Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dressing myself

Among the many "shoulds" in my life, there is the notion that I should not read O, The Oprah Magazine when I could be using that time to read Foreign Policy or National Geographic or something. Like all women's magazines, O is filled with beauty ads and spreads that suggest the answer to so many of life's problems is to buy more shit.

But I'll admit it now: I love O anyway.  I have a subscription to O.  I love Martha Beck's articles.  And I also love some of the essays in there.

The most recent issue has a piece by Lauren Slater called "Getting Lighter".  Slater talks about how years of debilitating depression caused her to completely abandon her personal grooming, to the point that she developed a serious infection from dirt working its way under her skin.  While my case of depression and self-neglect has never gotten that serious, I could still relate to her talk of skipped showers, unshaven legs (yes, for months at a time), and sloppy clothes.

Slater makes a decision:

"A psychologist by training and degree, I decided to construct an experiment.  I was a schlump, a frump, due to my depression, which robbed me of the time to spruce up and the motivation as well.  Was it possible, though, that if I spruced up, my mood would follow suit?  What would happen if, during my downtime, my depressed time, I put on makeup?  What would happen if I got some style?  Beauty, after all, is not some trifling effluvium; it's a sought-after state in every culture we know of, this in itself proof of its power."

She hires a beauty consultant, gets a much-needed haircut, and more changes follow from there.  And she finds that, as suspected, changing the way she cares for her appearance changes her internal state as well.  Her work improves, her libido returns, her confidence increases.  And she realizes:

"...entering into beauty did not in any sense diminish me as a woman, an artist, a mother, a wife.  I did not become all preen and polish, with nothing of substance to offer.  I look people in the eye.  I dream I am 12 feet tall."


For so long, I have wanted to improve my appearance.  Weight aside, I have wanted to dress better, figure out hair and makeup, all of that stuff.  A few things have stopped me, but chief among them are irritation and frustration over how much work it seems to be to figure it all out and make an effort every day--that's probably the depression at work, because others find this easy and enjoyable--and a concern that I would get too into my appearance and become vapid.  I'm sorry to say that the most polished women I know are generally not the brightest women I know, and I value intelligence immensely.  (I know, I know, there are lots of women out there that have both things going for them.  Obviously I need to widen my social circle, because I haven't encountered enough of them.)

I would like to value good self-care more than I do.  Furthermore, Stacy London has finally convinced me, via her book The Truth About Style, that there is nothing intelligent about presenting yourself to the world as a slob.  In the end, Slater and London have shown me that I've been theorizing about a false choice--looks vs. smarts.

So, for what feels like the millionth time, I have recently re-started my efforts to learn how to dress myself correctly.  Every time I do this, even when I end up quitting and going back to men's hoodies and ill-fitting jeans, I learn something new that brings me a little bit closer to putting the puzzle together.

This is what I'm working with:  I do have a hard-to-fit body.  I am 5'5" and plus sized, but I have a long waist and shorter legs.  That means I need petite length pants--most women my height can wear regular length--and I need longer shirts.  Maybe even Tall shirts, but I will probably have to get the sleeves hemmed if I start buying those.  Plus-size petite-length pants are not easy to find.  I have yet to find a great pair of jeans.

I carry fat in my lower stomach, so many shirts fall at the most unflattering spot possible.  Shirts need to be long enough to cover my stomach, but not so long that they hit my thighs, because that makes my short legs look downright stumpy.

I have a large bust, and only in the past two years did I figure out that the ONLY kind of bra that works for me is a full coverage bra with underwire support.  No demi cups or whatever for me! I can wear sports bras, of course, but I'm talking about what bras I can wear with regular clothes.  Prior to figuring this out, I wore sports bras all the time, even with regular clothes, leaving the straps visible and me with a case of mono-boob because I didn't know what else to do.

I have wide feet.  Most stores do not carry attractive wide shoes for young women.  It has finally sunk in that I need to order my shoes online 99% of the time.

