What I'm Wearing:
Necessary Objects Demin Vest, American Apparel knee-high sheer stockings, Skagen Watch, Forever 21
Suede Clutch, Audrey Sheer Floral Dress, Fake Tan by Revlon Powder Cosmetics, Doc Marten Combat Boots
Zooey Deschanel (a new obsession of mine you might have noticed) recently felt the need to defend her girlie style and ways in New York Magazine:
"I think you can still be girlie and maintain your power. The fact that you associate being girlie with being non-threatening, that is I mean, I can’t think of more blatant example of playing into exactly the thing that we’re trying to fight against. I can’t be girlie? Why do I need to be defined aesthetically by someone else’s perceptions of what makes me seem like someone who should be taken seriously? I’m going to wear whatever I want to wear, because I’m expressing myself, and I deserve that right. And I like the way that looks."
Ever since I was a tiny tot I've been fascinated with makeup and princesses and pretty things. My first memories of reading are of me holding a princess picture book and making up my own story to match the pictures. I think I was two. For my third birthday my mom gave away makeup kits in goodie bags. Or she tried to give them away. I pocketed them all, and when my tearful guests realized there had been a theft I was (tearfully) forced to return the makeup kits. I remembered that as a great injustice. I mean after all I needed that extra makeup! When I was four I refused to wear pants. I would only wear skirts, dresses or fancy velvet shorts. My mother made me wear tights in the winter and gave up trying to put me in boys' clothes. This didn't mean I wasn't a tomboy. I simply couldn't see why climbing a tree or doing cartwheels down the lawn required pants. I did not think of myself as a sexual object, imitating Jessica Rabbit's voluptuous ways to ensnare men...or boys rather. No, it wasn't my sexuality I was expressing the way the Toddlers in Tiaras look feels horribly sexual and exploitative. It was completely innocent and entirely motivated by aesthetics not sex. There are any numbers of photos of me from nursery school with my sundress so low my flat chest is completely visible. I had no sense of modesty or sexuality. It didn't occur to me to tug the straps into place, to hide myself. I just thought the dress was pretty pretty pretty. And I liked it.
Then pretty early on things changed. I began to get curvy. Very curvy and clothes got more complicated. By ten years old I had the figure I have now-- not just the boobs, which a lot of girls suddenly sprout at a young age, but the curvy hips and defined waist of a grown woman. Along with my very plain and very childishly round face it was a strange and arresting combination-- and not a particularly comely one. I can't count on both hands how many times I got told I was "ugly" growing up. I stopped wearing pretty, revealing things. It was a different game I was playing; one I wasn't comfortable with. I was sexy without being considered "pretty", and it felt...disgusting. It took a lot of years for me to grow comfortable enough again with myself to wear the pretty pretty pretty things I loved. It took becoming a fashion model in fact. On set I would wear couture gowns, but once the set lights were off and real life set back in I'd throw back on a large and shapeless tee and baggy pants. There was a new incongruity in my life. On set I'd feel beautiful and empowered-- all the pejorative adjectives and attributes of my youth were reversed and suddenly pale was pretty not pasty, my thick, coarse hair was "amazing" in its abundance not a curse earning me the monicker "Frizzy Izzy" and my curves? They were unique and sexy instead of weird or too womanly. I was uniquely womanly in a sea of stick thin bodies, and as I began to embrace it (even after being sent home from New York Fashion Week as I recently was for having "too large breasts" (I now can't count on two hands the times my breasts have been reviled by designers) I began to wear offset stuff even more daring than I was wearing on... I began to express myself again through clothes. I began to make clothes, to shop in consigment shops for unique looks. To take joy again in pretty things.
