The Color of Trust


My mom has fully embraced purple as this season’s “in” color. When I got home to the Chicago ‘burbs on Thursday night, I noticed that she wasn’t carrying the black leather handbag she’d mentioned picking up at Marshall’s a few weeks back. Instead, she was carrying a purple patent Kathy Van Zeeland shopper that caused me a moment of shiny aubgergine alarm. Friday morning, she came downstairs wearing a purple long-sleeved tee, and as she pulled on her sandals, I noticed that her toenails were painted a deep plum. The woman goes whole hog, and I dig that about her.

Mom and I feel the same way about fashion mags: They’re cheap thrills, and we both sift through them as a way to select the seasonal trends that we’ll embrace, and identify the ones that we’ll discard. We chat about what we see, and generally agree on the best new looks. Even though we are so physically different as to barely look related and have vastly different tastes in clothing, we usually hone in on the same styles.

But I’d never seen her adopt a trend so enthusiastically before. Usually, if we’ve agreed on the fundamental acceptability of a magazine-endorsed style, one or both of us will show up wearing it when next we meet. But this purple-palooza was unprecedented. And after spending the weekend with her and noting how much we talked style and fashion, I began to worry that I was actually, factually peer-pressuring my mom. That maybe my increased interest in and activity surrounding matters of style had made her feel like the had to bring her A-Game. Her profoundly purple A-Game.

Growing up, my mom never pressured me to wear anything … or to NOT wear anything. While Dad moaned and groaned at my overall-clad scarecrow-girl phase and begged me never to cut my long hair, Mom just kept her mouth shut. She trusted me to find my own style, and I’m certain that her quiet faith helped me explore and experiment to my heart’s content until I found the me I wanted to look like.

But in addition to allowing me breathing room – a passive kindness – she also did me two active favors: She dressed impeccably to her body type, and she seldom expressed frustration about her own figure.

My mom knows exactly how to flatter her bod and highlight its best features. She wears her fiery hair down every day, and makes sure to minimize distraction from it by wearing simple gold earrings. She shows off her arms and chooses tops that accentuate her strong shoulders. She embraces skinny jeans to show off her great gams. She is careful with color, sticking to a palette complimentary to fair skin and red hair. She is the queen of the statement necklace, and has an enviable collection that rivals my own. The first person to teach me that regular-person bodies can look superbly stylish was my mom.

And although I remember a few flip comments about her quirky shape, Mom never beat herself up about weight or shape or body. She laughed it off, and focused on more important matters. Perhaps she was secretly frustrated, but I never saw or felt her frustration growing up. And I became doubly grateful for that just last week.

Because last week I went to a body image lecture by author Courtney E. Martin. She said a lot of things that surprised me, a few that annoyed me, and several that rang through me like bells. One of which was that moms who turn to their daughters and say, “Honey, you’re beautiful and perfect just as you are!” but then turn to the mirror and say, “God, I’m so fat. I hate my body,” contribute to disordered body-image thinking and behavior in their girl children. That mixed message is powerful stuff coming down from the matriarch. And although I obsess and flagellate and cycle like nearly all women do, I can safely say that none of my body-centric neuroses were handed down to me from my mom.

I’m not sure what to think of Mom’s purple passion. Maybe she’s feeling pressure to keep pace with me, or maybe it’s narcissistic for me to believe that my influence prompted any change in her shopping habits. Regardless, I knew that I had to trust her as she has always trusted me. So even though the sight of her KVZ patent shopper caused me to involuntarily furrow my brow, I kept my mouth shut. I have complete confidence that she will find her own stylistic path through exploration and experimentation at 64, just as I am still doing at 31. And if that stylistic path includes shiny purple handbags, I can totally work with that.

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An Accumulation of Small Actions

This may be one of those cases where I’m over-explaining. But I prefer to be crystal clear so, since this is a matter of some sensitivity to me, I’ll dish the details. And hopefully I won’t get so lofty that you’ll want to barf all over your keyboard. And double hopefully I won’t piss anyone off.*

Since I talk a lot about changing the attitudes of women – and since I want to encourage any and all of my awesome readers to do the same – I want to give you some background on my philosophy of activism.