Actually, most of my clothes shopping is done online too.  That's where most of the good plus-sized clothes are to be found.  I have a few Lane Bryants near me, but I am less than impressed with them.  Bless them for their bras, though.  Those are the bras that finally worked for me; a small miracle.

Then there is the question of finding items THAT I GENUINELY LIKE that takes all of the above into account.  This is the hardest part and the reason that for most of my life, I just bought anything that fit me, whether I liked it or not.  Because of desperation and lack of choice.  This situation is getting a little better as the plus size market expands, but it's still a challenge.

A separate question from "what do I like?" is "what looks good on me?"  I think I need some third party input on this, and I'm still trying to figure out how to get that.  I'm thinking about paying for consults with a stylist and makeup artist. (I need help in that area, too.)  I've never visited a makeup counter because it intimidates me and I don't want to feel pressured into buying specific products.

I took one tiny step towards change by signing up for something called Gwynnie Bee, after seeing it mentioned repeatedly on Skinny Emmie's blog.  I'm glad I did for three reasons.  It helped me figure out why so many shirts look horrible on me (The long waisted issue.  Somehow, before this, I understood I needed petite length pants but did not understand that I was correspondingly long waisted).  It made me realize that I consistently overestimate my size, which is why I often end up with things that are too big for me.  And that, in turn, caused me to go to a tailor to have measurements taken by someone besides myself for the first time ever.

I really like Gwynnie Bee.  They have excellent customer service.  Because I'm at home all the time with the baby for now, I may discontinue my membership soon and then pick it up again later when I'm working or just out of the house more.  For now, though, it's an educational experience getting these clothes in the mail, trying them on, and sending them back!

More on dressing myself in future posts. :)  Advice is always welcomed!


  1. I think it's important to realize that developing a style is not the same as displaying vanity. Beauty matters, but image is really what is at stake. After losing so much weight, I started to get back the groove I had before with wearing a certain style of clothes, even when I'm not working and don't need to show any style. It does, indeed, help your sense of self if you develop a personal style, and it doesn't have to be expensive depending on your options.

    For me, this style often involves juxtaposing more masculine elements (men's suit jackets, which I've been acquiring second-hand and for free) with more feminine ones (blouses, form fitting sweaters and my super long hair). I don't care if other people think I'm over-dressed or look strange or whatever. I wear what I want to wear each day and looking "nice" makes me feel better when I go about my day.

    I have always felt it was important not to pathologize anything because there was a darker side to it. Just because "O" is full of commercial opportunists, it doesn't mean there is no value in the content. Just because some well-dressed or beautiful people are vain, it doesn't mean you will be if you are dressing well and look good.

  2. I'm 5'5" and wear petite pants. The way I get around the sleeve issue since I need longer shirts is that I almost always wear shirts with 3/4 sleeves. On me they come about 6" away from my wrist but I much prefer that to having sleeves that hang over my hands. I wear a lot of long, loose skirts at work because I feel like they draw less attention to my short legs. I wear sandals whenever humanly possible so that I don't have to fight with tights. Doc Martens tend to run wide and I've had better luck with them than with a lot of brands they have a lot of cute shoes and sandals now, not just stompy boots. I don't feel attractive much of the time - combination of weight and depression, but since I do have to go into an office every day my fashion/grooming goal is to look like I am put together deliberately, if not particularly fashionably.

    Gwynnie Bee is a terrific idea and once I'm losing weight again I'll probably try it.

    I actually do not wear makeup at the point, never have really and never learned how. I guess I might at some point but right now I think my life is easier without it.

  3. Great comments, thanks! Arwenn, good call on the 3/4 length sleeves. And I'm really drawn to dresses right now, especially ones with an empire waist, because you can't really tell where my legs begin in them so they have a lengthening effect. And you're right, the shoe selection has greatly improved. I can only find cool wide shoes online, though.

    SFG, duly noted re: pathologizing. And yep, no matter how much people want to insist that they only see the "insides" of others, image matters and has an impact on our lives.