After all my highfalutin’ about spectrums and experimentation, ol’ Mother Nature has offered up a rather poignant reminder of how much influence our environment, be it cultural, political, or meteorological, has over our outward expression of self. However, we must not allow these restrictions to thwart us in our personal style journey – note jaunty angle of scarf. From hemmed school kilts to stylish hijabs, there is always room for personalization. Plus, fogged glasses grant a person total freedom from outside judgment – although it might be nice to bloody well see where I’m going!
As 21st century women, we have the freedom to adjust our attractiveness across a broad spectrum through our choices of hairstyle, makeup, clothing, and even surgery. Our physical selves can be adapted according to our moods, purposes, funds, and expertise. There is power at both ends of the spectrum. At one end, we find a natural dominance and conspicuous, immediate, validation; at the other, we find the power of the observer, an invisibility through which knowledge and experience can filter unchallenged. Our internal attributes can exercise themselves more freely on the ‘less glam’ end, but our egos can’t help but delight in the easy gratification of turning heads and opinions at the opposite pole.
The danger of setting one’s baseline appearance too high on the spectrum is that as looks slowly (but surely) trade off for wisdom (we hope), many women find themselves lost, having never developed confidence in their other sources of power and identity. The resulting desperation can be as paralyzing as botox, and equally toxic. Ideally, one should settle comfortably somewhere around the middle, and travel to both poles for exciting expeditions in anthropological experimentation. For example: Halloween glamazoning and other pantless adventures.
Our Canadian winters encourage experimentation on the other end of the spectrum. Just yesterday, I was all bundled up (scarf, baseball cap, hair covered by hood) by the river when a pickup truck pulled up beside me.
“Hey you,” the burly driver called out, “you need a partner?”
I, still mentally dressed in my Halloween fishnets from two nights before, gave him the ol’ ‘dude, as if’ look of polite disdain.
“Hey YOU” he shouted, his enunciation brutally clear this time, “YOU THE GARDENER??”
Turning around, I saw a tall scruffy man standing directly behind me. He was nodding at the man in the truck.
I know I was just rhapsodizing about the joys of invisibility a few sentences ago, but darn it, there’s nothing rhapsodic about getting caught in between!
I used to laugh at those stories about girls in the 1970s needing pliers to do up their jeans – not anymore! Turns out there’s a reason why fashion’s perennial pariah, pleats, were welcomed back as the prodigal pants of the 80s. The hippies thought they’d put an end to war too, but then along came 9/11 and the skinny jean trend, and we’re right back in the dark ages.
There I was, wedged into a cramped stall in our office washroom, enmeshed in an epic struggle with two stonewashed denim sausage casings – the kind of jeans you have to peel rather than pull. They’d been almost bearable when I’d ratcheted them on in the morning, but by our 4:27pm duel, my thighs had set stiff like a couple of cement filled foundation tubes. Ever been so claustrophobic you started fantasizing about jerry-rigging some primitive form of culotte out of old recycling bags and packing tape?
I’d just flushed (sorry TMI), and was jumping up and down, heaving on the waistband, when an odd thing happened. One quarter, one dime, and two pennies, popped free of my front pocket and dropped into the – still flushing – toilet. I watched the water swirl, then settle, leaving my small collection of coins adrift in the bottom of the bowl. I ask you this… What, pray tell, is the etiquette in this sort of situation?
I made an executive decision; I left a tip. I thought of sticking a post-it on the seat to explain, but what would I really say? That I my pants were too tight? That I think another woman’s dignity can be bought for a measly 37 cents? The office cleaning woman and I wear the clothes of different cultures, and now my jeans have driven another wedge between us. It’s no wonder the hippies were wrong about war – just think of all those stems and seeds they left for the rest of the world to clean up.
How do you engage with the world? Our clothing plays a major role in communicating the nature of our engagement with both society and ourselves. Generally, those who dress ‘fashionably’ have the most to gain from being perceived as ‘plugged in’ to their culture (ie: Vogue interns), while ‘style’ is more an expression of a person’s confident engagement with self (Vogue’s Grace Coddington). It’s no coincidence that the most successful people (according to our culture’s standards) exhibit a combination of both (ie: Michelle Obama).
Yesterday’s outfit was a preliminary experiment in engagement. Which is to say, I wore a blazer around downtown Calgary. Sure, I still had on my jeans and Nike baseball cap, but by replacing my hoodie with a fitted brown velvet blazer, the look was entirely transformed. Not only did I immediately become more conscious of my posture in the structured jacket, but there was also a marked increase in public attention (from both men and women). I felt suddenly more conspicuous, and at the same time, somehow more involved with my streetmates. It was as if they wanted to recognize me as one of their business-class clan, which, of course, would open the door to my being judged by their standards. It was an odd feeling, and I’m not sure yet if I’m open to living it daily. I’ve always relished my role as an observer, especially being a writer, but there’s a power in setting yourself up as an equal – a power that must be explored…
How would you define your personal style? Stop what you’re doing and take a peek in your closet…
“Self Imposed Utilitarianism,” was how I described my current style status to a ‘Funky Eclectic’ friend recently. “Why?” she asked, with obvious concern. I mooned on about the after-effects of high school uniforms and about never understanding why Goths and Emos are always so eager for public abuse.
Truly, I’ve never been able to muster much sympathy for people who expect humanity to throw eons of intrinsic human nature to the wind just because little Gregory wants to ‘express’ himself. If you look different – you get treated different… not rocket science here people. Why fight a basic survival principle? Of course, running screaming from it hasn’t gotten me very far either.
