One Less Worry

hillary_clinton

Most people come here and see a fashion blog. And there’s a lot of fashion and shopping and personal style-related discussions here, so I get that. But I truly hope that a segment of you comes here and sees a women’s empowerment blog. Because – and I know I’ve said this 70 jillion times, but it bears repeating – I see style as just one of many ways to help boost your body image and self-confidence. And I want to boost your body image and self-confidence so that you can feel happier and express yourself more freely and begin to love yourself just as you are.

I am starting to work on some side projects that feel more directly related to empowering women. I am on committees and in touch with visionaries who are actively working to give women the tools they need to acquire positions of leadership, and to lead effectively. And I LOVE this work. I get so jazzed that when I talk about it that I talk very quickly and loudly and gesticulate wildly until the person listening starts to giggle a little. And as I become more invested in these groups and conversations and do more of this work, it causes me to give my style-related work the side-eye. Not always, but occasionally. I have received countless humbling and heartwarming e-mails from you amazing readers telling me that I have helped you improve your self-esteem and boost your self-respect, and I treasure them. Truly, I do. But even though I, myself, champion style and fashion as non-frivolous interests I sometimes feel like work that is more closely tied to supporting, helping and empowering women could have more impact.

And then a dear friend of mine – a colleague in this other work I’ve been doing – said something that stopped me cold. She said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Sally, do you know why I don’t run for political office myself? It’s because I could never handle the scrutiny and criticism I’d take for how I look. Women in politics and power are constantly under the microscope for their bodies, grooming, and style, and I just couldn’t take it.”

My friend – from what I can tell – is afraid of very little. She has told me that she truly enjoys conflict resolution and adores speaking in front of large crowds. I can quite easily imagine her fending off rabid wolves to protect her young daughter. She has also worked in politics for years and is incredibly informed about public policy and remarkably passionate about her beliefs. So I was shocked to hear her say that the prospect of dealing with press and public critiques of her looks has prevented her from campaigning.

We talked a bit more about it, and she pointed out that helping women feel confident in their looks removes barriers. We live in a world that frequently evaluates women based on our looks and, if those looks are found to be somehow lacking, dismisses us. We know this. And many of us hesitate to step up to positions of leadership, or speak out against actions we question, or put ourselves in the public eye for fear of censure and dismissal. To help women have one less thing to worry about as they chase their dreams, rise to power, or express their creativity is to help them tap a vast reservoir of potential. To help women see dressing as a creative, helpful, important means of expressing self-respect is to give them the ability to move through the world with a little less weight on their shoulders.

And yes, the system should change. The system that dismisses us should be overhauled and turned inside out until women in politics and power and the public eye can be heard and respected without needing to be seen and judged. But I’ll be damned if I know how to tackle THAT task with my specific skill set. And I feel like a possible long-term plan would be to infiltrate that system with women who are so confident in their facades that no amount of jibes will deter them. Arm more women with confidence in their bodies and their personal styles so that they feel strong and capable and immune to irrelevant, appearance-related criticism. Teach them to dress strong, dress fearless, and dress as themselves so they can express what’s in their brains to an audience that has been trained to focus on their bodies.

This conversation with my friend lasted less than three minutes and took place more than four months ago, and it is still reverberating through me. I’m thrilled to be working on projects that connect directly with women’s empowerment and leadership, and hope to incorporate that work more and more into my life. But I see now that empowering women can take infinite forms, and that helping women remove barriers to action and change can be vital. Style and body image may seem low on the priority list, but if you don’t start at the bottom, how can you get to the top?

Image of Hillary Clinton – a politician who has been relentlessly scrutinized and dismissed for her style and grooming choices – courtesy NPR

  • Jessica

    Thank you! Your perspective is flat-out awesome. I completely agree that the more resources that encourage women to celebrate what they have and share it with the world, the better. Anything that acts as a counter to the corrosive “here are your flaws” “here is how you could/ should be more perfect” and “you need to present yourself perfectly before you can actually DO anything” messages we women so often receive is a huge positive force in the world.

