In Fashion

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.

photos of the show:

Physical Evidence

At a certain point, you were supposed to have a line across your back and this meant you were a mature female, and not a child or the elephant man.  It also meant you were wearing a bra.  Later you would strive to hide any evidence that you were, like most western women, wearing a bra, but in middle school, the line was critical evidence.  If you were girded with the line, then undressing would be merely devastating, rather than lethal.

Joining a gym this year, I was happy to undress in front of strangers with mature carelessness.  I have shaken off my modesty, at least in locker room settings.  When I went to the gym on Monday, I was wiggling out of a sweaty t-shirt and underwear without a care in the world.  There was an old lady getting dressed next to me.  She had skin like a white rose, tulip red hair, and an intense, swooping Irish accent.  I had chatted a little with her before.  We said hello.

“Wow, you don’t have a spot of fat on you, do you?”  she said.

“Uh, I guess not,” I said.

“And your face is so red.”

“Well, I just got finished running.  You know, I’m pretty pale,” I said, hoping she would connect with this.  “So my face gets red.”

She nodded amicably.  And I thought, whoa, she just broke rule one of the locker room, which is Don’t talk about the way bodies look.  You can talk about dog coats, Easter plans, cancer histories.  But not how people look.   There is too much nakedness already.  A lot of people at my gym are elderly or doing rehab, so it’s no place to show off your hot physique.

I get a lot of this, “You’re so thin!” stuff.  I guess people mean that as a compliment. Maybe it’s not so different from complimenting your eyes or shoes, but it does have this creepy “I have looked you up and down” vibe to it.  And a little “I hate you.”  And some possible “Ooh, are you an anorexic victim of our culture of unrealistic body images?”  (Um, no.)

I zoomed up to my adult height in middle school.  It was not a good look for me.  Ninety percent of this height came in my legs, and I felt like a stork, a spider, or a scarecrow.  Depending on the day.  There were so many pairs of pants that got so short so fast.  I frequently woke up at night with boa constrictor calf cramps.

In an anthropological tone, my mother explained to me that some men (men?!) think long legs are attractive.  I was like, seriously?  Why?  I look like I’m on stilts.  I look like Bambi.  And I slide around like him, too.  My feet are so far away from my brain.

In the middle of all the shame and worry, there could be a place where people can say stoically, yeah, this is my body.  I look like this.  That’s what I walk around in.

What you look like and your configuration is something people love about you, even people who aren’t romantic links.  There’s a sweetness to the size and shape of people you trust.  And there’s a familiarity to me now in having people ask me, “You’re so red, are you sunburned?” or “Whoa, you’re skinny.  Do you eat?”  That’s just the me I’m wearing.