This story begins when someone I don’t know confides in someone I love that she’d like to wear dresses more, but… she doesn’t… because… well… and…
(I’m not there, I don’t know her at all, but I can see this moment, I can see her pause, ponder, scrunch up her forehead and wonder why it is that she, a successful-powerful-intelligent-confident-adult! woman, why is she even thinking about this? Why is wearing-a-dress/not-wearing-a-dress even a thing? Why is this taking up brain power?)
I come into the story when a new dress comes into my life. And I pull it over my head to parade in it in front of someone I love, but I get distracted by a mirror, and I look at myself, from this angle and from that, and I-love-this-dress-so-much-and-me-in-it-and-I-have-a-thousand-thoughts-racing-through-my-head-and-I-freeze-and…
…and he walks by and sees me, and says,
“Admiring how hot you look in your new dress?”
…and I look at him and say…
“Well… that, yeah… but mostly, I’m pondering why is it that it took me three children, four decades and a brush-with-life-in-a-wheel chair to feel comfortable wearing a dress like this?”
Not just a dress that looks like this, you know (although, wow, how it looks, how it looks!)—it’s more complicated than that. Wearing a dress like this. As if it’s my second skin, a part of me that’s just… a part of me…
And he scrunches up his face, and tells me of his conversation about dresses and wearing-not-wearing with a successful-powerful-intelligent-confident-adult woman who wasn’t sure why this even was an issue for her… but it was…
And in that moment, I know. I know exactly why it was an issue. It gets done to us, to our daughters, to all girls—and to some boys, too—the first time we get a pink onesie… but you know all about that, so I won’t bore you with it. Instead, I’ll tell you this story:
I’m 24, and a little brilliant, and in my first (it will be my last) corporate job. It’s my first performance review. I kick ass. They love my work. I’m perfect. Except, there’s this: “She should dress more professionally.”
I go home, cry, and the next day, buy an ugly navy blue suit. I hate it. It pinches, rubs, feels awkward when I sit. Walk. It makes me look like a fucking corporate drone. A woman-pretending-to-be-a-man, badly.
It does the job.
It hides the fact that I have a beautiful body.
Because, apparently, that distracts from my overall competence?
At my next performance review, the addition of the ugly blue suit to my wardrobe is duly noted as a professional achievement. I quit that job for many, many reasons—but the fact that what I wear is commented on, negatively and positively, in a review of my work, is absolutely a contributing factor.
But the damage is done. It started before, of course. In elementary school, when boys snapped girls’ bra straps, just because, and made our growing breasts a cause of embarrassment and something to hide instead of a glorious, glorious developmental leap to enjoy. In junior high school, when… fuck, you know, I’m almost 40, and I don’t want to go there again. If you were a girl in junior high school, you know. If you have a daughter that age, you’re going through it again, and it hurts even more, because it’s her, and nothing’s changed, and what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-this-world?
Fast-forward to university, and feminism and women’s studies and sociobiology, relativist (or is it?) anthropology, cultural studies, post-modernist English lit, Queer cinema studies, and ow-my-head-hurts-who-am-I-how-am-I-why-do-you-keep-on-telling-me-I-can’t-be-this-if-I-am-that? Rational or sexual, intelligent or beautiful, strong-and-in-control or an eroticized-victim?
Some of these things I analyze, process, struggle with… so many more of them just infiltrate me, affect me, attack me, without me really becoming aware of them.
And then, what happens? I would like to say that pregnancy-child birth-lactation changes me. That would be a great story, wouldn’t it? Four times, the belly grows and stretches and stretches, three times, I am Goddess-Life-Birth-Beginning, for a decade, my body-and-breasts are a source of nourishment-love-comfort… and also, not my own, really, they belong to them, and first I can’t get used to that, and then I love it, and then I resent it, and I’m done, and I want ME back…
…and so, changed, and not my own for so long, and then reclaimed… surely, all that’s part of what happens to me?
But while that’s part of the story—because everything is part of the story—it’s not the whole story, nor even it’s most important part. And it’s not an archetypal, inevitable part, either. But we can argue about that another time…
The reclaiming-reinventing my body from the injury that made me contemplate the-rest-of-my-life-in-a-wheelchair is part of the story too, I suppose. But I like to think it just accelerated—brought into stark relief—a process that was already underway…
(Did you forget what I was writing about? This is a story about a dress. Dresses. Femininity, sexuality, self. On we go: …)
I meet her when I’m… 27? 28? She’s a decade my senior. Gorgeous. You’d know who she is if I told you. She kicks ass, and has since she was 22. Actually, probably since she was 12. And I’m interviewing her about how brilliant and amazing she is. And I also know—I’ve heard them slur her beauty, her sexuality—use the existence of those aspects of her as a negation of her professional achievements, an attempt to refute the fact that on her bad day, she can outthink most of them on their best.
So… I see her brilliance-and-sexuality, fully before me, and I am so in love with it—with her confidence and with how… how in her skin she is. But I wonder… I want to know.
I ask her.
“Do they take you seriously?”
