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Dressing My Inner Child

I randomly looked around the apartment yesterday (I was looking for something that I still have not found), and while it was obvious to me that it was sorely in need of organizing and tidying (and that if it gets much worse, I'm going to be a candidate for Hoarders), it also occurred to me that it is full - overflowing - with really beautiful things. 

I collect all sorts of vintage clothes, some of which I wear, and along with that comes the accessories.  I love jewelry, and because I have long hair, I love pretty clips and pins and hairsticks to dress it up.  I have instruments, and collectibles, and antiques, and artwork, and flowers, and fascinating things tucked all over the place.  If I died tomorrow, collectors would have a field day with my possessions (especially if they like lacy and/or sparkly things).

All my life, I've played at femme.  I reject jeans, I never dress down, I wear makeup almost every day, I live in heels, I own more than one gorgeous petticoat to go under skirts and dresses, and I keep my nails manicured with almost impractical length nails.  I like skirts.  I like ruffles, and flowers, and lace, and sparkles.  I own tons of skin care products, and scented bath bubbles, and perfumes.  I am not practical, and though I love digging in the dirt and playing in the woods, you're likely to see me do it in a carefully chosen and coordinated outfit.

(No, I don't wear heels in the woods.  But I occasionally go barefoot, and yes, my toenails are always painted.)

When I was a child, we didn't have much money.  Mum was working hard, but she was on her own, and had three kids and a large old house to take care of.  While our house was nice, things were threadbare, and the stuff she bought for us tended towards the practical, rather than the decorative.  It was also the '70s; children were dressed androgynously, and trousers were standard for everyone.

Me, I loved pretty things.  I longed for a bedroom with pink walls and white lacy bedspreads and Austrian balloon shades.  I wanted dresses, and when I made the mistake of asking for my hair to be cut short (it was down to my waist), I regretted it painfully, as my long hair was the only thing that people thought was beautiful about me.  I loved dressing up, and even then, I was very into vintage clothing.

But I was dumpy, and (everyone told me) I was fat.  I wasn't pretty or graceful, I was lumpy.  I had fat little hands ("puddy paws", my grandmother called them), and a fat little face, and a fat little body.  Such delights as lace and tutus and fairy costumes were not for the likes of me.  I learned early on to find my body repulsive and disgusting.  I saw it in people's faces, in the way they reacted to me.  I was not beautiful, and beautiful clothes on me were just grotesque, emphasizing the un-beauty of the person wearing them.

But even ugly people can wear make-up, and learn to be elegant, and I craved that.  I became my own teacher in the art of playing femme; I learned how do do my own manicures, to put my hair up (later how to dye it properly), and I learned how to move so that I could fool people into thinking I was, if not beautiful, at least not a thumping bull in a china shop.  I longed to be someone else, someone taller, thinner, more acceptable to the people around me.  I learned very fast that pretty girls get all the breaks.  Pretty girls can transgress and not be severely punished, whereas dumpy girls receive not only the harshest punishment, they also get the accompanying rage that comes with having the nerve to exist without being pretty.  My teachers were disgusted by me.  Intelligence doesn't matter when it comes in an ugly, repulsive package.

I grew up with a sense of loathing for my body.  It was grosser than anyone else's, more vile, more despicable.  It was disgusting.

The only way out was to learn to be feminine.  And I am a good learner.  I was socially awkward (all smart kids are; their brain capacity outruns their social skills early on), but I could learn to shut up and be pretty.  Unfortunately, I didn't have the money to buy beautiful things.  My mother never saw the use in them, so I had a hard time persuading her of their neccessity. So I did what I could with what I had, and endured the mockery from kids whose parents bought them designer clothes. 

It took me a long time to get to a place where I was able to stop caring about what people thought of me.  Ironically, in that time, I grew into my body, and became conventionally attractive, enough that I can now take advantage of beauty privilege.  But the inner child remains, and craves beautiful things. 

For me, feminism isn't about rejecting all that is girly, it's about being equal to men in power and consideration.  Because women's status as decorative objects throughout history (and only a limited class of white women, at that - the rest were invisible drudges, hardly seen as female at all) taints the performance of femme, we look on it as somehow lesser and something to be discarded.  But I don't perform femme because I want to please anyone else, I perform femme because it is one of the ways I tell myself that I am worth love and care, despite not fitting the accepted beauty standards (that really should be rejected).  Beautiful clothes and accessories make me happy.

