Dresses

April 6, 2011

I just finished watching the video companion piece – done by my friend Chris Scherf of Second Look Films – to an article written by his wife and my good friend Sarah about dresses. I was one of (10 was it?) the women asked to be photographed and recorded talking about a favorite dress or dresses in general. The article and video goes live on the Christianity Today “Books and Culture” website later this week, but Chris sent us a sneak peek. I’m not going to link to it because I want you to also read Sarah’s article, which I have not read either.

I don’t want to do the immediate reaction thing – especially because the whole production has yet to be published – but after I watched the video I realized it touched on so many things I’ve been thinking about lately during my hours of free thinking time while I care for a baby and cook. Almost literally, that’s all I’ve been doing. I’ve started making dinners for a local family. More on the cooking later. Not how-to’s about cooking (although goodness knows I’ve inundated myself lately with stories and images of food and will even more once I start reading “Kitchen Confidential”). No…I have decided that I will not add my meager teaspoonful of wisdom on cooking to the sea which is already published online and everywhere else. As other opportunities for me to make money cooking have come up this week I have had to laugh at how things turn out. I never would have thought that COOKING would be my way of making money after Gilead was born. It’s actually kind of fun but I would not consider myself a cook.

In this video I can be seen lounging (with bad posture I must say) in a man’s button-down shirt and jeans with my extremely short haircut for part of the shoot. Afterward, I’m wearing the only dress that fit me to the end of my pregnancy and which still feels flattering even though I can’t wear it due to breastfeeding. Chris took an extremely scattered interview and made it sound much more coherent, but I still laughed at how even the interview reflects the general scattered-ness of my life and thoughts lately and how I’m wrapped up in the practical aspects. After my segment about the impracticality of dresses (because of weather constraints and thigh-rubbage) each of the others talked about how dresses are so feminine and how they have chosen to wear and love dresses to highlight their femininity. Two women in particular – a mother and daughter who won’t even read this blog because they don’t own a computer – had a striking philosophy about the wearing of dresses. The mother spoke of having had a profound change in the way she saw the world after she had a child and how it was important to her to highlight the difference between men and women for her children and to fight against androgyny. I had to laugh at myself for looking so androgynous in my segment and also, I think, for trying to hold onto a body and a way of living that I no longer have.

The daughter talked about her favorite regency period dress she made which has inspired others to offer her free “makeovers.” She talked about modern dresses not being practical and about watching others’ reactions to the way she dresses and feeling amused when they seem uncomfortable. I wish I had had the worldview this girl has when I was her age. In some ways, though I’ve come so far, I wish I had it now. I have a haircut which I no longer want but which I got because it was “different.” Different than my hair had been for a long time. Different from other girls’ hair. Just different. I have a bunch of clothes – and keep buying the same kind – which only highlight the places of my body which have profoundly changed since I had a child and which I now hate and feel self-conscious about. Some of this is due to monetary constraints but when I take a step back to view my behavior it would seem like I don’t know how to embrace being a mother. I have chosen to still receive and pore over Jcrew  and anthropologie catalogues to revel in what I know, even as I do it, is simple lust for what I don’t have: a model’s body, expensive clothing, a lifestyle that looks so perfect and stylish and independent. I watch Project Runway.

Maybe looking at it this way and wishing for something else is just another version of wanting to be different and not embracing what I have right now. I don’t know. The sort of ironic thing is that the more I see these two women at church, the more I have come to see them as timelessly beautiful and appealing in the way they dress, be it ever so counter-cultural. They have been more than a little bit of the inspiration for my making myself a few tee-length gathered skirts this spring and wanting to wear dresses and skirts more often and not to care about whether my legs are shaved or, actually, how good or bad they look. I’ve also been trying to figure out, from a design perspective, how to make clothing that is feminine and beautiful and COMFORTABLE which I can wear to nurse my baby or to be pregnant or to move around taking care of children and cooking. It’s a tall order. I’ve found myself just grousing in the background of all my thoughts that we’ve come to this pass where to be stylish seems synonymous with being wretchedly uncomfortable and unable to really move or risk getting dirty. Not to mention with being uncomfortable with the very shape of our bodies in some instances. I HATE shaving my legs. I HATE tight waistbands around my belly (now more than ever). I HATE the tight crotches on pants when I sit. I HATE high heels and bikinis and shorts and mini-skirts and tights. I’m sure if I thought about it I’d come up with more things. The problem with all of it is that I love, like everyone else, to just LOOK AT what our culture thinks is great femininity in high style. It’s thrilling to me. And yes, maybe there is part of that which is innocently directed toward beautiful fabric and good construction. Especially for me. But shorts? Bikinis? On most women? Come on. Not only is it inherently impractical to the lifestyle of any woman who doesn’t have it in her means to employ OTHER women to do her “dirty” work, but the more I think about it, the more I think that those particular types of clothing (oh! skinny jeans!!) take the concept of particular women’s bodies with what is particularly beautiful about them and make it seem like those things don’t matter if you don’t have the type of body upon which all clothes might hang as though they were on a store mannequin or, let’s face it, a hanger. They also make it seem like we should all have the types of bodies any part of which we should be willing to display to a roomful (or beach-ful) of critical, assessing women and (let’s face it, lustful men) rather than only to one appreciative and loving man – should we be married. Does a husband care whether our thighs feel a bit fat right now? Does he care if our bras push down that extra bit of back-fat while we are post-partum and nursing a child? No! It would be an intolerable world if he did! I think maybe “style” belies the truth that female bodies were not meant to be propped up and displayed and judged. They were meant to work – and I mean that in the best sense of the word. The way women’s bodies actually DO work is a miraculous and beautiful thing. When we’ve got a beach full of women wearing almost nothing alongside a public which harasses a mother wanting to breastfeed her child in public, we have a problem.

