Reader Request: Fashion as Crutch

it-bag

My girl The Budget Babe sent along this truly puzzling question:

can clothing give you a false sense of security? and if so, should we be relying on that “it” bag or those high heels or that red lipstick to make us feel secure? or should we work up to the point where we’re completely confident looking like crap and then start adding the layers?

I had to think about this for a damn long time before I could formulate any kind of response, and I’m still a little wobbly about it. But here are my initial thoughts:

CLOTHING AS CRUTCH

In short, yes, clothing, shoes, accessories, and all implements of style can create a false sense of security. We may rely on clothing to reconfigure how our bodies appear to the outside world, and then feel horrible in the buff. We may fall in love with certain brands or designers, and trot out that borrowed cachet to make ourselves feel more powerful. We may decide that we look a mess without full makeup, and cringe at the thought of being seen naked-faced. And this means that, in part, our self-confidence is based upon external constructs that have nothing to do with our innate, natural, human beauty.

WHAT’S THE HARM?

We can’t go naked – not all the time, anyways. We shouldn’t shirk brands that we love because they make us feel cool. We mustn’t punish ourselves for feeling gorgeous when we’re all made up. These reactions are all utterly natural, not to mention difficult to artificially suspend. Obviously it’s not ideal for your ENTIRE self-image to be based upon your dress collection or those trendily-expensive boots. But it’s unlikely that your ENTIRE self-image would be based upon those things anyway. Do not beat yourself up for liking stuff, or letting stuff help you feel good. That is what stuff is for.

THE CRAP CONUNDRUM

While it would be quite a feat to feel confident and beautiful when you look like crap, I think it’s also well nigh impossible. Looking good and feeling good are linked. Undeniably. Look like crap, and your much more likely to feel like crap, too. Luckily, there is a better way to augment your self-image.

CREATING BALANCE

That said, make sure to pay attention to the non-object-based aspects of your appearance that make you swell with pride. If you feel yourself relying too heavily on the contents of your closet, spend some time in front of the mirror. Dressed. For every item you’re wearing that gives you a little surge of pleasure, identify something native to your body that makes you equally gleeful. Cultivate mindfulness of your physical charms so that they figure fully into your sense of self.

Image courtesy Nordstorm

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  • enc

    I feel pretty neutral about my clothes. They're workhorses for me most of the time. I think they're supposed to function as a layer of modesty between me and society. The fact that they're fun or cool is a bonus.

    I think when I was a teenager, I used my clothes as an identifying costume, to tell the world which group I was linked to.

    Now I know I'm not part of one group, but part of many, so I dress for myself. Getting to this point took some time and thought. It didn't happen overnight.

  • StyleSpy

    I thoroughly agree. And I will add — just because a person is a bit of a slave to fashion (like, say, me) doesn't mean she has no interior life or sense of self-worth. I just happen to really, really love clothes.

    http://closetaltar.blogspot.com

  • Meli22

    I agree that if you reflect outwards positively you will FEEL positive. Same in reverse- dress like an unmade bed, feel like one throughout the day.

    I think developing self esteem happens as you develop a style of you own, or is at least linked. When I was in high school, I copied how my friends looked. I wanted to be like them. I hated myself in many ways, and emulated those I wanted to be like. Once I discovered myself (which was a whole other process), I started into a whole new revolution in my style, and have been progressing since then. Feeling like yourself (and a well put-together, pretty self) is wonderful.

    I can point out a real life example- when you have young women dressing for attention (particularly male)or at least from the young college women I know/have seen. They feel bad about themselves, and look to attracting admiration to combat their poor self esteem. They wear short short skirts, low cut tops, drink alot, dance on bars, and show a lot of underwear/skin. When women say something or look at them with the 'evil eye' these women will turn it around to mean that the other women are jealous, and try to make themselves feel good. They put a lot of makeup on, wear 'F me' shoes, and sleep with various men. It doesn't mean that they are 'whores' or human beings that we should shun, but rather they are hurting individuals that look to these things for their validation because they undervalue themselves. It's a dangerous cycle.