  • Leslie

    Thanks. And I agree that aspects of style and fashion are really, in the scheme of things, seemingly of little importance. When I think about, for example, Sudanese women walking miles for water, risking murder and rape, whether my skirt matches my shoes is, frankly, inconsequential. But, to sit at the table where decisions are being made about women like them (or any other host of high-level issues), you have to be strong, capable, confident. And if what a woman wears enables her to be that person, then so be it.

    Thanks for making style matter in important and empowering ways.

  • http://www.amidprivilege.com Lisa

    Until the day comes, should it ever come, when women’s fertility stops being our most socially salient capacity, I so agree with you. Scrutiny of grooming is a direct outcome of visual signs related to this biological role, I believe, and the sway it still holds. If these issues are in play, we can revert to magical thinking or we can face them head on, style up, and face the b***tards.

  • http://birdybegins.wordpress.com Eleanorjane

    Tell your friend to stand for office! The reasons she doesn’t want to are exactly the resons she should – to bravely step into the malestrom and work so that the next woman and the next woman don’t have quite as much crap to deal with when they come along.

  • Erika

    LOVE!!! I so agree with everything, and it’s wonderful to find another great reason to keep doing what you’re doing. ROCK ON!

  • http://www.curvyyoga.com Anna

    Wonderful! And I actually think of this as a women’s empowerment blog first. Thank you for all the great work you do towards that!

  • http://www.bralessinbrasil.com June

    Yes! I have to say that since I cleaned up my image: started dressing better, looked for well-fitting undergarments, seeing a seamstress etc that my confidence at work has increased significantly. It’s absolutely true that women are judged more for our appearance (and I see this in my field too). For me the best solution is learning how to be confident in my appearance. Even if my style isn’t for everyone, I pick out outfits that I like and feel comfortable in. If I’m happy with myself it’s much easier to ignore the naysayers.

    I also see my interest in fashion as a hobby and I think most human beings need some sort of outlet from their day-to-day life/work etc. Sure, maybe I could have more of an impact doing volunteer work but, on the other hand, I’m one human and need to keep myself sane to effect my environment more. I do work in a very male-dominated field so there are always issues that crop up because of that and sometimes I just need a break from it all.

  • http://www.smartprettyandawkward.com Molly

    Wow, what an incredibly powerful post. Love your insights and thoughts, and so excited to see what awesome new side projects you’re working on. Let me know if I can help with anything!

  • Aparna

    I think it is even more humilating to be made fun of looking good but lacking in brains department. Think Sarah Palin. Media had too much fun with her that sometimes it downright felt cruel.

  • Jennifer

    Yes. Beautiful. Thank you. Until I got to your friend’s story, I was afraid that you were going to ease us into the end of the blog – phew!

    I can also attest to how I started reading your blog because of your fun color combinations and awesome, edgy shoes. But as I continued to read both your style posts and your comments/essays on beauty, gender, and self-esteem, I slowly began to realize how much I actually needed to reevaluate my views on my body, how much emotional baggage I was carrying around from years of being a dancer, having a mom who valued femininity like it was 1953, etc…

    So thank you for providing a truly valuable space for people to come and find a little bit of much needed healing.

  • http://www.wheredreamscometoplay.com Laura

    wow, talk about timely. It’s amazing to me how things come together and you start seeing things everywhere when something is on your conscious. I just yesterday posted about my own struggles with body image on my blog and the response for my own little blog was tremendous. Response from women (and at least one man) that could relate. Why is that? I love your article, I love the idea of empowerment. I also would ask the question, why do we do this? Why are we so focused on women’s looks and appearance? Is it a throwback to survival of the fittest/most beautiful? The most beautiful woman gets the man and thus ensures the survival of her genes? Seems so strange that we continue to use standards based on external factors. thanks for this..and having confidence, regardless of size, or winning the genetic lottery, is something I’m learning and would love to see more of. Women feeling comfortable in their own skin… a beautiful dream.

