On separating your feminist objection to your body becoming an object of scrutiny from the assumption that you’re just embarrassed by your waistline.
I went to be fitted for a bridesmaid’s dress this morning. I bounced quite eagerly into the clinical glitter of the chanderlier’d bridal dress shop, but sadly, the nifty little number that the canny bride had managed to select out of all the high school ball sack-shaped (ah, that phrase didn’t come out as I quite intended) offerings had in the meantime been sold, so I didn’t actually get to try on any version of the actual dress. I was going in so that they could take my measurements, and with tendrils of caffeine withdrawal curling across my consciousness I was a little confused as to why I had to put on one of their other dresses before they took my measurements, but I obliged, and climbed into the ball-sack.
I remember now something I didn’t notice at the time, but which the sexism-filter that lets me get through the day without turning into a Valkyrie of rage must have edited for me, which is that when “the lady” (as, like a five year-old I always think of and refer to an actual grown-up of a shop assistant) asked me what size I was, “12?” and I replied, “twelve, fourteen, often sixteen on the bottom” and unnoticed by me at the time was how her nod at my “twelve, fourteen” turned into a “tsk” as I added “sixteen on the bottom.” It was a “tsk” of disapproval, denial, and reassurance, all in one – it’s like that scene at the opening of Pygmailion when Henry Higgins discerns like a hundred different vowel sounds packed into Eliza’s “’Garn” (for similar, go to a football game and record a “CAAAAARRNN!” and then play it in slow motion to detect the building resonance of hope, eagerness, excitement, discontent, outright disappointment, multidirectional rage, triumph, and final smack of smugness in the “n”).
Tell me, gentle readers, that I am making that up and adding extra dipthongs of significance to that noise, or tell me that I am pretty much right, and you’ve had the strange contradictory sound of “oh I’m sure you’re not a sixteen dear you’re lovely” condensed into a “tsk” and directed at you. See, I feel that I understood this monosyllabic language because I have had that phrase, in its extended version, directed at me many times, and have always found it extremely difficult to negotiate a response.
Here are some other examples of encounters in a dress shop when I have found it impossible to frame the terms of my disapproval.
One is from today, when, in trying on the dress that wasn’t actually my bridesmaid dress, I couldn’t pull up the zip, so I stopped tugging it before I broke something and asked the assistant to do the dress up for me. She tugged at it and squinched the sides of the dress together and couldn’t do it up over my waist, and I waited patiently, but all the while she kept repeating, “it’s not you, it’s this zip.” Don’t worry dear, it’s not you, it’s this invisible zip, it’s the way they’re made, they never do up over the waist. Her attempt to forestall my distress at the zip not doing up only taught me that I it was somehow wrong not to be the creature that the invisible zip would smoothly and effortlessly encase. And this stuck in the sieve of my sexism-filter, as a large and jagged lump of irritation, because it’s just so irritating to have anyone assume that you will actually be upset that a dress can’t quite perform its function of cinching your waist.
It didn’t help, of course, that it was a magnificently ugly dress. A hideous creation all the worse for being clearly made from expensive materials and those extras that I always associate with a kind of “tailored”, finished look, linings and panels and piping and an invisible zip.
It was the kind of dress that is an insinuating attempt at modernist elegance as you see in some over-designed chairs sometimes, that for a moment almost convince you that they are spare and striking, until you realise that in trying to gesture towards a minimalist style they have only made a cartoon mockery of it. This was a dress to set your teeth on edge, expensive, tailored, and horrible. Grey, a kind of mid between light and dark grey, but not exactly metallic, the material was shiny and plasticy feeling but the colour itself was matt. The bodice was sort-of structured, and yet had a kind of extra layer of puffiness to it, and there was a panel between the bust and the hips that somehow was neither long nor short enough, I wasn’t quite sure what it was there for, except to make my body look sort of segmented, like an insect’s. The dress was adorned with painful inexplicableness, with some grey-coloured roses, also oddly puffy, in a triangle on the front, and had grey straps hanging down like limp pasta that could go over the shoulders, or not. I don’t think I remember what the skirt was like, I think that it was an a-line skirt with panels, that fell to that awkward mid-calf height that admittedly most off-the-rack party dresses do fall to. “WOW this is an ugly dress I started to say to the shop assistant, and then tried to subvocalise it as I remembered that she, you know, made a living selling it.
My description of the ugliness of the dress by the way is entirely beside the point of this post, except that it shows that I do care very passionately about the relative beauty and ugliness of frocks.
