“I write to discover what I know.”
~ Flannery O’Conner
We were warming up before practice, and I was in the layup line…”Catch the ball, dribble with two steps and shoot….Good!” I swung around under the basket to catch my teammate’s shot and tossed it back over to the next girl in line.
“Hey! Come over here!”
“Your form is good…your aim is fine…but…why are you taking off for your layup at the top of the key?”
“Uh, um, uh…”
“Yeah – try dribbling a bit closer to the basket next time – take off at one of the last hashmarks. Got it?”
“Yeah – sure coach.”
I didn’t have the nerve to tell her that the reason why I was taking off at the top of the key was because I thought I was Dr. J….I thought I could fly.
Body image – it is the way that one thinks about / sees one’s own body. For many years, mine was a bit off. I didn’t look a lick like Dr. J., but I just went off into pilot mode on the basketball court, and, as my coach noticed, it looked rather comical. Earlier in life, it was my dream to be the first female pitcher in the majors…and then I stopped growing. Obviously, my body image was quite tied up with my love of sports. When someone mistook me for a boy, I would think it was so cool because I took it as a compliment to my fine soccer skills. The fact that I was simply standing still at an airport or restaurant with no reference to my participation in any athletic activity somehow escaped my pre-teen mind.
I also liked to wear clothing that was large – I would wear things in a size 8 or 10, when in reality, I was a petite size 4. Many women would kill to be in a petite size 4. It never even dawned on me to try shopping in the petite section until about five years after I’d finished graduate school – I’d always thought that those clothes were for girls far smaller than I was.
Envy / Admiration
“Well the other side of the world
Is not so far away as I thought that it was
As I thought that it was so far away”
~ Rich Mullins, The Other Side of the World
Along with this inaccurate image of my own body came matters of personal style and taste. Basically, I loved men’s clothes, and couldn’t stand women’s…I had a very hard time finding things to suit my preference in the girl’s department. No frills, lace or glittery fabric, no pink, no low collars, sleeves had to be wide enough to cover a bra strap, and I couldn’t bear wearing dresses, hose or shoes with heels. It drove my mother up the wall, and as she was the one buying my clothes, I had to search to find things that passed her own style and taste tests. Shopping for clothes was always a hassle.
I would find myself longingly going over the latest L.L. Bean offerings – wishing I could get into the flannels, chamois, heather sweaters and vests the men were wearing by beautiful mountains and rivers, and flipping past the weak pink-checked patterns in the women’s section of their catalogs.
Earlier this year, I came across this quote by Jeanette Howard on her blog:
In order to address my Gender Dysphoria I had to, irrespective of how I felt, create a framework based on what God says such as God chose me to be female and He says that I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139). By creating a framework of truth and choosing to remain in that structure I could address my false beliefs and broken responses. This painful process has taken years and even now I can find myself envying a fit male body rather than appreciating it or being attracted to it.
~ Jeanette Howard http://bethanylifeministries.org.uk/50-shades-gender-identity-part-2/
That last sentence jumped out at me – “…envying a fit male body rather than appreciating it or being attracted to it.” That was my mindset for many, many years. About a month ago I was watching a video of Alice Von Hildebrand* being interviewed by Eric Metaxas, as she was talking about men and women. At one point she said that the proper response of a man to a woman is enchantment, and that of a woman, “when seeing a man worthy of being called a man” is admiration. (Video link is at the end of this post.**)
When I heard that, the thought struck me – how there is such a subtle difference between envy of men and that potentially God-driven, femininely instinctive admiration of them. That is a much more subtle line to be crossed than the large gap which I used to feel existed between my reactions to men and the reactions of ever-straight / gender-identity conforming women around me to the men they knew. I was envious of the strength and freedom that I thought masculinity had cornered the market on.
I had not as yet discovered the strength that exists in mercy (see this described in my post on this blog entitled “Gender Identity III”***). I was taking a narrow-minded view of what it meant to be a woman – that girlishness was weakness – and applied that to who I saw in the mirror, and that carried over into my choice of clothing.
Tirian suddenly felt awkward about coming among these people with the blood and dust and sweat of battle still on him. Next moment he realized that he was not in that state at all. He was fresh and cool and clean, and dressed in such clothes as he would have worn for a great feast at Cir Paravel. (But in Narnia your good clothes were never your uncomfortable ones. They knew how to make things that felt beautiful as well as looking good in Narnia: and there was no such thing as starch or flannel or elastic to be found from one end of the country to the other.)
~ C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
Reading this paragraph reminds me of how well Lewis remembered his youth, and was able to take those memories and deftly weave them into his series of children’s books. It also seems like a bit of heaven – to have your “good clothes” feel as beautiful as they look. (I’ve found that to be a great measure of quality now when I’m trying something on – if I’m tugging, scratching, or compromising my posture in order to feel comfortable in it in a dressing room, it goes back on the rack.)
I started this post with a quote by Flannery O’Conner: “I write to discover what I know.” And that is certainly true in this attempt to look back on why and how I changed my personal dress code. It’s been hard to piece together exactly what I was thinking when – I’m mostly sorting through impressions, with a few specific memories. Again, I’d like to emphasize that these posts are more reflective than any type of attempt to be instructive. There was a lot of internal work that the Lord was subtly doing in my life which no one could see, and some of which I can only trace by looking back over the years.