    Sorry for getting so off topic!

  • LPC

    Life, I have found, is hard. For everyone. It seems to be a law of physics. So if clothes help? Not a crutch but a wise strategy. Don't worry, there you will still face more than enough life challenges to forge your soul in the fire.

  • Becky

    I can't imagine why someone *wouldn't* use clothing as a crutch, because I do on a daily basis. I use not only clothing, but certain type of undergarments (push up bras, spanx, control top tights, etc) as a crutch as well. Why? Because I want to look my best, and going around with saggy boobs and a poochy stomach is no way to get on my own good side. High heels make my legs look more toned. High-waisted skirts make my waist look smaller. Makeup makes my face look prettier. Do I do all of these things every day? Absolutely not; and it's usually on those days that I'm not feeling 100%. It doesn't devastate me if I go out without fully "putting on my face" or doing my hair, but I'd rather put my pump-clad best foot forward than going around feeling subpar…not in other people's eyes, but my own. I owe myself and everyone around me my best…personality, work ethic, AND appearance.

  • Angela

    I very rarely wear makeup. I feel pretty good sans products and I'm also too lazy for the daily ritual. But I've found that when I start to add makeup to my routine, even if it's just blush and lip gloss, I slowly get so used to the additions that I start to feel like I can't go without them and look "as good". At the point I consciously realize that, I stop using makeup altogether and stay away until that dependency subsides. I've had to do this at least a couple of times in the past few years. It may be that makeup brightens up my face and covers a few blemishes in my skin, but I don't want to "need" it to feel like I look good enough or complete. That was a challenge for me. I'll admit straight up that my self-confidence teeters on external things, whether it's considering how I look or how others may perceive me (although both of those conceptions are internally processed, so does that still make it external?). The thing is, it's a lot easier to feel confident based on circumstances than it is to build a solid base of true inner confidence.

    One of my biggest pet peeves as a shy person who is a musician is the people who don't give me the time of day – until they hear me sing. Then their demeanor changes. I've found the same thing goes with fashion and red lipstick- people who normally don't so much as give me an acknowledgment glance are suddenly smiling and saying hello. I know it's human nature to mostly notice only what sticks out, but it's frustrating. I know I have to stop focusing on other people's reactions…I have to sing and dress myself out of who I am, and I think I do for the most part. Just some thoughts.

  • Sharon Rose

    Hi there-I like to look good, but I would say I like to look stylish but without being a slave to fashion. I think the quality of pieces speak volumes, whether they're in trend or not and being well groomed plays a major part in feeling good too.

  • Oranges And Apples

    Hhhhmmm, interesting question!

    I don't see anything wrong with using clothes to make you feel better. completely with you there. if it works, what's the problem?

    What I think shes maybe getting at (or what I think is problematic anyway) is when you think clothes and stuff will make you feel better but they don't. You think 'If i just had these designer shoes, my life will be perfect', and then you get them, and of course its not! So you come up with another thing you need that will make you complete. It does happen, has happened to me in the past, and it is a problem. But it's not so much clothes as a crutch, but clothes as an excuse to stop you actually sorting out what's making you unhappy.

    I don't agree with 'look like crap, feel like crap' either. I know many people who don't give a rats arse about what they look like, and objectively speaking, they don't look great, but they're some of the happiest people I know.

  • Hanako66

    I say, "why not?"

    like you said, we have to get dressed. I feel better when I am presented nicely, rather than when I am grungy. Whether we like it or not, clothes are a large part of our identities…it doesn't have to consume us, but if it makes you feel confident, good for you.

  • eednic

    Interesting thoughts indeed. Many years ago, when I was young, foolish, unhappily married, and lonely, I used shopping as a crutch (not so much the clothes I was buying themselves). I did get over that eventually.

