Posts Categorized: body image

Seeing Your Body Through the Lens of Style

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Before I became interested in dressing and style, I avoided thinking about my body. At all costs. I didn’t look in the mirror if I didn’t have to, didn’t focus much energy or attention on how my outfits interacted with my figure, and did my utmost to think about anything besides my own physicality. Because of this choice, the information I was given about my body came almost exclusively from external sources. And none of it was good news: I was chubby, disproportionate, my breasts were too small and my hips were too big, my arms were flabby and so was my stomach. Virtually all of this information was comparative: I was flabby compared to Gwyneth Paltrow, my breasts were too small compared to Victoria’s Secret models … you know the drill. I studiously ignored my body, hoping its perceived inadequacies would diminish if I pretended I was a brain in a jar. And yet this comparative information still crept in and made me feel inadequate.

I’ve struggled with anxiety for over a decade, but only recently learned something important about the power of my own fears: Like most people, I avoid the things that make me feel anxious and afraid. This avoidance brings temporary relief, which amounts to a reward response. And the longer this cycle continues, the more likely I am to avoid these anxiety-producing things and the more powerful their fear factors become. When I allow myself to consider and face the things that cause me to feel anxious – generally with a “what’s the worst that can happen?” attitude in tow – I can diffuse some of their power over me. This is not to say that I’ve decided to immediately and aggressively confront every last one of my triggers. But it means that I now understand something essential about my body image struggles: I may have been making myself feel worse about my body by pretending it didn’t exist. Because during those years of avoidance, I was occasionally forced to deal with and contemplate my body. And when I was forced to look at it, “evaluate” it, address it in some way, that experience became extremely loaded, difficult, and sometimes painful.

I know many women who, like me, spent years studiously ignoring their bodies before finally deciding to make a change. Some chose to begin the conversation through fitness or food. Some chose meditation or yoga. Some found motherhood to be an awakening into discussion with their physical forms. For reasons I didn’t quite grasp at the time, I began to examine my body through the lens of clothing.

The world of fashion provides fertile ground for self-loathing. There are infinite messages about what women “can” and “cannot” wear based on their figures, beliefs about superior body sizes and shapes, and bizarre hierarchies of beauty reinforced by the fashion machine. But instead of focusing on those things, I reached for the information that clothing offered to me about my body. It said, “Skirts won’t constrict your hips or squeeze your midsection,” and “Your small bust makes it possible for you to wear a huge variety of shirts.” It said, “Belts draw the eye to your waist,” and “Boots make you feel invincible.” Instead of learning about my body through it’s weight or size, its response to food or exercise, I learned about my body through its relationship to the clothing I chose to wear. I learned how it is shaped by experimenting with clothes, and I learned what felt good to wear and what felt like a struggle.

And I learned all of those things about my specific body. Not my body on a spectrum, not my body compared to an ideal body but instead my body in relative isolation. Although I certainly had my moments of cursing skinny jeans and feeling frustrated that they didn’t look or feel “right” to me, I was mostly able to glean information about my body that felt fairly factual and scientific. I have broad hips and a small waist for my build. I have small breasts and wrists and ankles for my build. I have a high waistline and full upper arms for my build. It was all about me, and that made it feel less loaded.

Definitely an imperfect system for learning. After all, there was still comparison at play: Someone designed those clothes and made decisions about how big and small and proportioned they would be. And that someone was using those same beauty-body blueprints to guide their design decisions. Because I am privileged enough to fall somewhere within that socially-sanctioned spectrum, I was able to try on and contemplate a huge variety of styles and have them fit me. (More or less.) This is not possible for every woman, and for many there may be layers of implied judgment in that not-fitting that would make this approach far too painful to be beneficial.

But it worked for me and it might work for others. Depending on how you’re wired, considering your figure in terms of how it works with and against clothes can feel more constructive and informative than considering your figure as it compares to BMI charts or the bodies of other women. “Too small for that dress” or “too tall for those pants” are informative and specific, and lack the stinging judgment of “too small” or “too tall” period. Your body is naked sometimes, and naked is its natural state. But you go about most of your life clothed, so learning about your body through dressing it can be both enlightening and beneficial.

As a person who loves and explores style, I understand my body now in ways I never did before. I don’t fear it, I don’t avoid it, and I feel like I can converse with it through dressing and clothing. And I’m much happier now that we’re on speaking terms again.

This is a refreshed and revived post from the archive.

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The Mirror

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I have a rather unhealthy relationship with mirrors. OK, having written that I now wonder if anyone goes around bragging about her super healthy, totally functional, fuzzy-wuzzy relationship with reflective surfaces. Doesn’t seem terribly likely. Nevertheless, I’ve realized that I can gauge how I’m feeling about my body through frequency of mirror use. And I’m wondering if my habits will sound familiar to any of you.

When I’m feeling deeply upset about or disappointed in my body, I avoid mirrors altogether. The negativity whirrs softly in the background of my daily activities, and confronting my own reflection just confirms my belief that my physical self is in desperate need of improvement. Unless I absolutely have to use a mirror – for a task like applying makeup or making sure my outfit proportions are acceptable – I just don’t look. The mirror becomes my bitter enemy.