Yes, these things come with baggage, and yes, the relationship between femme and women and feminism and equality is complicated, murky, and difficult to negotiate.  And I'm not going into it here - this is a navel-gazer of a post, not designed to tackle some really big issues, like how much of what we enjoy is really shaped by societal demands on how women should behave, and look, and be.  I am not actually justifying any of my choices - they come with problems.  But I'll negotiate things my way, and everyone else can negotiate things the way that works for them.  All I know is that the ugly inner child lurks painfully close to the surface sometimes, and pampering her with all the things she longed for once upon a time is a nurturing experience for me.

We all come with baggage about our looks; it's not a sign of being broken, it's something that comes with growing up in a society where women are continually judged first by how they look, and only secondarily (if at all) by their other accomplishments.  It is fundamentally unequal, and it's bullshit, but we are all shaped by it.  I've lived both sides of the beauty coin, and it makes me very aware of the privileges that come with being attractive to both men and women.  I've gone from being invisible to being desired, and I've experienced the feeling of dying inside when I've recognized the repulsion on someone's face at seeing me.  The least I can do is make my life beautiful in an act of kindness to a young girl who longed for beauty, in herself and her surroundings, and thought she had neither.


( 24 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 7th, 2010 09:04 pm (UTC)
Ya know, my Grandmother always told me I was beautiful (though, unfortunately she added "not skinny like Patty and Susie!" heh.) and I didn't believe her. It's sad; you can be told you're pretty by every adult you know and it won't matter if the kids at school say you're ugly.
Jul. 7th, 2010 04:43 pm (UTC)
What a beautiful post! I love wearing skirts and dresses. It makes me feel connected to my ancestors, in a symbolic way.

There's definitely a freedom and power in choosing to be femme, particularly when it's done with self awareness.
Jul. 7th, 2010 04:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing your experience. It's fascinating how the same things effect each of us in different way.
Jul. 7th, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC)
But the inner child remains, and craves beautiful things.

Oh my goodness, I think that one sentence has cracked part of the code that is my mother. I must ponder this a bit. But wanted to say thank you for the insight that you're triggered for me.
Jul. 7th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)
Love the icon. So true.
Jul. 7th, 2010 05:18 pm (UTC)
I want to go back in time and hug that adorable child whose picture you have posted. She looks incredibly healthy, beautiful, and ready for anything.

Thank you for sharing this.
Jul. 7th, 2010 05:20 pm (UTC)
Oh dear. You just spoke to a part of me I wasn't aware of.

Thank you.
Jul. 7th, 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)
Not really sure why this struck such a chord, but it has me in tears (good ones).I wish I had the the words, to adequately reply to this, but I don't.

Just wanted to say that you aren't the only one who's inner child craves pretty things that they couldn't have when the were children.

I think you're beautiful and you were a cute little girl.
Jul. 7th, 2010 06:30 pm (UTC)
Camille Paglia might disagree with you, but I'm right there on the same page - with perhaps the caveat that I love my jeans, and I think a good pair of flowy linen pants a la the 1930 belongs in every feminine wardrobe.

I have no idea what idiots decided you weren't a beautiful little girl, but they deserve a good slap upside the head.
Jul. 7th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
I'll have a well-thought-out response to this when I'm less scattered, but... having grown into a very, very sensitive adolescent in the late 60s/early 70s (I can say as someone who has made a fairly serous study of clothing history that this was the single ugliest and most tasteless transitional period in costume history) that I, too learned how to dress in camoflage, so as not to be seen. Or at least that's what I hoped it was. The only time I felt like I had a scrap of non-frumpy dignity was in an oxford shirt, jeans, and my paddock boots (Pony Club badge ready in my pocket).