    Oddly enough, I find myself being blissfully unaware of what I'm wearing when I'm wearing it. How is that even possible, when I post a fashion blog everyday? Ha! I just forget. I become consumed by the other things happening in my world. For me, fashion is a really fun hobby. True, it is part of my identity, but I have come to a point in my life where I'm pretty happy and enjoying fashion (rather than berating myself for how awful I think I look, as I used to).

    I'm not sure I'm on point here. I can see how fashion could be a crutch for some, or image, rather. At the same time, I tend to personally view it as a form of expression and an element of my identity, not my whole identity. I don't much care if people like or don't like what I'm wearing (I get plenty of opinions, mind you), as long as I feel comfortable in my clothing and in my own skin. That's not to say either that I don't have insecurities, but I'm going to have those whether someone else thinks I look good or not.

  • rb

    I don't think dressing well is hiding anything. If you're well dressed, you attract attention to yourself. The people I know who loathe their bodies the most don't wear beautiful colors and shapes that are tailored to their curves. They tend to wear very loose unstructured clothing (Eileen Fisher, I'm looking at you.)

    I am familiar with the sensation of feeling pretty good clothed and pretty awful unclothed, but it doesn't mean I'm going to start wearing drab tents.

  • Audi

    I prefer to think of acts like creating an interesting outfit or putting on makeup as pampering and caring for myself, rather than as crutches that I rely on to feel good about myself. Then again, in the right circumstances I'd feel great running around naked without a lick of makeup on, and I think that's a healthy state of mind to achieve. Clothing and makeup are merely the tools with which to enhance your natural gifts, not to hide your true self behind.

  • AsianCajuns (Lauren)

    I feel like I use clothes less as a general crutch against the world, and more like an armor depending on what the situation is. If I'm meeting an intimidating client I like to dress professionally and add some boots because I feel like I can stomp around and be strong. If I'm at home, lazing around, the armor can come off. So the armor thing might still be crutch-like, but I think it works for me without loosing what's underneath 😉 Very thought-provoking!

  • fashion herald

    Yeah, I think a lot of fashionable women may get this sort of criticism, that they are hiding under their chic ensembles! But I love how clothes help women and men reveal a little more of their personality and confidence.

  • Sal

    Just a quick reminder that Already Pretty Readers are THE SMARTEST HUMANS ALIVE. Have you READ these comments? What an amazing array of thoughtful responses. I love you all, you know that, right?

  • ShopKim

    I like to think of my outfit as the finishing touches. I'm me and the clothes are just the packaging. Like a present, what matters most is what is on the inside, but it sure does add something to it when it's nicely wrapped! I feel better when I'm confident in what I'm wearing – weather it's a fancy dress or jeans. So I don't think it's wrong to want the nice clothes or the "it" bag, as long as you are using it to complete the wrapping and not make the inside complete.

  • La Belette Rouge

    In adolescence we go through the stage of Identity vs. Identity confusion. According to Erikson we use clothing, costume, and group identifiers as a way to try on identity. Rebellion to a group is also often expressed through clothing. I think that if we succeed this stage of development that clothing is no longer used in this way and are used to express who we are as opposed to who we want to be.

    That said, the very first leopard print was worn as a way of communicating, "I am strong enough to have killed this leopard". Power suits, red lipstick and it bags all infer the same kind of power to kill, conquer and succeed.

    For me clothing is most often a means of self-expression and sometimes certain items embolden me to face my fears.

  • tis serendipity

    a really thought provoking post!!

    I do think that what one wears plays a part in improving self-esteem… I definitely feel better if I know I'm looking better than usual and that the effort put in into dressing up has paid off.