    • jo

      “Why are we so focused on women’s looks and appearance? ”

      In a word. Patriarchy. Just think back a couple of hundreds year – if men rule and has made society all about them, and see women as things they own, then the most important thing about women are their looks and how well we perform the feminine role. And that’s the way women could gain some sort of status, through our looks.
      Fast forward to now. Women have made great progress, we’ve had suffragettes, feminism etc. But we’re still valued for our looks mainly, things are not equal, and there is a lot of money to made on our insecurity in our looks etc. Media finds it the easist way to critize a woman.
      I recommend the book The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf for more detailed info.

      “Women feeling comfortable in their own skin… a beautiful dream”
      Yes it is. And those women exist in some cultures. Some pics to cheer you up:http://www.annaboye.com/matriarcados/china/indexingles.htm
      I can assure you most women in those cultures think they look good enough.

  • http://happysimplefree.blogspot.com Zadi

    So much yes! The work you do is absolutely valuable and empowering. And we could all do with being challenged to recognize the subtlety in approaching important issues from multiple avenues.

    Thank you for what you do, Sally. You are an inspiration.

  • Sue

    And this is why I started reading your and other blogs–looking good makes me more confident. Thanks for your work Sally!

  • Lynn

    I’ve worked with women in the political world for years, and it will be years more before reporters and others stop commenting on their clothes and appearance. We do need more women in office as well as training for journalists.

    But….there are ways to help women cope. First, expect the comments and practice responding. Second, build a capsule wardrobe that looks good in a 360 mirror,suits your personal style, coloring and location and can be put on or revised for another event in minutes. Men can get away with a couple of dark suits, khaki pants and a blazer and a pair of jeans with appropriate shirts, shoes, etc. Women need more, but can use the same idea. The area of the country is also important. African-American women in the South will need hats, while women in NYC must be more sophisticated. Someone in the public eye will need help keeping the wardrobe in good shape and current.

    Practice moving in the wardrobe. Navigating stairs, stooping to talk to someone in a wheelchair, getting out of a car, sitting on a raised dais with no draping, etc. need to become second nature so flashing or self-consciousness is avoided. That’s one reason Hillary Clinton chose pantsuits — she did not have to worry about any of this.

    Makeup is also important since depending on what level of public office there may be personal meetings as well public appearances with lots of tv and other lights.

    Bottom line — being prepared for all this, as ridiculous as much of it can be, lets a woman focus on the important issues.

  • Andrea

    I used to be an actor, and in acting there are two major schools of thought: 1 – build the character from the inside out, drawing from experience and empathy until you understand who the character is and can project her to the audience; or 2 – build the character from the outside in, using costumes, hairstyles, makeup, and mannerisms to guide you into the character that you want the audience to see. Both work well and most actors rely on some combination of the two. But for those of us who are trying to project our true selves into a real world—and who don’t have the luxury of a safe rehearsal space, building the outer image might feel less dangerous and more accessible. It gives us armor to protect us while we do our work on this earth, whatever that is. It’s an important job that you’re doing, Sally, and you’re doing it very well. Thank you!

  • Tabie

    I have seen and dealt with this in so many different ways. Currently I’m a server, my daily uniform is not attractive on me. My tips are directly affected by if I wear makeup or not because man can’t see beauty in a bare face.

    When I was in school my degree field was an all boys club. I caught flack for wearing skirts in winter from them. I wasn’t taken seriously in any tech class, only the business ones that were mostly other women. Some of that I think is because I’m female and most women don’t make it through that program and some of it I think is because I was coming into my own. I caught a lot of flack for wearing skirts. Working in insurance, I got those same scrutinizing looks but from women because I chose skirts over pants suits. It sucks. What you do is important, at least to me to show women that it’s okay to like fashion and that it’s okay to look good. Just be appropriate!

  • Claire

    Great assay, Sally. I love how it puts the “frivolity” question of style-related issues in a solid context and examines how and why it can be relevant and meaningful for women. And I think the excellent follow-up comment by Lisa really speaks to the heart of the matter as well.

