Several weeks ago, reader Amita reached out to me with the loveliest email, and in it she shared a bit of her personal style and body image journey. She’s a Ph.D. candidate in cognitive science at CBCS, University of Allahabad, India, and she has a unique perspective and fascinating story. I immediately asked if she’d be comfortable writing a guest post for the blog so others could hear about her ruminations, struggles, and triumphs. And I’m so glad she agreed, because in the post that follows, she has outlined and supported several important ideas that I’ve never been able to articulate myself. And done so with tremendous passion, elegance, and care.
Please welcome Amita, and read on to share in her journey.
(Content note: Disordered eating is discussed. Comment and discussion note: As always, express your views respectfully and civilly or they will not be published in the comments. Be courteous and kind to each other when responding to remarks from other readers.)
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Style and beauty have always lurked in my mind. All my life I have repressed these interests. Like many young girls, I acquired the belief that you can choose to be smart, or you can choose to be stylish. I made my decision early: I would be smart, and I would be not stylish. And I have been my own best dictator.
Like most Indian girls I had my ears pierced when I was a year old. At eleven I decided that body piercings constitute body defacement. I stopped wearing earrings. My piercings appeared to close again, my ears returning to their natural state to my great satisfaction. I’m fortunate to have a liberal family, so my mother protested only verbally. But she did protest, and that increased my satisfaction. She wanted me to “dress like a girl” but I saw no reason why I should. Ignoring my appearance became my protest against gender roles and other dated social codes. It became part of my emerging feminism. It also ‘went well’ with my introversion, with my chosen field of academics. It was convenient.
As far back as I can remember I have been interested in school, and in writing. I was regularly recognised for both. Excellence in these pursuits became my identity. That was who I was: a good student and a good writer. Everything else was a distraction. So that I could focus on endeavours of the mind, my body had to be in its natural state. Fallaciously, I assumed that “natural state” meant being whenever possible dressed in old, loose, even faded clothes, with nary a comb run through my hair. This was my “natural state” for so long that I forgot it was a state I had chosen, one of infinitely many states that my body could occupy.
“Natural” is a dangerous category. It is a favourite catchword for fundamentalist groups of all stripes. An excuse for governments and individuals to repress certain behaviours, to persecute certain people. Empirically, “natural” is a meaningless category. By definition, everything that is, is natural. Everything that everyone does. Unless you believe that humans are outside nature – which also makes “natural” meaningless. To invoke “natural” morally is equally meaningless. Nature is bloody “in tooth and claw.” The principles of nature are selfishness, exploitation, and manipulation at every level between and within species. Even things like cooperation and altruism have been able to evolve because in the long run they are self-serving. “Natural” is anything but a proxy for “morally acceptable.” I’m a vegan, a conscious consumer, and a lover of green spaces. But I have become convinced that “natural” cannot be used to explain, justify, or privilege any behaviour or any individual.
“Natural” continued to exert heinous influences to repress my interest in style. I began to realise that there was something ‘unnatural’ with me. I have never been attracted to anyone. Not sexually, not romantically. It took me years to realise that I am probably asexual.
It was complicated. I have a libido, and I have experienced infatuations. For some time I thought I was gay. I explored my sexuality with women, with men. Lovely people. People to whom I could perfectly well picture someone being attracted. Even someone like me. But I wasn’t. Eventually I realised that my infatuations were a form of admiration. The people I crushed on had traits I admire. Even with them, I couldn’t picture doing anything. I felt upbeat around them. Inspired, energetic. Just as I do after a run, or when I listen to music I love, or when I read a well-turned phrase. But the people I crushed on were people. So I interpreted that as infatuation.
Interpretation is a powerful thing. What shapes our lives, our self-concepts is not our ‘direct’ experience, but our interpretation of it. Of course, my interpreting my infatuations as admiration is also an interpretation. Sexuality is a fluid category, and my friends tell me I just haven’t met the right person yet. At 28, I doubt that, but I’ll keep an open mind.