    But that said, when I'm with close friends or people who mean a lot to me, it just seems all the more apparent that what one wears really doesn't make much of a different in the eyes of a friend/loved one. Most of the time, they don't really care what you wear (apart from acknowledging it with a casual comment) because they're too busy interacting with the person inside…

    So I suppose while we can rely to some extent on our outfits to make us feel more secure, when it comes down to it it's still the person inside who'll give weight to a conversation/add laughter to a room. ;p in a way it's quite a relief…

  • lisa

    Oh wow, this is a doozy of a question and I've enjoyed reading the post as well as all the comments so far. I think I do use fashion as a crutch, not in the sense that I rely on having nice things as the only definition of my self-worth, but in the sense that I get pleasure from having nice things. I do confess I don't feel fully ready unless I put on earrings, mascara, and perfume in the morning (but I chalk that up to an obsessive streak in my personality!). At the end of the day, though, I know I'm more than a clothes horse: I rock at my job, I dance, I blog, I get pleasure from my friends and from curling up with a good book. Fashion is just one aspect of my life, not the sole defining one. 🙂

  • LeeCee

    I tend to feel most confident in just my skivvies or naked. I love clothes but hate shopping because most clothes aren't made for my body type. So the outfits I do have that flatter me greatly always make me feel a ton more confident.

  • Nadine

    In my case, I have NEVER thought that who I am and what I look like are 2 separate things. They are part of the same whole, along with what I say and what I do.

  • Kate

    Oof, that is a question! For a while when I was heavier than I am right now, I felt like buying flattering clothes was going to create problems for me in the long run. Like if I wore tailored clothes that fit me and made me look good for my size, then I would trick some guy into being attracted to me. Then I'd have to take off those clothes at some point in the relationship and he'd see everything that I'd tried to hide and then of course he'd run away.

    While I know this thought is ridiculous and it hasn't kept me from wearing flattering clothes, it's still something that nags at me every so often. My friend Kathryn, who's roughly the same size as me, told me "Men aren't that easily tricked. They know what they're getting themselves into."

  • fleur_delicious

    great post, great comments! I'm with Becky: I definitely use the whole 9 yards to shore myself up for a day when I'm feeling depressed, a little sick/under the weather (REALLY sick = I wear whatever is most like a blanket and snuggle into it for comfort), or otherwise crappy. It helps, and it's something I can take refuge in.

    Is that a false sense of security? I don't think so. For one thing, I'll own up to the behavior readily. For another, these are my clothes to use in a way that serves me. I think most people have chinks in their personal armour; if I stuff some clothes or lipstick into some of mine one day, what's the harm?

    Of course, I'm also comfortable in my slouchy clothes. I think it's important to maintain the perspective that however nice they are, the dressing is not ME – they don't own me or define me, and I choose what to reveal or express about myself through them. And to that end, I have no problem being seen in my dumpy casual clothes when it's more appropriate (if I've been painting or I'm off for a brisk mountain hike, for example) or if I just don't feel like dressing up. When dressing and making-up become a daily imperative, then yes, I think one has a dependency issue. It's like any relationship: enjoyment should always exceed need.

  • Make Do Style

    I love clothes and fashion but never rest on my laurels. The trick is to always have fun and not care too much.

  • Luinae

    I do FEEL better when I am wearing clothes that I like, or have on some pretty makeup but I don't let it define me. My clothing doesn't define me. My human rights work, my morals, my words, my business, and maybe a little bit of how I look define me!

  • Clare

    It's funny because although I credit my blog and the fashion blogging community with most of my recent self-esteem, I don't think I use clothing as a crutch. I recognize in certain pieces, my natural potential to be truly stunning. And I'm so happy to have figured out how to look my most smashing, and a big part of that is through my clothes. I don't rely on them, I guess, but they are integral in highlighting what I love about myself.

  • Rosie Unknown

    I think that for me it's the opposite. I have a fairly healthy self image, and I wouldn't wear a lot of my clothing if I weren't so at peace with my body.

    My make up, on the other hand is different. I like my face, but my philosophy is that I would never hand in a sub par project at school, so I should always give myself my best face possible, even if it means some concealer and other products.

  • WendyB

    I'd rather wear something that makes me feel good about myself than something that doesn't. Just because some things make me feel good about myself, though, doesn't mean all my self-esteem is coming from that! It's rather a black-and-white way of looking at the world to think that fashion needs to be either totally unimportant or EVERYTHING to you.