My boyfriend at the time did not appreciate this transformation. To be fair we met after I'd only been modeling a few months, and was just tentatively braving my own toddler style again for the second time in my life. It must have been an arresting experience to start off one month with one shy, bookish girl only a month later to find yourself dating an entirely different person. He himself was definitely a better match for the former than the latter persona. He was a writer, a graduate of an Ivy League institution, which as far as I can tell only distinguishes its title-holders from all others with the need to introduce themselves in this way: "Hi, my name is John Harvard/ Yale/ Columbia Doe." He discouraged my experiments in style, urging me to eschew all of what he termed to be "silliness" and "vanity". He told me what books to read and what shows to watch. I remember watching Mad Men with him and thinking it to be the most boring show on Earth...one of my favorite shows now. It's funny how much the act of sharing television-watching is an intimate and revelatory act. The universe turned humorless and gray, which was especially ironic considering he was a humor writer. He was obsessed with the foibles of others, ridiculing everyone around him with a painful accuracy which in his writing he turned into funny and charming anecdotes. Mostly. (His novel was criticized for making all the characters whose jobs he didn't approve of-- stockbrokers and..er...models and the like-- as too "two-dimensional".) One day I simply couldn't take it any more. The more time we spent together, the more ill-humored my humor writer seemed.
I remember every detail of the afternoon I cracked, because it was the day I really changed. It was sunny and bright out, but the light had the cold slant of the coming fall. I was wearing my first pretty dress. It cost $140 from LF Stores on Spring Street, which was then and is now a lot of money for me. It was a babydoll dress, and I still have it. Creamy cotton with lacy cap sleeves. I'd paired it with my cheap patent-leather mary janes from Target that people literally stop me on the street to ask me where I bought them.... just like in that DSW ad. I had come from a casting, which I hadn't gotten, but I was flush with the victory of having survived the experience. I used to practically faint at castings when I started off I was so nervous. He didn't notice or care that I was all dressed up. He had a sour look on his face; I can't remember why. I think I was late? His novel was consuming all his time and energy, and he thought the modeling, the dress, everything about me was...stupid. I could see it on his face, his judgment writ large. Suddenly, I didn't care. I didn't need or want his approval. I had never been so good at anything as I was at modeling and acting. Maybe it wasn't a highly intellectual activity of stunning universal importance, but it made me feel good. It made me feel brave. It cracked me out of the shell that had kept me in relationships with guys like him my whole life-- whether it was victim to bully as I'd been in school or put-upon girlfriend to dominant, controlling boyfriend as I'd become in later life.
When I finally broke up with him after innumerable arguments and attempts to talk things out, I kind of just walked out. Words, words, words hadn't gotten me anywhere with him. So I just left. "Where are you going?" he snarled at me. I didn't answer. If I'd answered, he'd have countered with one of his stunningly painful and perceptive anecdotes about human behavior. He had us all figured out; he would have put my behavior into the perception machine he and the Ivy League together had put so much oil and money and time into squeezing the universe into a Harvard/John Doe ball he could put his stamp on and he would have owned my actions, too. He would have stamped on me. So I fled. Of course he had to get the last word. He sent me an email later that day telling me I was too stupid for him anyway. I was flabbergasted. No one had ever called me stupid before. On two hands I couldn't count how many times I'd been called "ugly"... but "stupid"? Me. The nerd. The geek. The straight-A student in the gifted programs who spent her summers in nerd camp learning German? Who thought no boy would ever even want to kiss her pale, pasty face? Never. I'd always been the career-focused go-getter in the shapeless sweater and glasses....could a cream-colored babydoll dress really confuse male perception that much? Could it really transform me? By dressing in the pretty pretty princess dresses of my youth was I making myself stupid?
Where once my outside had attracted all the criticism, suddenly by changing the focus of people's perceptions my inside was under attack for the first time.
I realized as well that the act of putting on a pretty dress was as political an act as anything else I'd ever done. It was thumbing my nose to the puritanical notion that a pretty pretty pretty dress meant a pretty stupid person underneath it. I realized as well that the painful and hilarious perceptive capacities of someone like my ex-writer boyfriend were more limiting than liberating. That dress didn't and doesn't define me; it only expresses a longing in my heart to wear pretty things and express my own notions of what is aesthetically appealing.
I remember the next time I put on my pretty dress, I thought of what he said. It hurt then, of course, but I looked at my pretty dress in the mirror and I still liked it.
And I still wear it from time to time.