A few months ago, I met with a client who was working on several self-consciousness issues. She was a tall woman, and had to endure an endless stream of height-related commentary from friends and strangers alike. Her mother had instilled in her the belief that her ankles and feet were huge and unsightly, and was struggling to make peace with that. She loved fun clothes and dressing up, but lived in a community where folks attended just about every event from “night at the gym” to “night on the town” in the same casual, comfy duds. We talked at length about this last one, and she said, “I have one friend who I’ve never seen in anything but a fleece and jeans. I wouldn’t want to head to a girls night out in a frilly dress and make her feel uncomfortable.”
And I stopped her. I reminded her gently that it was not her job to dress in a way that made everyone in her social circle feel completely comfortable. In fact, I pointed out that to attempt such a feat would be to set oneself up for failure! We cannot constantly anticipate the feelings or predict the needs of others. We have no control over those things whatsoever, no matter how hard we may try. To charge oneself with dressing in a manner that puts all others at ease would mean sacrificing any hope of self-expression, not to mention the infinite frustration of guessing at how friends and strangers alike might react.
Now, I DO believe in dressing as a social act. Wearing traditionally appropriate attire to important, career-related, and socially focused events can help make interpersonal communication and understanding more effective. And I also understand that being the one relentlessly dressy, unfailingly casual, or just plain different dresser in a group with set practices can cause friction and strife. Furthermore certain social circles have more unwritten rules than others, and dressing is often in the bylaws. I am not saying that you should wear what you want absolutely everywhere and under all circumstances and expect total respect and acceptance from everyone you meet. That’s not how our society currently functions.
But I think it’s important to acknowledge that social pressures to conform – especially among friend groups, and especially when it comes to dressing preferences – can feel restricting. If you show up for girls night in a dress and your fleece-wearing friend feels uncomfortable (or vice versa), that will be awkward for both of you. But is it your responsibility to manage your friend’s response by changing your behaviors? Why? It’s very possible that she is reacting to how your choices make her feel about herself and her choices. You may have made her feel underdressed or overdressed, which many people connect to feeling socially underprepared. You may have done something out of the ordinary that caused her to worry about social balance within your friend group. You may have reminded her of another person in her life that makes her feel uneasy through unexpected choices. Regardless, it’s her feelings about herself, her place, her role, her appearance, or any number of self-focused things that are coming to the fore.
And that’s no judgment call on her! Change is unnerving, and when someone looks or acts differently than we expect, we cannot help but feel surprised and caught off guard. And if a friend shows up looking drastically different from you, that can feel upsetting and cause anxiety. But that doesn’t mean that one person must change while the other holds her ground. Finding ways to open up discussions, make compromises, or work within multiple people’s comfort zones can go a long way. And if, in the end, you choose change your dressing choices to alleviate social friction, that’s totally valid. In some cases, it’s just not worth standing your sartorial ground. But remembering that it’s not your job to soothe everyone, dress for everyone else’s comfort, or anticipate everyone else’s dressing preferences can feel liberating and allow you to gently push at some of those social boundaries.
Your style job, as I see it, is to dress in a way that makes you feel comfortable, powerful, and like your best self. Your style job is to find clothes that celebrate your body just as it is, and make you feel gorgeous, luminous, and unique. Your style job is to dress for YOU.* And that can be challenging enough without tacking on the preferences and expectations of everyone around you. You’ll have to tweak your look on occasion to accomodate certain social expectations, and you’ll actively choose to do so on others. But I would encourage you to focus on your own desires and preferences as often as you can, and think as little as possible about which people might be made uneasy if you dress up or down, if you choose a skirt or jeans. It’s admirable to want those around you to feel at ease, but it’s not your job to dress for their comfort.
*Assuming that you can. Some of us work in uniforms, some of us deal with strict dress codes, some of us have severely limited budgets … there are countless factors that may actively limit what you can and cannot wear. It’s a privilege to choose to dress for yourself, and not everyone has that privilege.
Image courtesy SCA