    I see it akin to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid, if that makes sense. On the women’s empowerment pyramid, the baser needs (like grooming and dressing for respect) must be addressed to some extent in order to move on to the higher needs (like obtaining positions of influence in order to change policies and attitudes). And if some women can use their advantages and resources to move up the pyramid and continue to work on various issues, the hope is it helps to lift all women (all people, really, and society as a whole) a little higher.

  • http://over60andoverhere.blogspot.com.es/ Sue

    What a fascinating topic. I’ve always been a great fan of Hillary Clinton as she seems to have the ability to do a damned good job without worrying about how she looks. However, who knows? The comments may very well have hurt her, and why should people care about how female politicians look but disregard the male politicians?

    I still remember two male colleagues talking about a female colleague and saying that she didn’t seem to iron her clothes! How bitchy was that?!!! I admit that I had thought the same, but I wouldn’t have commented on it.

    I do agree though that if women feel confident in how they look, they can forget their clothes and just do a brilliant job. So please carry on inspiring other women with your great advice!

  • Nan

    We have to stop fundamentally judging other women based on appearance. (Men have to stop too, but we can work on ourselves first.) Change has to begin with us.

  • ClaraT

    There is a great documentary, Miss Representation, that touches on this topic. It points out that the media is relentless in their scrutiny/criticism of the *most powerful women in the US* based on their appearance.

    Watch the trailer and wince: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gkIiV6konY

    Thanks for all the great comments above.

  • SamiJ

    I am reminded of how about a year ago the NYT ran a piece on women in politics and their choice of shoe. It ran as a region news piece, not in the style section. While it was interesting, it tee’d me off that one of the few articles in NYT about women pols focused on their choice of footwear.. Had the focus been on the shoe, with a paragraph or a mention about the occupations of wearers, I would have been less annoyed.

  • Artsy

    Given the level of public scrutiny and media intrusiveness, I’m amazed ANYONE stands for public office. But I’m glad they do, particularly women. My great-grandmother, a formidable activist and suffragette, ran for mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut, many decades ago, and although she lost (no surprise there), I’m very proud to be her descendant.

    Women who serve in public office are judged not only on their bodies, grooming, and style, but also on their age, only adding to the already heady and toxic brew of criticism. I’m not sure how we change the conversation–ignore it, subvert it, dominate it (think Elizabeth I), but it’s well past time to do so.

    I hope we’ll hear more about your work for women’s empowerment..

  • Becky

    I love this post, but I respectfully disagree that matters of dress and beauty are more frivolous or less important than direct women’s empowerment, or even, in some ways, clean water and health care.

    Travel to anyplace in the developing word, maybe a place on the State Department’s “don’t go there” list, and meet some women. Do they care how they look? Do they put effort into their clothes, hair, and style? Yes, they do. And just like here on the internet, women everywhere care about these things, not primarily to impress men, but because it is important to them to feel beautiful and stylish.

    This is something very deep in the human heart. Clothing and self-adornment is art. Art makes us human. People who don’t get enough to eat, people who are afraid, people who are oppressed, people who are grieving – they also make and need art, maybe as much as they need food, safety, liberty, and comfort. You can see this, in women who live terrifyingly precarious lives by your and my standards, yet still put time and energy every day into being beautiful.

    The day after my husband was diagnosed with late-stage, fast-moving cancer, I put on the tall wedge boots that make me feel brave, and the handknit shawl that makes me feel loved. Those acts were *important.* I cannot cure my husband, but I can dress to be stronger in the face of fear and pain. It makes him feel a little better, to see the woman who loves him looking beautiful. Life is a scary, dangerous thing, and we cannot make it less so; but we can make it gorgeous.

    So don’t sell yourself short, Sal. The work you do here is just as important to the lives of flesh-and-blood women as poltitical action or microfinance or social work. Heck, what you do here *is* political action, microfinance and social work. Keep on keeping on!

