What We Can Learn from Dressing

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.

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 well nigh-traumatic.

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 thought 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.

Originally posted 2013-09-16 06:02:50.

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12 Responses to “What We Can Learn from Dressing”

  1. Susan In Boston

    Interesting post. Your point about understanding the parts of your body in the context of your body alone is important. I’m learning to make clothing patterns, and I have been working with a woman who understands fitting. She can see where something is not working and can mark the adjustment needed. I am on my fourth muslin of the basic bodice, but I can tell you that even though it is covered with Sharpie squiggles, the thing is starting to rock. It is astounding what a well-fitting piece of clothing can do for your spirits.

    But more important, the conversation is about adjustment of fabric, not adjustment of me–how to get the fabric to hang properly on *my* body, not the body of the fitting model the designer uses or the body that represents the measurements, proportions, and relationships of the statistical averages used to create a commercial pattern. Of the women I know who sew, most of them are quilters or do cushions, upholstery, and draperies. All of them started out trying to make their own clothes, and eventually gave up because they could not get things to fit on a regular basis. I couldn’t either until I started paying attention to the patterns.

    So, my larger point here is that for those who have an interest and want to change the conversation in their heads about their bodies, sewing offers another path. When you have some really basic sewing skills (sewing straight seams, sewing darts and curves, marking and cutting fabric), you know enough to spend some productive time with someone who understands fit and patterns. Once you get a couple of patterns that fit you well, you can make the simple pieces (pencil and A-line skirts; gathered skirts; sleeveless blouses and vests without buttons) and buy the tricky ones. And you’ll understand what the fabric needs to do to look good on *you*.

    I shall now step down from my soapbox…;-)

  2. Marsha

    I like the way you compare your body parts to the size of your frame, rather than to whatever “normal” or “desirable” is supposed to be. You need to be aware of your proportions if you’re going to find–or make–clothes that you feel good in, but there’s no need to feel inadequate because of your bust or superior because of your waist. It just is what it is.

    I either make or alter nearly all my clothing. Over time, this has helped me become more and more objective about my measurements and proportions–they’re just numbers or shapes, with no judgment involved. If a garment doesn’t fit, it’s the garment that’s wrong, not my body, and it’s the garment that must be altered until it’s right (or discarded), not my body.

  3. Karen

    I think it’s very brave that you admit to your struggles with anxiety, as I struggle with this myself and I think a lot of people equate anxiety with weakness, or the inability to handle stressors. Chronic anxiety is more about your genetics than anything, and this realization has been immensely helpful to me (as well as medication and therapy). Once I realized that once once stressor had been eliminated from my life, my anxiety will take other forms. Realizing this makes the stressors seem much smaller. But I guess everyone deals with mental health issues differently, and there certainly isn’t a catch-all solution.

    Going back to body image; I think it can be achieved in many ways, and it doesn’t all have to be about material things like clothing. Clothes are an important factor in how we present ourselves to the world, but they also shouldn’t be everything. I love clothes, I love picking out outfits, but really, this should be a fun thing, not something that fills women with dread. I know plenty of men who have body image issues, my husband included, but most men I know do not exert the amount of mental energy on appearance that women do. I really hope one day more women will move away from exhausting SO much energy on physical appearance. It holds women back, it really does.

  4. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Well said, Sal, comparison is the death of joy. Worrying about our curls/hips/shoulders is as unnecessary as worrying about our height or age. Dress for fun, enjoy clothing, and fly your own flag! xoxo

  5. Susan Partlan

    Great post Sally. Susan in Boston and I must be style twins because I was going to make a really similar comment!

    The main thing, as you said, is to think in terms of your specific body, not someone else’s notion of what it should be.

  6. M-C

    Horrifying. Thanks for sharing your good journey with so many others.
    A couple suggestions for next steps: 1) learn to sew, which will feel at least as much of a leap forward as paying attention to style in terms of body acceptance 2) “full catastrophe living” for a different take than avoidance on anxiety triggers :-).

  7. Marsha W

    This was such a well written and profound description of how we end up becoming comfortable with what makes us uncomfortable. Thank you for a good read. I enjoy your work and all of the other article links. I have found some amazing resources thanks to you.

  8. Terri

    What an interesting way to think about “Dress.” If someone had told me five years ago that I would ever have had a fashion or style blog, I never would have believed them, but I think this post may have just articulated what I like about experimenting with clothing. Also, the recombination of pieces appeals to the “creative” writer in me.

    This look you’re wearing is very striking to my eye.

  9. Paula B

    Sally, thank you for the post.
    I’ve come along the path you have described: looking at my relationship with food, how I deal with stress and my attitude on physical exercise. Like Terri’s post above, 5 years ago I would have never thought of reading a fashion blog and now I’m a devotee. I’ve lost 112 pounds over 18 months, and, so far, (thank you Lord), I’ve kept it off for 6 months.
    For me it has been that attitude shift from such things as ‘my bust is too small, to discovering possibilities and options only available to smaller busted women’.
    Because of you and your blog I have become an avid ‘thrifter’. I now own a beautiful coordinated wardrobe making so much fun thinking about –What am I going to wear today?
    All the best~Paula B

    • Sally

      Oh Paula, it makes me unspeakably happy to hear this. And kudos to you for having the strength and insight to carve a new path for yourself that includes less judgment and more acceptance!