I have begun working with a stylist here in Austin over the last year, as a part of my post-40, post-motherhood self care. Yesterday, when she sent me the digital photos of our styling session I had a huge shame reaction. We are “stepping out there” with my style — which, honestly, is a more true expression of my inner self. But I had this “You can’t!” reaction about it when I saw the photos and I think it’s about being seen. I used to dress to hide. The more I dress to express my true, colorful, audacious inner self, the scarier it gets. Especially as I am determined to love the body I have now, instead of wishing it were 20 pounds thinner or 10 years younger. So, the suggested topic is “personal style as a way of allowing yourself to truly be seen.” And how to deal with the fear that comes up sometimes.
A few weeks ago, I ran into a coworker as she was leaving for the day and we walked to the parking garage together. I was wearing some pretty wild tights and she complimented me on them. She said she admired my bold style, but didn’t feel compelled to wear such loud, attention-getting clothing and accessories herself. Not every day, anyway.
She said, “When I wear this one really bright, patterned sweater that I have, people comment on it all day long. And the comments are positive, but sometimes I think, ‘I can’t wear that today, I just can’t deal with all the attention.’ Most of the time, I dress to be invisible.”
I understood this sentiment. Completely.
In high school and college, I dressed to blend in. My desire to belong was so overpowering, that I simply followed the flock, paying absolutely no heed to what I actually liked or what looked good on my bod. I was invisible back then, and that’s exactly what I wanted. As someone who caught a lot of flak for being an overachieving, chubby, socially awkward kid, I wanted nothing more than to sink right into the wallpaper. And I dressed for camouflage.
Even now – when style has become one of my main passions – I can understand the urge to disappear, stylistically. As someone who struggles with anxiety, I often feel withdrawn and shy, and just want to be left the hell alone. And, like my coworker, I know exactly how to dress to draw minimal attention to myself. I can be invisible, and sometimes I am.
But that’s not the everyday me. The happy, healthy, curious, passionate, smart, capable me wants to be noticed, wants to express my tastes and highlight my beauty with fabulous clothes, wants to reflect outward what I carry within. Does that take a lot more energy, forethought, and a bit of bravery? For sure. Do I run the risk of drawing snickers or nasty jabs when I dress to be seen? I do, indeed. But personal experience has taught me that the risks are worth the rewards.
Because very, VERY few people have the chutzpah to come right up to me and tell me I look awful. In fact, I can’t recall a single time. And even if they’re calling me a hot mess behind my back, I can quite cheerfully ignore that. I have no proof of such conversations, and rest happily knowing that anyone small-minded enough to waste energy criticizing my style isn’t worth one iota of my energy. So most of the attention I get when I dress to be seen is overwhelmingly positive. When I dress to express my inner drama queen, and when people see my playful confidence, they smile. It’s different, it’s interesting, it’s bold. And although most people don’t follow suit, many people long to. So they happily and vocally offer their excitement and praise.
This is not to say that dressing in a non-flashy, non-attention-grabbing manner is bad or wrong in any way. Everyone has different dressing goals and different dressing comfort levels, and that’s completely fine. I mean, obviously. The only women I’d ask to reevaluate their dressing habits are those who feel like they’re suppressing their inner snazzy dressers. Completely quashing a long-held desire to dress boldy and brightly may leave you feeling downtrodden and resentful. Not to mention lost. If you’re dressing to fit in with a peer group – leaving no room AT ALL for self-expression – then who the heck are you, anyway? Yourself, or someone else’s version of yourself?
Transitioning into a more visible stylistic persona can be scary, but it needn’t cause abject terror. If you dress in jeans and hoodies one week, pencil skirts and pearls the next, people will wonder. And they’ll comment, and it’ll be awkward. But there are plenty of ways to ease into the look your inner self yearns to sport. Many of them are tucked into this post, but I’ll highlight a few of my faves:
- Amass pieces and tools that contribute to your look, but deploy them in small enough amounts that it feels like your little secret.
- Talk to a select few people about why dressing this way is important, so that you have some understanding allies.
- Dress down Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and dress up Tuesday and Thursday. Gradually get your environment used to what appears to be an experiment until the time is ripe for full transition.
- Wear one or two signature pieces at a time. Don’t go full-Carrie-Bradshaw, just tack a giant flower to your blazer. Don’t wear a wiggle dress and bright red lips and a string of pearls, just strap on your Minna Parikkas with your simple sheath.
- Take photos of yourself and look at them THE NEXT DAY. Get some distance and then evaluate. Learn how awesome you are one photo at a time until you feel ready to try out your new signature style in public.
Dressing boldly or distinctively is – as Martha so eloquently points out – a way of allowing yourself to be truly seen. You’re exposing bits of your inner self to the outside world, and that can feel vulnerable. But until you let others glimpse your inner landscape, one little outfit-peek at a time, they’ll never know you fully. And they’ll never be able to lavish you with the praise you so completely deserve.
Do you dress to be seen? Do you secretly wish you could? Would you rather be boiled in oil? Anyone gone through a transition, like Martha, and moved from invisibility to visibility rather abruptly? Care to share your tale?
Image courtesy foxandfeathers.