I was a little uncomfortable with the way the lady in the shop pulled the dress across my hips and bum and said that I “needed” the breadth along there, with a firm determinedness and an appealing glance at me, and a repeated sketching of my hips in the air, as if there was some mystery to the dress goes over legs and bum/dress doesn’t go down over legs and bum dichotomy into which I tend to place my frocks (I actually own quite a few in the latter category, from markets without changerooms, but even though they physically don’t fit me I can’t quite bear to give them away). Maybe my discomfort when she was saying all this was a little unfair, and was not what she meant at all, but it stemmed from memories of previous encounters, such as:
Another fitting for another bridesmaid’s dress, in which the shop-lady (another proper grown-up) threw her tape around my bust and then around my waist and then as she wrapped the tape around my hips she announced, to me and my friends around me, “and now this is the bit that we don’t like.” I actually had the presence of mind to say “speak for yourself” at this but again my programmed impulse not to be rude made me subvocalise it again. My boyfriend, I have to point out, overheard and was enraged, but even though he’s usually an articulate feminist I think there was too much appreciation there of the area in question’s specific shape for him to have been properly outraged at the idea that I would just agree that there is a part of the female body that is inherently lacking. “This is the part that none of us like.”
And the thing is, is that her dresses that she had in that shop were all saying that too, they all of them stretched a little and didn’t quite fit over the hips and bum if they did fit at the bust and the waist, so that they did look a little silly. I guess it would be bad business to admit, “and this is the part that none of our dresses are properly cut to accommodate for.”
But there it is, the essential idea in the apology of the sales clerk, I’m sorry, I apologise, that I have to draw attention and say out loud the fact I would rather not say, that your body doesn’t seem to fit the dress. Perhaps that’s why they are in superstitious hopefulness called change rooms – perhaps the shop owners hope that their potential customers will come out magically moulded into the shape that is correct.
And see, here, in this post, I encounter the same problem that I encounter in the world when I try to respond to such comments, which is that I’m not complaining about the fact that the dress doesn’t fit. I’m not demanding that all women’s clothes should be bigger on the bottom than the top, that is silly, and not really you know a thing I want to be responsible for, and like anyone else I can buy a dress that’s mostly my size and have it altered if it doesn’t fit in one way or another. I am mentally capable of accepting that everyone is different sizes but if many dresses are going to be made at once, they won’t fit everyone; they may not even fit anyone. I don’t really care. What I care about, what offends and irritates me, is the assumption that I will want, will desire a shape that fits into the dress, and therefore, usually, into a pretty specific idea of what a woman’s body looks like in a dress.
That’s what I feel underlies half-an-hour of stammered apology for the mistake of thinking I was pregnant, or an anxious and harried reassurance that the zip was naturally inclined to stick, or the cheerful deprecation of the existence of hips.
But then what do I say? Any sign of offence at these comments is interpreted, or I feel it is interpreted, as offence in relation to my body – a feeling of personal insult – rather than the feminist recognition that the specificity of my body’s shape and mass should not be a matter for such scrutiny, should not, really, come into it at all.
This is why I try to reject the compliment that a particular piece of my wardrobe is “flattering”; I know it’s always well-meant but what there ever such a back-handed compliment? I’m not an insecure royal. It’s funny and irritating in equal parts to think that a dress or a pair of jeans or a kind of sleeve could flatten my calves or lengthen my earlobes or widen the space between my toes while making my index fingers appear longer. Or, as is much less amusing, flatten my “tummy” (such a nice word really, so abused by the sentences it gets put into), hide my arms and narrow my waist, which is what I have in my life been told over and over again, in the form of a compliment, it is the duty of my clothes to do to my body.
I like my arms; they lift things, and I can wrap both of them around a golden retriever and squeeze him while he barks. I like my tummy; my friends’ babies practiced standing on it when I was awkwardly learning to cuddle them. I like my waist, it’s good for putting belts around so I can tuck my thumbs into them, and of course is generally useful as somewhere to rest my hands when I don’t have a drink at parties.
Apart from shading my skin from the sun and I guess also keeping the laws about public nudity, my clothes aren’t really that related to my body’s form, not nearly as much so as the other objects around me, that are all designed for the human body to use or move around or rest on.
The thing is, the counter-intuitive thing that I want somehow to get across, is that the clothes I wear are not “about” my body. I like clothes, I love clothes, but I like their shape and colour and fabric and pattern, and the time periods or activities or subcultures they can call to mind, not their optically illusive effect on my shape.
It does not really occur to me to think of the dress as somehow shaping my body, indeed, how could it be anything but the other way around? And yet how can I continue to ignore the thought, of how I fit the dress, when everyone assumes it will be my first thought?
It is strange to me to talk that way, about a piece of cloth magically stretching and reducing and transforming me.
But that strangeness, so obvious to me, has proven difficult to communicate, especially on the spot, and I find myself reaching to find some strategic phrase that would create the right sense of alienation or estrangement in the person that I’m talking to – that I am interested in clothes and therefore, yes, in the look of the dress or shorts or hat, but that the aesthetics of clothes are not necessarily linked to size (another word that should be general and arbitrary and isn’t) an or ideaistic image.