    • Artsy

      I love YOUR post, Becky (and I’m sorry for the difficult time you’re going through). “Clothing and self-adornment is art. Art makes us human”–well said. I live and breathe for the love of color–in my home, my art, and, yes, my clothing. I think of outfits as “walking collages,” and dress in lines that I find pleasing–lines that happen to reveal my figure, though that is not the point. It’s important to me to create something (usually an outfit) that I find beautiful–something that I can share with others, something that might spark a dialogue, something that they, too, might find beautiful. This form of creative expression is part of what empowers me as a woman, as it adds joy, energy, and expansiveness to all I do.

    • Margaret

      I’m sorry, but no. I love fashion. I believe in it as an empowering force, And yet there is no way in all the fires of hell that 99% of fashion could remotely be considered political action. This is not about putting down clothing or those of us who love it; this is about recognizing that running for office, obtaining clean water and working toward better health care is *even more significant.* Saying that any form of self-expression is necessarily equal to any form of political action whatsoever is to deny the importance of real, difficult political work and change. We do not have to denigrate clothing, clothing blogs or our fabulous Sal to understand that there’s actually no piece of clothing in the world as important as access to clean potable water. We have to have perspective.

  • Rachel

    I find it strange that you promote fashion as a means of empowering women, but so much of what you write is dedicated to upholding sexist, racist beauty standards. For instance, the concept of “flattering” your figure implies that there’s an ideal figure one should attempt to emulate. I realize you’re probably aware of this, but I think it’s unfortunate that you choose to validate the opinions of The Fashion Industry/The Patriarchy/Society (whatever term you prefer), however indirectly, through tips and tricks for “passing” as a fashionable woman. Personally, I find it more empowering when women reject those standards, and create spaces where women of all shapes, sizes, and proportions can feel great, without concealing or emphasizing anything. How can we expect society at large to let go of these shallow, unfair standards, when smart women like you treat them as hurdles to be conquered or potential confidence boosters (when one attains them)? Just my thoughts. I really admire your activism though. The world needs more women in charge, and it’s awesome to see someone so passionate about it.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sally

      I definitely see the conflict. However, I do my utmost to remind everyone reading here – and anyone who has read my book – that they get to choose their OWN figure flattery priorities. That no one can tell any woman anywhere what is best for her body or style. I don’t treat figure flattery priorities as hurdles, I don’t ever call anything on anyone’s body a “flaw,” and I don’t assume I know what all women should or shouldn’t wear.

      Many of the posts here that deal with figure flattery are reader requests, direct responses to questions from people who visit and read this blog. Because I want this space to be responsive and inclusive, I think it’s important to create content that has been asked for. But even in those posts, I try to always say something along the lines of, “None of my figure flattery advice posts should be considered gospel, including this one, and I fully expect you to read them with a grain of salt. Style ‘rules’ are merely guidelines, no matter who is dispensing them. I trust you to use your judgment. And I trust you to take what applies to you, discard the rest, and assume positive intent.”

      It could be argued that all fashion guidelines are socially based. Fashion is social, dressing a dialogue. Does the patriarchy influence which silhouettes society deems flattering? It sure does. Does that mean we must conform to those idealized silhouettes? It sure doesn’t. But when we react to something by subverting it, we are still being controlled by it. If we reject traditional figure flattery to demonstrate that we don’t exist for the male gaze alone, then we are still living our lives in response to the other and not making any personal choices. I think each individual woman is capable of gathering information, evaluating it, and deciding for herself how she wants to present her figure and body and self to the world.

      I fully support women who choose to reject traditional figure flattery maxims and standards, but I also want the women who embrace those standards to be able to understand and utilize them. It helps to know the rules so that you can be as informed as possible when you choose to break them.