When I’m feeling confident and fantastic about my body, I don’t completely shun mirrors but I also don’t spend ages studying myself in them. I don’t need to make sure I look a certain way or confirm my beauty, and even when I’m feeling my absolute best I can’t say I do loads of preening. I don’t actively look away from mirrors during these times, but I don’t actively seek them either.

When I’m feeling unsure about my body, now that’s when I use mirrors the most. My weight, hair, and skin fluctuate regularly, and when they’re in some sort of transition, I feel compelled to check on them regularly out of curiosity. And sometimes dismay. I want the mirror to show me these strange, appearance-altering shifts, and I want to meticulously track their progress.

Articulating these patterns makes me realize that the mirror doesn’t just reflect back an image of my physical self, it gives me a snapshot of my emotional state. I cannot remember a single time when I was dwelling in the depths of the body blues and a glimpse in the mirror made me feel better. Nor can I recall a time when I was riding high on my own power and joy and then brought low by my own reflection. The mirror shows me exactly what I want and expect to see, be it bad, good, or neutral. It’s revealing very little that I don’t already know.

Other things mirrors fail to show? How other people see me. Whenever people tell me I look like X celebrity or point out a person on the street that could be my twin, I’m always thunderstruck. When I ask my husband to describe me, he focuses on features and proportions I’ve never noticed. When I look in the mirror, I see only one person’s idea of how I look: My own. And I’m just the tiniest bit biased.

Mirrors also fail to show my accomplishments, how much I’m loved, my capacity for kindness, my intelligence. Mirrors will never reflect back my goals, my strengths, my talents, or my passions. Mirrors can never capture the depth and breadth of my relationships, my untapped potential, or the vast and precious reservoir of my memories. I may look in a mirror to see myself, but how much of myself is truly shown? How much can a mirror reveal, how much does it merely reflect, and how much does it miss entirely?

Mirrors are tools and most of us must use them daily. But they should never be relied upon to measure beauty, power, or worth.

Image courtesy Rian Lemmer

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On Effortlessness

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A few months back, I spoke to a St. Kate’s class about style and body image. I can’t quite remember how it came up, but at some point I found myself listing off the number of products I use on my face to create what magazines deem the “no makeup look.” I’ll recap for you: Even putting aside moisturizer, sunscreen, and under-eye cream, I use BB cream, concealer, eyebrow pencil, blush, eyeliner, and mascara. So between six and nine products. If I skip the eyeliner and mascara – which I often do out of sheer laziness – it takes me about 10 minutes to do all of this. Add them back in at we’re talking at least 15, possibly more since I still kinda suck at eyeliner and frequently have to perform some sort of Q-tip triage.

I feel like the emphasis on making your makeup and personal style look “effortless” has ebbed somewhat, but the undercurrent remains. People still worship at the altar of slightly mussed yet eternally chic French girls, and marvel at the slouchy cool of off-duty models. Google “how to effortless style” and you’ll get well over 6 million results, including magazine articles, books, blog posts, and forum entries. We want to look amazing, but somehow want to hide the fact that looking amazing frequently takes gobs of time, money, and effort. And some of us believe that appearing stylish, trend-savvy, and sleek without revealing any of our efforts is essential to appearing stylish, trend-savvy, and sleek at all. Because after all, if we work hard to look good, we must be vain and self-absorbed. But on the flip side, if we don’t work hard enough to look good, we’re deemed frumpy and out-of-touch. So, ya know, lose-lose situation here.

I know my opinion has virtually no impact on dressing practices as pervasive as these, but for the record I love people who try. I love seeing evidence of effort and interest and passion. In a world that becomes more casual by the minute – moving steadily toward a time in which wearing cargo shorts to a state dinner will be completely appropriate – it makes me so happy when I see people who have clearly put some time and energy into crafting their looks. Effortlessness is fantastic. If you couldn’t possibly care less about looking on-trend, more power to you. Wear what makes YOU feel awesome. But if looking “effortless” is the goal, yet assembling an effortless-looking outfit takes twice as long as actually dressing effortlessly … Well, I’m not gonna knock it because many of these carefully crafted “effortless” looks are unspeakably cool. I just feel like there must be a better descriptor for them, considering how effort-intensive they truly are.

There are some people out there who are innately, naturally, effortlessly stylish. Their style looks unstudied because it is unstudied, and everything they throw together looks magnificent. I understand that the real desire here is to be those people, to look magnificent in everything we throw together, to have style coursing through our veins so we don’t have to think hard about outfit assembly. But what comes naturally to some must be learned by others. And some of us will never learn enough to be effortlessly stylish. Luckily, we’ll always be in the majority, so we’ll have lots of effort-fully stylish pals around to keep us company.

Image via Beauty High

P.S. I have now typed the word effortlessness enough times that it looks like utter gibberish. Wheeeee!

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