An ex-boyfriend became frustrated with me when he realized I didn’t want to change the world in the same way that he did. His was the visible-action, large-view, hit-‘em-where-it-hurts method. He wanted protests and petitions and phone calls to congress. He was a traditional activist.

And, for a while, I was unable to articulate why I couldn’t engage in that method of expression myself. I mean, if you want change, you’d better get out there and be public about it, right? Tell onlookers, the media, the government, and anyone else who’s tuned in exactly what you think. Loudly and utilizing signage. That’s how it’s done, that’s how it’s always been done. And although I wasn’t afraid to do it, I knew it wasn’t my way. And I didn’t figure out what my way was until long after I’d ended it with this man, so he may still think that I’m a coward.

Much like dentistry, airplane piloting, and road construction, public activism is something I’m glad other people want to do. Some folks feel potent and passionate and driven when campaigning hard for the issues that stir their souls, and man, I am seriously so glad. I’m grateful to those who brim with optimism and energy and the desire to kick change into gear by any means necessary. They make things happen through their willingness to declare their beliefs publicly. Often they are unsung heroes, but I’ll sing a little tune in their honor right here. These people do, in fact, rock.

For me, though, it just doesn’t work. Chalk it up to a need for instant gratification, or Gen X impatience, or anything you like, but I want to see and feel the impact of my actions. I don’t enjoy craft fairs selling wares I can’t afford – I’d rather go to a flea market where I can buy everything. I don’t read Vogue, which caters to a far more informed and wealthy woman than I’ll ever be – I’d rather read Lucky and use my own creativity to knock off its accessible styles. And I don’t campaign for body image issues by lobbying Congress or sending endless letters to magazine editors – I’d rather work within the circle of people whose lives I can touch. Directly.

Affecting the people you can touch directly is simple, rewarding, and lasting. Just one well-timed compliment can cause someone to open like a flower. Reaching out to someone who already trusts you reinforces that trust and creates safety. The simple act of listening reminds people that they are valued and cared for and supported and loved. And by working within your personal circle, you can not only witness the influence of your actions, but perpetuate that influence through repetition.

Simple, rewarding, and lasting.

If I start by being kind to myself, and then extend that kindness to the wonderful people in MY life, and then encourage THEM to do the same, isn’t it feasible to assume that change is possible? Not vast, immediate, earth-shattering change, but subtle, vital, and potentially permanent change. That’s what I want. That’s my way.

And part of it is that I have limited energy and am unwilling to put any of my meager supply towards pushing for change that I cannot see. As I’ve said, I admire those who are moved to protest in public or voice their concerns on a larger scale. But to me, it just feels like yelling into a well. And I realize that could be considered selfish and lazy on a certain level. But I know my limits and must work within them. When I do that, I’m happy and successful. When I don’t, I suffer. And willfully introducing suffering into my own life is just no good. It goes against the whole “being kind to myself” deal.

I wanted to explain this because I’ve realized that I advocate “spreading the love” pretty damn frequently, and people might want to know why. But also because anyone who reads this blog is officially part of my circle, and I don’t think I’d ever bothered to mention that. I am beyond thrilled to have expanded that circle to include you lovely, brilliant, supportive, amazing women.

I mentioned a while back that helping women recognize and accept their own beauty has become an important goal to me. I could really use a hand, if any of you feel up to it. Fighting body image dysmorphia can be a guerrilla war that we wage together. Because it’s a quiet, insidious, deeply personal issue that doesn’t respond well to legislation. And although I’ll sure as hell sign petitions for related causes, and speak publicly if asked, and vocally support campaigns toward overarching change, I know I’ll feel most effective and valuable in this war when I witness the affects of my small actions on the people in my life.

That’s what I want. That’s my way. And if it’s yours, too, welcome to the battlefield.

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