I’ve always lived my rebellion on the inside, keeping its gestation safe from outside assault. Before my adult uniform of jeans plus solid-colored top, my plaid kilt and white oxford shirt kept the fashion pressure to a minimum in high school and let me blend into a wide variety of peer groups without ever having to label myself. In an interesting aside: my marks shot up a full 10% when I switched from skirt to navy dress pants in grade twelve. It remains a mystery whether this was because my teachers assumed that I was suddenly, spontaneously, more credible, or simply because I happen to be someone who learns better with warm knees. We’ll never know…
I did, however, let loose for school dances in wild fringed party dresses of my own (not so Catholic school girl) design. I’m still shocked the chaperones never kicked me out! Ah yes, no one ever suspects the band geek in gold lamé… but really, as everyone knows, we’ve got the glass slipper market cornered! And so, pour moi, up to now, fashion has always been about the occasion, about picking the day/night’s character and maxing it out. But what about day to day? Now that I’ve comfortably defined my own character, I’m certainly not about to condemn her to a lifetime of Self Imposed Utilitarianism – the horror!
Note: I made this sketch as a handy, albeit excessively nerdy, shopping aid – Stay tuned.
‘Stumbling’ upon a rerun of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab, I was shocked to hear Kerri Ann Peniche describe how, even as a child, she was forced to primp for every public appearance – middle school to grocery store. Her mother’s mantra, “because you never know where you’ll run into Mr. Right,” had an insidious effect on her daughter’s psyche. Lipstick in the produce aisle? Poor girl never stood a chance.
My parents, an artist and a poet, lived by very a different set of rules – none of them involving a hairbrush! Needless to say, we had a whole lot of fun, but advanced personal grooming was part of some other world, right along with daily dish washing and remembering other people’s birthdays. Personally, I’ve never been afraid of glamming it up, but only on occasion. The idea of daily maintenance, aiming for some rudimentary baseline, has never made it past the “wouldn’t that be nice” phase – until now. Part of my hesitation has come from knowing that for any perfectionist, the word baseline is such a tease. Where do you stop? Lipgloss? Eyeliner? Flat-iron? Where do you draw the line?
When you’re used to jumping between your own 1 and 10, how do you settle at 5? There’s a risk in projecting an honest, albeit lightly highlighted, self. Suddenly, there’s nothing to hide behind, no more comforting “he’d have noticed me if only I wasn’t wearing this sweater” delusions. And what if they do start noticing? I’ve been married to my own Mr. Right for almost 7 years, why would I want random strangers judging/soliciting me? Doesn’t ‘being on display’ just add more pressure to a person’s day?
The way I see it, the only way this can work is if our projections are 100% authentic, which is only possible once we’ve fully explored (and come to terms with!) the who/why/how’s of our most private selves. And, since time creates a dynamic system, and no system, even if static, can be fully justified within themselves (good ol’ Gödel), we come to an impasse. Or do we? For me, this is where faith comes in. It takes the edge off, so to speak. When your confidence is rooted in the infallible, that confidence (though not necessarily you) becomes impervious to smudged eyeliner or moments like these.
But enough talk… on to the action. In the pics below – because what’s a makeover without hard evidence – I’m glamming it up with my new highlights and Covergirl Lipstain in Berry Smooch. Because, like I always say (at least since this past Saturday), why snag your hair with gloss when you can set it free with tint!
I have two confessions before I sign off. First: like all self portraits of quality, these come directly from my bathroom mirror. Second: I had just come back from the grocery store – sorry Kerri Ann. But in my defence, it was lipstain, not lipstick!
The early 20th century factory workers who painted phosphorescent numbers on clocks were a creative bunch. They used to paint their teeth with their radioactive pigments, then take turns in the broom closet scaring each other with glowing Cheshire grins. This was all good times until their teeth honeycombed, rotted, and fell out. Why does a glowing smile always have to cost so much?
Price-wise, I started ahead of the game, buying my Crest Whitestrips on sale at 1/2 price. I didn’t even get charged for the emergency trip to the orthodontist after running into “complications” on day two. But what, I ask, is the flat rate exchange for a person’s dignity?
I can handle ‘slucking’ back my saliva every 15 seconds – not a big deal. Answering the phone, “Good morning, Matrix Geoservices,” without being able to pronounce the letter M, is workable. A lisp never got anyone fired – at least not legally. However, when the owner of the company you work for gives you an important plot to fold for an important client, and you go and drool all over it, well, then we might have a bit of a problem.
There I was, a perfectly competent, mature 27 year old, staring in horror at the silver-dollar sized dollop of drool centered smack dab in the middle of the front page. I watched, paralyzed, as the ever-expanding circumference of saliva spread across data worth millions of dollars. Luckily, you don’t need an M to swear. I took evasive action with my sleeve and dabbed and blew and pressed and blew and flattened and blew until I’d done all I could do. I left the folded plot in my boss’s office and hoped for the best.
Miracle of miracles, he didn’t notice. Or maybe he did, but found other blame for the defect. Really – unless one of my dear readers rats me out – who would suspect an employee of such monumental regression? I kept my secret, as I’m sure you would too. There are some things that are just too hard to explain to middle-aged, male geophysicist – whether you have a working M or not!
And so the makeover continues. All I’ve lost is my dignity and a small slice of flesh that’s been acid-burned off the front of my gums. Small price to pay for beauty? Let’s find out…