My putative asexuality gave me one more reason to enforce the style vs. smarts binary in my life. Dressing is social, and an interest in one’s appearance often sends, with or without intention, messages about one’s sexuality. I decided to deflect any attention from my appearance, to avoid anything construable as false advertising. I shunned skirts and bright colours. It didn’t matter that these were things I’ve always loved. My primary intention when dressing became to signal that I was not interested, not available.
My interest in style broke free when I realised that I could dress for myself. Groundbreaking, right? Just because dressing is social doesn’t mean it’s not also personal. This was the first of several false binaries that I had to cut loose from. Wearing skirts and bright colours lifts my mood and makes me feel myself. Just as writing does, or running. It makes me feel put-together and comfortable and ready to focus. Because I’m aware that most people continue to subscribe to the binary of smarts “vs.” style, dressing well also raises the standard I set myself for other endeavours. Dressing well is a way to show that the world does not exist in binaries – that you can do it without being or becoming lazy, vain, or interested in sex. That you can be stylish and also be creative, intelligent, athletic, generous – any number of things. Those of you who put visibly more thought into your clothes than people around you will understand what a lift this can be, to excel in other areas of your life. It can act as a handicap in sports: in many arenas, individuals who stylish will have to work harder to be taken seriously. So in many cases, you do. It’s a way to exploit false binaries in people’s thinking – in your own thinking – to motivate yourself to excel. To show up all those binaries as false.
Body image is a dynamic entity that shapes, and is shaped by, other aspects of our lives. Acknowledging and indulging my interest in style has helped my life in other ways.
I am a perfectionist. Those of you with tendencies this way know it is a pain in the a**. Nothing will ever be good enough – so why try? All my life I have swung between periods of ambitious hard work and periods of exhaustion where I reflect on my achievements, deem them inadequate, and sink into an apathy in which nothing seems worth doing. I did this at school, and with my writing. I obsessed over every word, every shade of meaning, every comma. It took me weeks to finish a short story. And when I finished I was sick of it. Perfectionism poisoned my interest in the things I enjoyed.
My periodic surges of interest in style I firmly repressed. I did not need another thing to obsess over.
But it happened anyway. As an undergrad I struggled with anorexia nervosa. For me this disorder was ‘motivated’ by a quest for perfectionism. Fuelled by another dangerous binary: “all or nothing.” A perfect body attained with hours everyday of exercise, with continuous self-deprivation. That, or nothing. After recovering, I became even more indifferent to my appearance. My body had proved itself incapable of perfection. Now it did not merit any attention. I continued to eat well and to exercise in moderation. I had developed an interest in health. But as for clothes, as for the self that I showed the world – I felt bound to acknowledge that my body was imperfect, therefore worth no speck of my own or anyone else’s attention. I have realised that nothing is perfect. A shaky realisation: I have to keep reminding myself. I still struggle to believe that things are worth doing, and doing well, even if nothing is perfect. Taking an interest in style, working with the body I have rather than with an impossible fictitious body – has helped me to relax in other ways. I continue to take care of my health but I’m less fanatic about a missed workout or a bit of processed food. I find work interesting without needing to turn in the perfect paper, to design the perfect experiment. And I continue to work hard on my writing but I’m (slightly) less obsessive about perfectionism. Getting dressed reminds me everyday that life is beautiful if you just accept it as it is. Accept yourself as you are. When you give up perfectionism, self-acceptance becomes oddly compatible with continuously striving to be better, to do better.
But why is all this important? It’s “just style,” right? “Just clothes,” as even fashion designers sometimes say.
Because anything worth doing is worth doing well. Because it’s never style “vs.” anything. Because thinking in binaries is backwards, muddying our ideas about other people, about who we can be. Because acknowledging and embracing all aspects of the self makes people happy, and because when people are happy they’re likelier to work harder, to take care of themselves, to care about other people. Because style is for you, regardless of your occupation, your personality, your sexual orientation, regardless of anything. Because style is a repudiation of perfectionism, of self-repression, of thinspiration, of the obsession with pale skin that permeates my society and many others – a repudiation of repressive and homogenising forces of every kind. Because style exists for every shape and size and colour, and is a concrete, visible celebration of diversity and self-worth. Because style is a concrete, visible celebration of you.
Just as you are.
Image courtesy Marc Roberts