Returning to clothing – I had been thinking through all the musings that were mentioned in the first three posts in this series on Gender Identity, and at some point things came together and started making sense. I remember one day getting ready for church – I knew the sermon was going to be on Ephesians 5:21-33, and I was preparing for what I thought was going to be a condescending teaching towards women. I put on a blazer (with huge shoulder pads), and also consciously recognized the attitude of defensiveness that I put on with it. I shrugged off the sense that something was askew, and carried my tough-girl mindset all the way to the service.
But the sermon that day wasn’t in any way condescending. It was the best treatment of the passage I’d ever heard. Our pastor truly had a servant’s heart, and loved his wife dearly. I learned more about how a man who is enchanted by the woman he cares about thinks and acts. As I remembered my mindset when I’d put on my blazer that morning, I realized it was totally unnecessary – there was nothing here to fight or defend myself against. The real, true love that the Lord has for me was breaking through, and I found it was a good and solid place to stand.
So I started paying attention to the attitude I was carrying when I wore certain clothes – and started phasing them out of my wardrobe, because I didn’t need them anymore.
Eventually I started to see (I can’t remember exactly how) that I was a petite young lady, and the clothes in smaller sizes actually fit me. This led me to look around at my friends who were the same size and make comparisons – in a good way.
I was actually in the REI store in Atlanta one day and saw a cute skirt and vest on display. I thought, “Hey, that outfit would look great on my friend, E.” And I breezed on past to the camping gear. About 20 steps later it hit me – and I turned back to the display to check out my new hypothesis – “You know, E. is about the same height and weight that I am, and that outfit might actually look OK on me.”
I tried it on, and I thought it looked right smart. I walked out of there with several hundred dollars worth of new clothes – mostly items I would never had dreamed of even trying on before that day. (For those who don’t know, REI stands for “Recreational Equipment Inc.” – it’s very much like L.L. Bean. Outdoor retailers had finally caught up with the fact that women enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking, climbing and such, and most brands had a good selection of women’s clothing at that point. It was an accessible place for me to shop!)
So having the right image of my actual shape and size, and some friends around me who dressed in a sporty-feminine way, made a big difference. I couldn’t find any famous fashion icons whom I could follow, so I created my own style – I called it “Semi-Fru” – not “Fru-Fru,” nor “Un-Fru,” but somewhere in between. I tried new things – usually a few years behind whatever had been trendy, but it took time for me to get my courage up, and to see myself in a new way. I looked for classic pieces that I could mix and match with other things – suddenly, shopping became more fun. I still did not go for frills, lace, glitter, or pink, and to this day won’t wear anything higher than a kitten heel. But it was an adventure finding things that fit my new mindset.
One other thing that made a difference for me in choosing clothing was learning about what colors worked for my skin tone. I didn’t learn about this until after I had spent that huge amount on clothes at the REI, that were actually not in the best shades for me. (Argh!)
For some time it was hard for me to get what people were talking about. “ having your colors done” was all the buzz for a while, and I didn’t know what they meant. At some point I stumbled across this web site, and it really helped me make sense of it all:
I remembered getting compliments while wearing clothes with “jewel tones” – a royal blue shirt, or emerald green sweater – regardless of the style, it was a “that color looks good on you” scenario. Looking at the photos of various familiar famous faces on this web site and comparing the written notes to the colors of their skin tones was a great help. (They also have a great FAQ page: http://www.truth-is-beauty.com/faq.html.)
Now, when I’m looking through catalogs I gravitate towards the women’s clothing, thinking through what colors would work best on me, and what looks most comfortable and what fabrics are easiest to care for. I don’t always stick by the “jewel tones” rule, if there is something that looks fun and feels great when I put it on, I’ll get it, even if it’s not the best shade. I’m no longer a petite 4, by any means, but I don’t wear things several sizes too large any more. It’s also been very helpful to have some friends who are twin sisters in the same size I am share their hand-me-downs! They have different styles – one I would say is more sporty and the other more urban. It’s given me a chance to experiment with some great things (i.e. – a beautiful short-sleeved angora sweater and a kickin’ pair of patterned capris) for free.
A few years ago I was in a women’s bicycling club that would get together once or twice a year for a “clothing swap.” It was a fantastic idea – we were all into a variety of sports, and had pieces of performance wear or just plain shirts or jeans that we wanted to rotate out of our closets. So we gathered at someone’s home and laid everything out for the rest of the group to sort through and try on. It was a blast! Everyone was looking out for one another – someone would pick up a shirt and catch the attention of another girl across the room, “Hey, J. – this looks like it would be perfect on you!” I snagged a couple of things for friends who I knew were smaller than me who would get a lot of use out of them. One girl in particular, R., for some reason was able to fit into every pair of jeans she tried on – and they looked great. By the time the night was over she took home 12 pairs. We all hated her. (Just kidding! It was really funny that she hit the “jeans jackpot.”)
It was another fun way to have a clothing adventure. And such a healthy atmosphere for women who wanted to see someone else enjoying what they were wearing. Some of my favorite pieces that I have now came from those swaps.
I hope that some of these reflections and thoughts will spur you on to pray and think through your own clothing adventures!