I stll wear some version of that uniform, and would like to work on caring enough about myself to dress prettier, but I fear until I drop 40#, I'll just look like a ridiculous middle-aged woman. I envy you, in the best possible way. xoxoxo
Jul. 7th, 2010 07:58 pm (UTC)
I just want to go back in time and hug you and tell you how precious and beautiful you are. The girl in the pic you posted deserved to be a pretty pretty princess, just as any girls does, regardless of what the scale says. I am so glad that you are able to give yourself pretty things now and love that inner child. I do something similar, to me buying nice things is a way of telling myself that I am a good person who is worthy of nice things. Not buying something makes me feel bad because I equate it with me not being good enough to deserve it. It's not a healthy pattern for me, but since I've realized the causes behind it it I've gotten better about saying no with love.
Jul. 7th, 2010 08:00 pm (UTC)
Aside from sympathizing to the point of wanting to scream, cry, and hide simultaneously, the idea that your attention to beauty grew out of being treated as ugly reminded me very strongly of Expendable, by James Alan Gardner. (Book, excerpt.)

The premise is that the military realized we grieve more for the death of pretty people, so they started a branch comprised of people with non-disabling disfigurements who were given all the dangerous jobs. The really tricky part is that medicine at the time could have cured each and every one of these disfigurements, but did not, so that the military could have their expendable corps of ugly people. Surprisingly good for something firmly in my favorite category of "crappy sci-fi novel".
Jul. 7th, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC)
Me, I loved pretty things. I longed for a bedroom with pink walls and white lacy bedspreads and Austrian balloon shades.

Agh, so much this. Our house growing up had endless wood paneling, because it was built in the late '70s and wood paneling was de rigeur. It did not go with my yellow gingham sheets and matching bedspread, let me tell you. Now I'm constantly going, "Can I fit another floral print in this room without making someone throw up? Needs more candlewicking! Is it possible to have more than one throw rug in here? And can I make one out of doilies?" Wood paneling -- it's a crime.

As for clothes, I think my mom was in denial for a long time that I had not a child's body for a long time, and then when she finally caught on, it was really difficult to find clothes that actually fit, since I've been roughly the size I am now since I was 14. So, since it was so hard to find pretty clothes that fit, it was still easier to dress dumpy because dumpy doesn't care about fit. And dumpy doesn't put your parents on cardigan patrol, either.

It was always really weird, though, dating boys in high school, and we'd be talking, and I'd say something, and they'd go, "What? Stop being so smart. Don't you ever relax?" Ugh. Pretty for once, and I needed to turn off my brain.
Jul. 7th, 2010 10:47 pm (UTC)
Can I fit another floral print in this room without making someone throw up?

A former housemate and (still) friend says about my house "It looks like Laura Ashley exploded in here." I totally understand. And as a former DumpyGirl myself, there's a certain security in Not Being Seen, so I understand that, too.
Jul. 8th, 2010 03:56 am (UTC)
You had wood paneling, I had endless flat plaster walls with no molding, single-pane picture windows of non-standard dimensions so all the curtains had to be custom and changing them was a HUGE hassle, and my parents covered the lovely hardwood floor in my bedroom with wall-to-wall shag carpet in Variegated Vomit (brown and gold) because it was warmer. (In their defense, they were right to say I'd have destroyed the expensive short-pile pink plush I asked for. I was a big one for spilling glue and paint and ink on my carpet.) When I was a baby? I had Marimekko BURLAP curtains. When I was ten, one of my mother's friends who could sew took pity on me, and stitched together the yellow-and-eyelet Priscilla curtains from Sears until there was enough to cover my weird window. When my mother had a decorator friend re-do the entire house in preparation for my bat mitzvah, I insisted on rosebud wallpaper and broderie anglaise curtains. I only got a headboard made from an upholstery-filled mirror frame instead of the brass bed I coveted, but they bought me an antique armoire to soften the ultra-contemporary built-in shelves they'd installed when I was very small.

My bedroom NOW? Still the antique armoire, a mahogany four-poster, a patchwork coverlet made of burgundy velvet and dark brocades, and my functional antique Singer crammed in as a side table. It looks like a New Orleans bordello fantasy. DESPITE the nasty wood paneling in this crackerbox of a post-war duplex.

Clothes... I was always skinny, and I didn't have as many problems with those. Just inexplicable maternal resistance to the 80s fashion for vintage rhinestone jewelry during the day. My grandmother was content to let me swipe all of her goodies, my mother thought it was entirely unsuitable for school, so I just hid them in my pockets until I got there.

And one of the main reasons I still go clubbing at 40, besides liking to dance, is that it gives me a good excuse to dress the way I do in the userpic!
Jul. 7th, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC)
The little girl in that picture (who I assume is you) is cute. I'm sorry that you were told otherwise. One of the reasons I like being in the SCA is that I can dress up and get complimented much more than I do in my everyday life.