  • esme and the lane way

    Such a bit topic – I am reading a book about femininity and the relation to clothes, hair etc, and to feminism, at the moment, and it seems like an endlessly interesting subject.

    I just know that if I make an effort, I will probably feel better than if I don't 🙂

  • budget chic

    I know what a incredible pair of shoes does for me. It's really more about the euphoria I feel after sliding them on my feet, then the reaction I get from others.

    There is nothing better (for me) then wearing a bad ass pair of shoes or boots. Perhaps it does "shore up" my image and evaluate my confidence, but that's really an after effect. I don't let those things define me, but if in some way they do, based on other people's perceptions — it surely is not intentional. Am I making any sense – LOL

  • Miss Peregrin

    I do like to use my clothes in this way, especially on days when I don't feel so confident – but I do try not to let my clothing control the way I feel about me. Just because I'm wearing pilling sweatpants doesn't mean that I'm not sexy underneath them. 😉

  • Sonja

    There's definitely harm that can be done when we rely on external items to boost our sense of self. So many people overspend and end up in a world of debt in a neverending search for something outside of themselves to fill a void inside that can't be filled with stuff. I did it for several years. It just doesn't work.

    When we love ourselves and start feeling comfortable and confident in our own skin without a bunch of embellishment, then it's unlikely we'll feel like "crap" without a Marc Jacobs bag (or whatever the crutch may be). Clothes and makeup are fun but they don't make us beautiful. Beauty is what shines through from within (or doesn't).

  • The Budget Babe

    Glorious response, Sal. Thanks for taking the time to think this through so thoroughly. One line that really rang true: "Do not beat yourself up for liking stuff, or letting stuff help you feel good. That is what stuff is for."

    I loved reading everyone's responses, too. Such great insights. Esp. this line from La Belette Rouge: "For me clothing is most often a means of self-expression and sometimes certain items embolden me to face my fears." Fashion as armor (someone else mentioned this concept too…).

    I, too, write a fashion blog so I clearly understand and appreciate its importance but the deep questions are always there and worth discussing! Thanks all.

  • fromsneakerstostilettos

    Sal –
    Thanks for posting this. I personally think that my go to pieces or my 'it' items are ones that bring out the beauty in my body and personality. My favorite pair of jeans that bring out the most confident me, are the ones that fit my butt the best and show off how hard I have been working out and running. My favorite pair of shoes are the ones that match my bright and sophisticated personality. I love their color and their shape. My favorite confidence inspiring necklace is one that I got in remembrance of a lost child.

    I know that feeling confident inspires me to look great… and looking great inspires more confidence. It is a cycle in a way for me.

    I dress in a style that I like and take pride in being stylish and put together. I have found shapes and silhouettes that are flattering to me and go with them. I sometimes wonder how people who go to work looking like crap justify that.

  • Jingle Bella

    I think one should not be relying on clothing to make you feel secure, but relying on clothing to make you feel good (which has been discussed quite a lot in these comments) is a subtly different issue.

    I also think there's a qualitative difference between dressing extra-carefully when you're feeling down / intimidated / etc – which is using clothing to help you through a blip – and basing your day-to-day worth on the clothes you wear. Knowing how to use clothing to adjust how you feel is one thing, trying to use clothing to completely control how you feel is another.

    I'd also like to second Oranges and Apples' point
    ("I don't agree with 'look like crap, feel like crap' either. I know many people who don't give a rats arse about what they look like, and objectively speaking, they don't look great, but they're some of the happiest people I know.")

    I really really don't believe that 'look like crap, feel like crap' is a universal rule. It may be true a lot of the time for a large number of people, but certainly not all. And I think that sometimes people for whom it does apply look at other people, project it, and then judge them or make assumptions (e.g. "She's wearing that, she clearly has no self-confidence or respect for herself") which are not valid.