I went to the fashion show last night because my dear friend, after she’d had two beers and a scotch, assured me that Gloria Steinem would forgive me. So I wore black Etienne Aigner heels ($10 at antique mall), H&M linen pants (oh, if only all pants were so long, long, long! say people permanently haunted by growth spurt age eleven), my mother’s hand-me-down olive tube top from 1988, and a black sparkly fly-eye Target cocktail ring. I love the art of dressing, and I like the art of fashion. Dressing is presenting oneself. Fashion is the spectrum of tools and creations.
I went to Kansas City’s 18th Street fashion show several years ago. I felt weird about watching the models, about what it meant to look at them and their bodies in the clothes. So I hadn’t been back. But, with the endorsement of my tipsy friend, I gave it another try.
On the sidewalk, to the left of the runway set up down the street, I was crammed six inches from the black t-shirted shoulder and pale neck of a stranger. A lonely little bead of sweat chugged down the back of my calf. People kept pushing their hips and arms into me as they wormed behind me, along the edge of the sidewalk. Some man I barely saw grabbed my waist to scoot me out of the way. I jumped. It tickled. I smelled someone’s cologne, a strong and sober smell, compared to my rose and jasmine perfume.
“Men act; women appear.” After I read that (not John Berger himself, but some other feminist writer), I acted. I made it a point to act. I grew up with the nagging suspicion that if someone told me I was pretty, I would feel whole. So I became resolute: in the future, when I appear, I’ll enjoy it, but I won’t let that be my self. Appearing will be secondary. Women fought for the right to keep it secondary, if they choose to– which doesn’t mean it should be secondary, or that the mind is better or more meaningful than the body, or the soul. It just means there should be a choice.
There is always vulnerability in a woman presenting her body. There’s a whole world of history murmuring, setting her worth and taking her apart. On the other hand, don’t I think women’s bodies beautiful? Don’t I enjoy my own? Don’t I love nudes? Haven’t I sharply reprimanded people who criticize other women’s dress, whether they whine it’s too revealing or too flashy? Don’t I enjoy being complimented on my clothes and my body, even by strangers, even rather crudely? I do. Is it because I think of myself more as a brain than a body, or because I make an effort to dress well and like my body? Is it because I’m naturally thin? Or because I like a little obnoxious behavior now and then?
Walking and standing on the runway, I could tell the women who glowed with comfort and charisma, and the ones who radiated need. What if she agreed to participate so she’d feel pretty? Isn’t that the worst way to feel pretty? The opinions of strangers? The crowd complimented a woman with an ample ass, well set off with a tiny snap of a skirt. People applauded most for the women most traditionally beautiful, and the clothing the most traditionally displaying it.
Aren’t models like peacocks displaying wide, marbly colored tails, huge and gorgeous, attracting and aweing and arousing us all? Like my cat arching his fat white, furry belly for me to admire and scratch? I don’t feel much awkwardness admiring beautiful animals, or, for that matter, beautiful men. Isn’t every display of beauty lively and good at its heart? Isn’t beauty as nourishing as oxygen? For me, it is.
“Why do they all look angry?” someone said. Because they are appearing, and you must be tough as nails to appear. You must steel yourself to reactions. You must be a thousand percent confident, or a great pretender of confidence. Either one will do. To smile joyously while you present yourself is difficult. Smiling is an act, not an appearance.
All of us– and I could see half the crowd on the other side of the runway, were tasting these women with our eyes. They were being offered up, whatever it meant, offering up coverings and decorations and something of themselves, and we were taking it. We watched them. We watched each other watching them. We took from each other, our faces and our smells and our shapes. What exactly I took, I’m still not sure.