Growing up (I’m referring to my late teens and early twenties) I did a truckload of dumb, I’m-pretty-sure-my-brain-is-still-forming stuff like the time I got a lift with a guy I barely knew to a town far away because I really wanted to see Guided By Voices (spoiler alert: I lived!) But the one thing I actually regret was the years 18 to 21 where I not once went out without sporting at least elbow length sleeves in public. Why did I take these draconian sartorial measures? Because I had developed a rather charming case of keratosis pilaris on my upper arms (unscientific name: ugly red bumps) and was sure that if anyone spotted them in public I WOULD NEVER BE LOVED.
I don’t think I’m alone as I have friends who won’t wear boots (hate calves), only wear jeans (hate legs), never wear jeans (hate butt), the list goes on... Now just to be clear this isn’t the same thing as not wearing a particular shape or item of clothing just because it’s not your aesthetic. I don’t do flowy boho dresses because it’s just not me (sarcasm and hippie clothing don’t mix). The difference with dressing for disguise is when shopping you’ll pick up something love, try it on and still be smitten, but return it to the rack because you think it reveals something that you should be ashamed of.
It’s not particularly surprising that so many of us feel this way since for women, judgement of our bodies kicks in oh, around age 11 and from then on we not only have to think about what we like, but also start to take into account the gaze of others. Think of all the articles you’ve read in your lifetime teaching you how to “flatter your figure”? These stories are particularly annoying because if you are thin you are taught how to give the illusion of curves and if you are curvy you are instructed to dress to hide them. Whatever your body type you just can’t win (in this case the prize being healthy self-esteem, I assume.) The idea of flattering fashion is just one strand of the message that women are always told in a bigger form that they should be nice and agreeable – it’s just the visual component of it. The truth is it’s fine for women to look chubby or flat-chested or spotty or any of the million things we’re told to avoid at all costs. Just because you don’t have an hourglass waist doesn’t mean you are obligated to belt everything! Horizontal stripes for all!
Another issue with dressing to “flatter your figure” is that it forces you to mentally carve up your body into separate components each to be judged, rather than seeing it as the lovely whole that helps you dance, cook, sing, run and just generally serves as your trusty vehicle to living life. Hating one part of yourself can only lead to hating yourself. Whether it’s about your thighs or your size or as in my case your skin, conforming to societal pressures and believing that something about yourself is unacceptable and ugly is just one short step away from morphing into “I’m ugly”.
And lastly this idea of dressing to “disguise your flaws” never leads to any sort of true style anyway. A look that is appropriate and inoffensive? Yes. But true style? No. This is because genuine style is about finding those pieces that seem the literal sartorial translation of your soul (in my case I’ve discovered my soul must be as covered with polka dots as Zooey Deschanel’s) and those pieces aren’t always the ones that give you the tiniest waist or glowiest skin. Many of the women whose style I admire like Chloe Sevigny and Solange Knowles often end up on the worst-dressed lists, but they always look happy, confident and like themselves. Do we really want to live in a world where all anyone wears is universally agreed upon flattering garments like bandage dresses? Ick. In my dream world we would all be wearing orange and yellow (yes, almost no-one looks good in them, but they are just such cheery colours that it’s hard to care.)
So what happened to my deep burning arm hatred? I realised I could keep hiding them and feeling miserable or unsheathe them from their polyester prison and wear whatever the hell I wanted. I’m now living life blissfully cardigan free and loving it.