellerstein’s “dowdy” patient feels the same way. She might not like the attention that beauty and “looking good” would get her. In fact, one of the commenters suggested that possibly, since the patient’s mother died when she was young and she was left with a domineering father and three brothers, she might have suffered from some kind of abuse – either physical, emotional, or even sexual. And this abuse might very well have made her want to be invisible to men. I related to this suggestion acutely, having been molested by a stranger when I was 10. I have also been touched inappropriately by a man in a crowded Green Line train in Boston and by a doctor in a hospital, both when I was in my 20s. It makes sense to me now that I don’t ever “tart up”. It makes sense to me now that I still don’t know how not to be threatened by men. It makes sense to me now that I suffer from social anxiety.
While not beautiful, I still get a lot of attention. Mostly it’s from people thinking that I’m gay (in fact I would usually identify as bisexual). I’m glad that attitudes about same-sex marriage have changed, but that doesn’t mean people are any less homophobic, I’m sorry to say. Ridiculously, my clothes often come under scrutiny, both from gay and straight people. A lesbian in my church (she is open about this) said good morning to me and then went up to a man she knew and said, “She’s really a lesbian. She just doesn’t think she is.” What else could it be, besides how I dress, how I wear my hair? Straight people do this a lot, too. After talking to some people in line behind me in an airport, I turned around and then the man said to the woman, “I hate the ones where you can’t tell if they’re gay or not.”
The way I dress doesn’t make me less or more of anything; it’s just what I like and believe suits me. I’m not trying to make a statement. I’m not trying to “convince” anyone of anything, or to “trick” men or women by what I wear.
I suppose I’m a little betwixt and between. I’m sure there’s a little ambiguity about me, and God knows people HATE ambiguity. I suppose I straddle different worlds. I’m almost pretty, but not really pretty. I’m almost sane (with meds), but not quite sane. I’m a little gay, but not quite gay. I was almost raped, but I wasn’t raped. I straddle things that would make defining me easier, and yet are not definitive in any way.
You’ll notice I didn’t put any pictures in this post. What would I put? Models from magazines? Or pictures of myself, so you, too, can judge me? Fuck that bullshit.