Bitchie Bitchie Bitchie — I love pretty dresses and shoes and jewelry, but whenever I put them on I feel like I’m playing dress up or that they look wrong on me, like I’m trying too hard. I’m afraid people out in the world will call me out for my look. How can I get over that old high school anxiety and just start wearing what I want and loving it?
— Not Dressed To Impress
You’ve probably been told roughly a million times things like “confidence is the best accessory” or “wear what makes you feel great” or whatever the fuck stupid thing people say to counteract all the shitty things they say about the way people choose to dress. While platitudes like that aren’t completely absurd – it doesn’t hurt to have confidence and to feel physically good in what you’re wearing – they aren’t quite the point. Confidence isn’t a thing you can go buy like you can buy the dress you need the confidence to wear. The confidence part has to come from elsewhere – ideally, from you.
Since I cannot make you a suddenly more confident person (though I encourage you to take steps toward giving no fucks in general), I’ll delve a little bit into this bizarre but prevalent issue of feeling somehow socially worse off when better dressed. Why is our confidence so tied in with our clothes? Why is it that we think something looks amazing but then balk at the idea of other people seeing it in spite of how great it looks or makes us feel? What’s the disconnect there?
In the present human moment, I think this burden has a lot to do with our struggle (and by “our” I mean people all over the gender spectrum) with victim blamey rape culture vs. a perfectly normal desire to be noticed and to feel attractive. “How dare I call too much attention to myself/how dare I not call enough?” are two sides of the same question that people have to answer every time they get dressed. Unless your outfit hits the point between these two concepts perfectly EVERY SINGLE TIME FOR EVERY SINGLE PERSON, you’ll have to answer to either one or the other. Unwanted attention from strangers is one thing, but very often we even have to fend off the opinions of people close to us – family members, co-workers, friends. “Why are you all dressed up?” or “Can you walk in those?” or “You should wear more makeup, you’re so pretty,” are just a sample of comments I’ve gotten from people close to me. They’re anxiety producing! Why do I need more makeup if I’m so pretty? Why do I need to discuss whether or not I can walk in my shoes? Why do I need to explain why I’m “all dressed up,” which is to say, wearing something other than jeans? Why am I in this constantly being made to make a case for how I’ve chosen to dress?
We live in a culture where the way we refer to people’s presentation of themselves is to constantly question their choices. This is not a high-school specific anxiety. It is very alive and well in people of all ages, and I do think it is especially true for women, on who the burden of attraction is heavily placed. Plenty of quality people manage to comment on appearance without questioning sartorial choices – comments such as “Great shoes!” or “Your eyeliner looks nice,” is always welcome- but the majority people I’ve interacted with during my brief time on this Earth stumble into calling you out even if they don’t mean to. I think that’s where the disconnect comes from – you think something looks bad ass and then someone else sees you in it and questions who the fuck you think you are to choose to wear something like that, and even if they say it nicely (“What are you all dressed up for?”), or jokingly (“Oooh hot date tonight?” or some such second rate humor), it comes off as a call out. And that hurts. It doesn’t seem like it should because fuck them, obviously! But no, it hurts. Sometimes it hurts enough that we never wear those shoes again or we toss out that lipstick, or whatever. We don’t want people to ask who the fuck we think we are. It’s a shitty question and I think too often people all across the gender spectrum dress so as to purposefully avoid it. I know I often do.
Which is why I look to people who give no fucks for inspiration. Bjork is a good example, or even someone like Tilda Swinton, who is just so fucking much her own beast. There’s also a book I highly recommend: Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics by Wayne Koestenbaum. In it he refers to wild clothes – clothes I’d certainly be too timid to wear – with the type of zen attitude that I think you and I would like to achieve. And people ask him very rude questions, too, but these questions don’t even seem to faze him. In one passage, a photographer struggles to process that this somewhat extravagantly dressed man is a writer as opposed to an actor, because the photographer has an idea of how someone in either profession is supposed to dress. If I were in Mr. Koestenbaum’s position, I’d be outraged. Fuck that guy for telling me what I’m supposed to look like! Then I would never wear X item again in order to avoid the bad anger feelings, or the feeling of being defined by someone so rigidly that even when corrected they can’t alter their definition. But Mr. Koestenbaum does not get angry. Why should he? What does the photographer’s confusion matter? Does it affect the fact that Mr. Koestenbaum is not an actor? It does not. So, I not only have give-no-fucks fashion role models, but I try to maintain some attitudinal role models as well. And the attitude isn’t necessarily a confident one. Mr. Koestenbaum also discusses wearing things he feels he doesn’t look good in. Bjork’s thinking about fashion is on another plane, though I’m sure she’s not felt her best in one outfit or another. Tilda Swinton has very likely not been pleased with the way a certain shade of icy white looks against her icy white hair. But, as in the instance with the confused photographer, the origin of those feelings is far more internal than external. Mr. Koestenbaum is hardly listening to photographer.
I don’t mean to make this sound easy –it isn’t – but I suspect you and I both will stop worrying about being called out on what we wear if we realize, completely, that we didn’t put it on for the benefit of the people calling us out and that their call out has very, very little to do with what we are. The photographer insisting Mr. Koestenbaum was dressed like an actor did not make Mr. Koestenbaum an actor, or force Mr. Koestenbaum to consider to what extent he was an actor.
I don’t know what the precise “call out” is that you’re worried about, but I encourage you think of this anecdote if you ever face it. You are not an actor, or whatever someone says you are based on how they think you look. You know what you are and you know what you want to wear. Wear the fuck out of it.
Don’t be bitchy,
If you’d like some advice from Bitchie, e-mail your question to firstname.lastname@example.org. You may just be featured in the next edition of Porch Swing!