Seeing myself in that video was hard. I can’t deny that I thought I looked as fat as I feel right now. The dress was definitely more flattering than the pants and shirt I wore, but even the dress didn’t hide the places I don’t like. I remember in the midst of pregnancy telling a friend that I loved my stretch marks. She thought it was so mature of me. Ha. I got a LOT more stretch marks after that and I’m here to say that I definitely don’t love them at the moment. Neither do I love my big, wobbly belly, my boobs that don’t fit into anything, my everything that doesn’t fit into anything. I have to re-think how I wear clothes. I’ve begun to realize that I had it easy for most of my life. I was always a shape and weight I wanted to be and when I wasn’t it was relatively easy to lose weight. Now, most of my time is taken up with caring for an infant. I don’t know if or when I’ll be back to the weight I was. I struggle with sugar cravings and give in more than I want to. I’m slowly trying to make healthier food choices. I feel bad about my body right now most of the time. I don’t really know what my point is except that now more than ever I get mad at the images that are all around me, and I’m not even talking about the ones which are overly sexualized – which are most. It just doesn’t feel fair.

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2 Responses to “Dresses”

  1. kristen Says:

    hi jenn – it’s me again. every once in awhile i see that you’ve posted here on facebook and i meander over, only to stumble upon your extremely honest and insightful ramblings (i use this word positively, because i’m a verbal processor and often my most inspired realizations come to me only after what has felt like completely unproductive rambling). this post in particular has struck me today, though it’s not the one you linked this morning.

    as someone who is (very lately) finding her true style, i’ve been overwhelmed by the perpetual tide of style, street style, style bloggers, and concept of shopping, remixing one’s closet, and forming outfits / philosophies / clothing kingdoms that seems to be EVERYWHERE i look / step / breathe right now. in some ways it’s very refreshing to think that color, texture, and the unique way someone chooses to adorn herself is seen as an important part of life. i have a friend who makes jewelry who believes that God created women with a desire to be beautiful (i’m totally paraphrasing so that sounds very exclusive and even somewhat sexist, but i hope you get my point). in part, i agree with her.

    but the downside to this intense focus on (arguably, an obsession with) fashion and clothing is just what you’ve said — an obsession with self and with how we don’t measure up (or down…size 00…really?) to the images that pervade our visual existence every single hour of the day. materialism is another risk, but that’s another blog post. i could be affirmed as much as humanly possible and the size/body type of models and celebrities would still worm its way to the soft vulnerable center of my apple self (work with me here, haha). but the images i see also inspire me, so where to draw the line?

    i don’t think i’m really saying anything new or very shockingly intelligent here…these are just ramblings of my own…but i guess i just want to say that i read this and resonated with it, deeply. that desire to be beautiful and be thought beautiful (i think those are 2 different things) is so complicated. trying to healthily integrate oneself into the current visual culture is difficult and somewhat discouraging at best. trying to find clothes that are flattering, fit well, and moderately comfortable is often a completely disheartening endeavor. and attempting to understand ourselves when it comes to beauty/body type/self acceptance is…fill in the blank. i don’t even have a word for it.

    i think i’ll conclude this (longest ever) comment by saying something that’s ringing really cheesy to me as i think about saying it, but that’s completely true nonetheless — God made each one of us and finds us worth pursuing, gorgeous, worth dying for…and even our most hated body areas (me: my legs and my broad shoulders) are adorned with his love and grace. clothed with righteousness and compassion, right?

    thanks for your thoughts, jenn –
    kristen krier

    • jswankdesigns Says:

      Kristen! Thank you for your comment. I love it when people comment. It makes my time seem worthwhile. 🙂 Oh man…the posts that could be written about body image. I love it when I watch Project Runway and the designers complain when they have to design for “real” women because they have no idea how to fit bodies that don’t conform to their very narrow range of experience with making patterns and tailoring. I hate it when I see something in a store and think, “oh how adorable” or possibly, “that might look great on me” and pick it up only to find that the size I loved was a 2 and then when I pull my own size I don’t like it that much anymore because it looks so much wider. It’s a harsh world out there for women. Our bodies are almost always in flux even when we’re not having children. You are so right that a lot of “fashion” belies that truth. But I think what your friend said is also true: we want to feel beautiful and look beautiful. I think it must be the way God made us because it’s so ingrained in us. I think, however, that it is very much a product of our advertising campaigns that when we look at ourselves and our lives we measure them by what we don’t have. I find that the less I imbibe of mainstream media and the more I am only looking at “real” women, the more I see the beauty in myself and others which is a product of being unique. I LOVE your shoulders, by the way. I’ve always thought you were so lovely.


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