I don’t have to explain who they are. She knows. And she laughs. “Hold on,” she says. And she reaches into a drawer.
Hair pulled back in a rubber band. Big, ugly glasses. Earrings and scarf off. Stark, unflattering jacket on.
“I’m like a fucking quick-change artist when I need to be,” she says. “But I bother to do this less and less. Because, you know what? Fuck them. And I know what they say about me, and they say it whether I’m dressed like a frump or a slut. They’ll say it about any woman who’s like us.”
She doesn’t need to operationalize that. Does she for you? “Like us”—powerful. That’s it. Her own, your own… Powerful.
The jacket, glasses come off. The hair comes loose. She looks at me and unsnaps a button on her shirt. “Fuck them,” she repeats. “If this throws them off their game, I’m all for it.”
I watch her career progress, at breakneck speed, in adulation.
I never see those ugly glasses on her face again…
(Interlude: years later, an editor asks me… “How the hell did you get that quote?” And I’m embarrassed. But I tell him, and it was like this: “I waited until he was looking at my tits to ask the question.” On the other end of the line… silence. And then, “And once again, a tip I can never use myself or pass on to other writers.” Sorry. When the playing field is unfair, and they write all the rules… we will play dirty. Because—fuck them.)
I meet him (not my editor; him, Master of the Universe; read on…) when I’m… 30. I’m mired in babies. I don’t think of what I wear as clothes so much as… rags covered with baby puke, urine, and pureed potatoes. When I get the interview, I cry, because I have nothing to wear—the ugly blue suits I bought to fake it in Corporate Canada don’t fit my “popped out two babies in three years” shape. I go “shopping” in my mother’s closet. Go to the interview in something tasteful, elegant, professional. Thoroughly not mine.
I’m off my game, totally.
The jacket chafes me, the white shirt’s buttons are bursting against my milk-full breasts.
He’s wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, and I won’t even tell you what’s on his feet. (Cowboy boots would be an upgrade.) We’re going to see the Premier. And other, more important people.
Himself, he’s one of the most powerful people in the industry, in the province… He’s fully in his skin.
Does he know that I’m not in mine? Does he care?
Do I care if he cares?
I’m not sure if my thinking around this event is conscious—or even if it happens in the moment. I do know this: that’s the last time I wear a suit. The last time I go to an interview—an event—anywhere—not in my skin.
What defines, makes up my skin changes over the next decade. At first, there are all those puking and nursing babies, and so what I wear must make my breasts accessible to them and be easily washable and hide stains too. And my shape is changing, fluctuating—what does it want? What do I need to wrap myself in to feel good at this moment, as belly grows/shrinks/flaps/can’t-find-its-waist? And then, I am broken, so broken, and frankly, nothing fits, works, nothing I put on me makes me feel anything but anger at this fragile biological construction’s total and utter betrayal of me…
At this time, in this fog of pain, I think I have no skin. But, I do, I do. Because this happens: I meet him for the first time, and he’s all excited and anxious to meet me. And dressed up. In his skin? In a uniform? I don’t know. He looks at me as we shake hands, and he says…
“Christ, they told me you don’t look like a legal affairs writer. And ah… I mean. I don’t know what I thought a legal affairs writer would look like. But… yeah. Not like this.”
And I laugh. And look down at… my skirt (unprofessionally short) and top (unprofessionally minimalist) and my thoroughly-impractical-because-you-can-bike-in-heels shoes… I ask:
“What do I look like? Who do I look like?”
There are so many possible answers to that question. Only one right one, though. And it is this, and he gives it:
My new dress has been rumpled, enjoyed, taken off. He who loves me helps me put it back on. Watches me return to examining myself in it, from various angles.
I am not sure if I can fully articulate, truthfully articulate what brought me to this place of loving this dress, loving myself in this dress, and finding nothing but power-joy-comfort-oh-yes-this-is-me in this second skin. If I wore this dress 20 years ago, 10 years ago, I would not wear it like this—I would be aware of its effect on them, and even if I chose to flaunt their opinion… I’d still care. Oh, I’d still care.
And I would still be in the chaos of all those dichotomies—this-but-not-that-no-you-can’t-be-both-all. Some examined; most, subconscious infiltrators.
But now, today, at this juncture…
Brilliant-and-sexual. Rational-and-hot. Powerful-and-emotional. Erotic-and-strong. Articulate-and-beautiful. Vulnerable-and-feminist. Professional-and-wearing-whatever-the-fuck-I-want.
More like this, but not really: Naked face politics • “Who are you wearing?” clothes as message, value, consciousness
PS “Hi, Jane, first-time reader, and, um… I thought this was a parenting blog. You know? A mommy blog? About kids and snot and stuff?”
“It is, sometimes. And even when it isn’t, it is. Because mothers—parents—are, you know… people? Parenthood adds a dimension to your life, a new (oh-so-important) role. But it doesn’t replace who you are, erase everything you are. Or at least, it shouldn’t… We’ll talk about that in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, if you need a parenting reading fix, edify thyself at Soapbox.”