Thank you for sharing.
Jul. 7th, 2010 11:57 pm (UTC)
It's bizarre that people had this attitude towards you when from all the (few) pics we've seen of you as a child, you were adorably cute.
What you've expressed in this post is almost completely alien to me, as are similar posts you've made. I think being almost entirely oblivious of other people's opinions of me and their reactions to me has been a blessing - although I'm sure there are disadvantages it does seem a lot easier this way. I've never seen in a person's expression approval or disapproval of me, and interest in looking a certain way that other people find attractive has only lasted until something more interesting comes along - something like lunch, or flowers, or a book, or pretty much anything (although make-up sounds like an interesting way to alter your appearance, I've never maintained interest for more than a half day or so, so haven't learnt).
The more feminist posts I read discussing these kind of issues, the more I wonder what kind of weird experience of the world I have.
But, really interesting posts - the fact that I don't relate to them makes them invaluable in understanding some other people's experiences. You often get a lot of people commenting on your posts saying, essentially, "me too, I know what you mean". I never know what you mean, so don't feel I can comment in this sea of similar experience, but I read them all and find them fascinating and insightful.
Jul. 8th, 2010 02:05 am (UTC)
Been there. Thanks for this, I understand it. I am NOT a femmie person, never have been, never pretty, always longed for it, to fit in, .. but now, turned 50 this year. I am now satisfied and happy. I am a tomboy, always have been, and will be. I have a great job (I make combat crossbows for SCA folks!) and this will be my second year at Pennsic. My persona is a lowly apprentice to my Master Iolo, and I enjoy the heck out of it!
I see the lovely dresses I longed desperately for once upon a time, and now, I enjoy them, and appreciate them, and don't need them. Such is life, no?
Jul. 8th, 2010 02:22 am (UTC)
I wish I cared about my outer appearance. I was always told growing up that what you look on the outside doesn't matter. I think this is a great theory when pointed toward other people, but I also think that children should be encouraged to use the medium of clothes and accessories to paint the picture they want. A picture that reflects who they truly are on the inside.
I guess my point is:
Dress yourself to portray what you desire to be portrayed.
Allow others to portray themselves how they choose to without thinking less of them.
Jul. 8th, 2010 03:00 am (UTC)
It's weird how everyone picks on girls about their appearance. Me, I was constantly chastised for being "too skinny". I became an obsessed foodie to try and 'fatten up' so I could be pretty. Then I got old enough that people suddenly stopped telling me I was too skinny and started complimenting me on being so slim. I wanted to slap them all. *sigh*

Just the other day, as I was putting a waistband on an attack-laurel-style cartridge pleated skirt, I thought: Modern view: does this skirt make my butt look big? Elizabethan view: I need more padding around my hips, they look too small.
Jul. 8th, 2010 03:46 am (UTC)
OT: Is that Hitty in your hair?!? <3
Jul. 8th, 2010 02:23 pm (UTC)
Yes, it is!
Jul. 8th, 2010 06:31 am (UTC)
You were a beautiful child - it's astonishing and horrifying that you were made to or allowed to think otherwise.

Your post really touched a chord with me - I have only recently started to realise how little control I had over my body as a child - over what I wore, how I wore my hair, what and when I ate, how much sleep I got etc. I think many of my daily actions are still prompted by rebellion against that, which is kind of sad when you're in your 40s.

And yes, the whole point of feminism is about choice and self-determination for women, and that should include choosing how and if you want to decorate the body that is inalienably yours.
Jul. 8th, 2010 12:56 pm (UTC)
I grew up dumpy and smart, but my mom was determined to do everything she could in her power to make me more conventionally attractive. This meant getting me contact lenses as soon as possible, and using my aunt's big discount at a popular chain clothing store to make sure I had at least some fashionable pieces. Also, dyeing my hair blonde. The problem with this was my mom's attempt to make me more fashionable made me feel less so, as I always felt like I was dressing in a costume. But when I started to try and express myself, fashion-wise, Mom never shot me down.

I am thankful for bellydance, clubbing, and the SCA; they give me all the excuses I need to buy/make unique clothes.
( 24 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )

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