  • http://pacificrain.blogspot.com sarah

    Yes. I agree. In fact, though I often sit and reflect upon my own interest in fashion and whether or not this isn’t an entirely frivolous hobby, I can’t deny that I am passionate about fashion, and it’s actually made me a resource for certain members of my social circle. When a close girlfriend accepted a position as a campaign manager for a mayoral candidate (a woman) in 2010, one of the first things she did in her new position was come to visit me with photographs of her candidate and links to videos in which her candidate discussed her values, her goals, her aspirations. Why did she come to me? She knew her candidate would need a makeover before she placed herself before the public eye – her candidate hadn’t changed her hair style or colour since the 1980s, for example. My friend knew that the media would eat her alive – and as a new figure in politics, this woman needed to burst onto the scene with an appearance that pronounced that she was sophisticated, mature, AND CURRENT. We sat down and I gave my recommendations for cut, texture, colour, style. We then talked clothes; I recommended styles of pieces, named a few brands, and we discussed outfits that would be appropriate for speeches/debates vs more informal PR volunteer work at local schools, etc. We also looked at brands, cuts and styles that reflected the candidate’s values; my friend knew she would be resistant to the makeover, and we discussed how best to meet the candidate halfway, using services and products that matched her values.

    Is the double standard sexist? Yes. Is it unfair? Yes. But is it a fact that presentation matters? Yes. And my friend was relieved and grateful to leave my house, armed with lists, key words, brand names, and images to help her transition this woman into her new role in the public eye. And when this woman did launch her campaign, all of the press focused on her experience, her knowledge, her plans – no mention of her hair, her clothes at all (which, i think, is success – the media focused only on what really mattered).

  • Lynn

    Wow. What an amazing post. It truly spoke to me. I believe so passionately about empowering women to be leaders (or if not leaders–whatever else they want to be)… I’ve just been struggling on trying to figure out how to best do that. Any suggestions/guidance/thoughts you have would be so great.
    Thanks again for such passion, Sally!

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sally

      Thank you, Lynn! Empowering women can take infinite forms and it’ll really depend upon the end goals. But some of the simplest ways to start are to encourage the women around you to talk about their goals, offer to listen, offer to help in any way you can, and encourage any women in your life who may feel like they aren’t living up to their own potential. In my experience, empowerment is mainly about support. Each of us as individuals must decide upon our paths of action, but having others around us offering guidance and encouragement can be absolutely priceless. I hope that’s somewhat helpful!

  • http://www.khinky.wordpress.com Osprey

    Hi Sal
    Your blog is the only style-related one that I have kept on reading long after I finished “educating” myself about the topic. My initial aim was to look impeccable, so that it gave possible detractors one less thing to use against me. Now I see that they will have something to say regardless, but I am grateful that you always put appearance related topics in context and that you respect the individuality of your readers.

  • http://saveyourpinmoney.blogspot.com Sabine

    Thank you very much for this post! It had related thoughts yesterday as I was pushing my 85 year-old mom’s wheelchair to the shop where we were going to buy elastic-waist trousers. She is very frail, bent and ailing, still she put on some lipstick and her beloved Opium perfume before we went out. Trying to look good in adverse circumstances was an act of pride for her, a sig she has not given up.

    Still, seeing how body and face of this once very attractive woman have been changed by age and illness I thought how much time is generally wasted in earlier life by lamenting perceived “flaws” and how we should instead embrace our big bums, thick waists, broad thighs and get on with living, loving and generally doing the things that are important.

    Quite pragmatically, clothes and make up help present ourselves and most people do not see beyond the surface. So someone wanting to garner a majority will need to be attentive to that. On the other hand, depending on your field of choice, it might not be necessary. One of my former class mates, a very intelligent, sweet tempered, heavy set and short woman who has never touched a make up item all her life, is a rocket scientist and would never compromise on the hyper casual way she dresses. Standards? What standards?

    Dressing well is a choice, neither more nor less. If it helps a woman feel stronger, good. It also indicates being capable of discipline which bodes well for managing other areas of life.

    But I do sometimes feel with the abundance of fashion and body image blogs – although there is some exceptional work – that I would like to see women’s time employed to less self-involved use. So I am glad to hear you are working on it!

  • http://teachergoesbacktoschool.org Tami (Teacher Goes Back to School)

    I think of this as a body acceptance/women’s empowerment blog first and then a helpful style blog next.

    So keep on keeping on, Sal.