Last weekend during Lady Gaga’s appearance on SNL, someone posted on my twitter timeline, something to the effect of, “It’s too bad Gaga dresses like an alien — she’s pretty hot when she dresses normal.” And even though I don’t have much interest in Lady Gaga, and I’m unfamiliar with most of her music — and even though I’ve made similar criticisms about her and any number of other women in the past — this time something different clicked into place with me, and I thought:
Lady Gaga can wear whatever she wants. She doesn’t owe it to you to look hot.
Seriously, I realize this is basic Feminist Theory 101. But to me, it’s just now starting to make sense, and it feels revolutionary: No woman is required to look a certain way that society deems acceptable. No person, for that matter. Lady Gaga isn’t. I’m not.
“Despite the fact that I’ve got cellulite and a poochy belly and fairly big hips for my frame, I don’t diet. Despite the fact that I spent my entire adolescence and young adult life actively hating my body and attempting to hide inside my clothing, I don’t diet. Because for one thing, few diets work permanently, with lost weight often regained within a year. And for another, I don’t believe that there is one acceptably beautiful body shape or figure. And finally, I’ve found a far better way to help myself look and feel good than attempting to diet my body into submission: I dress to my figure.”
I was reading along and thinking, Yes yes yes! People are finally starting to get it: dieting is futile, and it’s okay to not be thin! Until I got to the last sentence, and it hit me again: I don’t have to “look good” if I don’t want to. I don’t have to “dress to my figure,” especially since “dressing to your figure” is usually fashion-magazine code for “deemphasizing your fat parts and focusing attention on your non-fat parts.” As the article went on to say, “I sought out garments and accessories that drew the eye to my lovely waist, my shapely shoulders, my delicate ankles. I slowly began accumulating flattering, interesting pieces while simultaneously ditching the dull, curve-disguising ones. … I learned that I felt beautiful when I looked beautiful, and that I could look beautiful by wearing clothing that focused the observing eye on my glorious natural assets.”
“Dressing to my figure” still means conforming myself to an external standard for what is “flattering” and what is “unflattering,” for making my clothing choices based on the opinion of the observer* instead of on what I want to wear. It means replacing one set of rules (Be thin!) with for another set (If you can’t be thin, at least draw attention away from your fat parts!). And I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to conform to someone else’s notion of what makes my body look good. I can wear what I like, as an extension of my own personality.
(*We can say “the male gaze” here if you’d rather, but that’s a whole other topic I’m not capable of doing justice to.)
Choosing to style my body as an extension of myself is a celebration of my own uniqueness, my own created-ness. I’m celebrating the body and the personality God made me with. Wearing what I want to wear regardless of whether it’s in accordance with how fashion magazines think I should look or whether it makes me look “attractive,” and encouraging others to do the same, is a celebration of the beautiful diversity of human beings that God has created.
It may be that the choices I make end up being in line with what’s socially acceptable, but now I’m choosing to wear those items because they’re what I like, and society’s rules happen to line up with the things I like – not because I’m trying to conform.
My son dressed himself for preschool a few days ago in a yellow and tan striped shirt and red shorts. It wasn’t a color combination I would’ve chosen, and I gently offered to help him find an outfit that matched, but he said: “No thanks, I like wearing this.” And I realized: It really is that simple.
If “dressing to your figure” and following “fashion rules” is important to you, great. It’s your choice how you decorate your body. But don’t think it’s the only option for how to decorate your body, and don’t fool yourself into believing that the rules are anything more than reflections of our culture’s arbitrary standard for beauty. There are no “fashion police,” and how I present my body isn’t up to anyone else.
You don’t have to like my outfit. You might think that wearing horizontal stripes draws attention to my fat curves, and you might have a problem with that. You can think I shouldn’t wear a sleeveless top because my upper arms are wobbly, but I’m going to wear it anyway. You might think that what I’m wearing is too young for me or too old for me, you might think it clashes, you might think I wear too much eyeliner or that my purple hair is absurd. But I’m ignoring your opinion of how I look, society, because how I look isn’t about you at all.