A woman I used to work with was using a jokey hasthtag on Twitter the other day: #femmeolympics.
With it, she was gathering female-identified people’s stories about putting on makeup in outrageous circumstances or walking in high heels in less than ideal conditions.
I know it was all meant in good fun, but my inner not-girly-enough sensitivity got a bit tweaked reading them. My panicked train of thought started spinning out: I can’t remember if I’ve ever gotten dressed or done my hair in exceptionally challenging circumstance. But, if I’ve never put on false eyelashes while driving in heavy traffic, does that mean I’m less femme than someone who has? Am I failing at something I never knew I was supposed to be aspiring to? Have I lost the Olympics without even playing?
While waiting to cross the street to get to my office Tuesday morning, a conventionally attractive woman stood a few feet in front and to the left of me. She was tall and thin and blonde and was dressed so impeccably she belonged, aesthetically, more in New York than Chicago. Even her winter gear was sleek—black serial killer gloves with a sexy peekaboo detail around the inner wrist, luxurious looking black knit legwarmers emerging from the tops of her fashionably severe knee-high black boots. It was like all of her beauty was further highlighted, heightened, caressed by her outerwear.
In my puffy lumberjack coat, with my hair sweaty and matted down under my trapper hat and earflaps, crisscrossed along the length of my torso by the straps of my oversized purse and tote bag containing my lunch, with my feet stuffed into clompy beige snowboots, I felt likewise highlighted by my outerwear. Just in the opposite direction. I was more awkward, more frumpy/dumpy/lumpy, more haphazard and mismatched.
I am obviously the only person responsible for buying my clothes and getting myself dressed in the morning. So, I suppose it’s theoretically possible for me to start buying outfits that would make me look like a German rocketship stewardess from the year 2150. I have no one to blame but myself if I’m unhappy with the state of my wardrobe. But obviously, even if I bought the exact same clothes she was wearing, I wouldn’t look anything like that woman. And not just because I’m shorter and more voluptuous. The whole effect of her tall-thin-blonde-elegant otherness stemmed from my response to it as an observer. I wouldn’t look that way to myself, inside myself, even if we were twins.
Partly, though, some of my perplexed fascination with her stemmed from the sense that she intended to look like that. Her self-presentation seemed too cohesive not to have been intentionally curated (god, I hate that word). Which means, she had the idea of what she wanted to look like—both in the morning when she was getting ready to leave the house and whenever she bought the individual items of clothing—and then found the pieces to match that mental image and merged herself with it.
This boggles my mind! To have so powerful a sense of oneself that one can not only articulate it internally, but then also actively go about purchasing and wearing the clothes that will accurately achieve the desired effect? As someone who has been known to casually throw around terms like “magic” and “witchcraft” and actually mean them, sartorial talent at that level seems less like voodoo to me and more like straight-up applied mathematics.
I find myself going through different looks, of course. There was the time I gave up pants altogether and started wearing skirts and dresses with leggings exclusively, the time I wore stripy knee-socks every day, the time I just kept putting my light leather jacket on over all my tops like a cardigan. But mostly these are accidental phases that I don’t realize I’m in until I’m well inside them. “Oh, I haven’t been wearing jeans as much as I used to. I guess that’s a thing that I’m doing now.”
I’m fascinated by fashion and have enough visual sense to be able to achieve basic effects with my clothing choices—but it’s all still ultimately a crapshoot. I’ll luck into finding functional pieces for my wardrobe at resale places and consignment shops and even Target and Old Navy. I don’t tend to go out in search of anything specific, though, for fear that if I did, I’d never be able to find it, never be able to afford it, never be able to pull it off.
I’m utterly enamored of the current raft of body-positivity bloggers who insist that we all have a right to wear what makes us feel good. There’s so much amazing creativity and resourcefulness being put into their “outfit of the day” posts—and that’s not even mentioning the niche bloggers who focus exclusively on underwear, hair, makeup, nail art, perfume, etc. It’s a varied, beautiful landscape of self-expression and self-presentation. I support it and endorse it and adore it.
But when I find myself feeling like I’m falling short of even this free-for-all, anything-goes spirit, I have to wonder where, why, and how I’m blocking myself. Is it the time, the effort, the money? Clearly not. Any of those things are surmountable. I think I’m most worried that I have no vision, because I know that means I’m avoiding looking at myself. Whatever it is I’m afraid to see (or not see) when I look certainly can’t be as horrible as convincing myself that I shouldn’t bother at all.