I think I look all right, but people seem to think I’m on an eternal episode of What Not to Wear. I attract fashion advice, and I don’t really know why. Do I look that strange?
Sometimes, it’s entertaining. One friend who has given me a lot of fashion pointers over the years is a five-foot-tall New Yorker. The first piece of fashion advice she ever gave me was to wear boot cut jeans. This was in the nineties, and as a woman of 5’11”, I was at the mercy of tall jean manufacturers when it came to the arrival of the boot cuts. I promised her I’d give them a try just as soon as I could. Tall boot cuts arrived on the market, I put them on, my friend was right, and she earned lifetime rights to telling me how to dress. She’s a coach, so she tells a lot of people how they should be doing things. It’s almost cost her friends before (I am thinking of the Great Male Eyebrow Waxing Debacle), but it will never cost her my friendship because I understand that this is just how she is.
Over the years, she’s sent me links to some strange clothing choices for a woman who lives in the home city of Columbia Sportswear and Keens. “These would look great on you,” she said of sequin-and-embroidery embellished jeans with velvet tuxedo stripes down the legs. “I wear these, they are so fun,” she said of crotcheted beaded hip scarves. The height thing has never made sense to her. She has sent me links to tie-dyed maxis that would be midis on me, and shorter dresses that would be tunics. She can’t quite figure out the difference between the wardrobe of a Lilliputian New Yorker and Brobdinagian Portlander.
Things finally came to a head when we met in Vegas years ago. I will never fit in, in Vegas. I’ll always be that lady with the brown glasses and the clogs in Vegas, that lady from who looks like she’s from Oregon. I’m never going to have Vegas clothes. On that trip, she didn’t bug me about my heathered green v-neck tee or my Danskos, but she did keep pestering me to try on a Spanx bra that she loved. “You can sleep in it!” she told me. I don’t sleep in a bra. “But you could!” But I won’t.
She kept on, I kept demurring. The straps don’t adjust, I kept telling her. But she is 4’11” and I am 5’11” and she’d never had to consider the role of adjustable bra straps in the life of a woman my height. Finally, to make her stop, I did the wrong thing. I agreed to try it on. I went into the bathroom. “You have to put it on from the bottom up!” she called through the door, “Over your hips!” Nothing that fits around the top of me is going to slide up over the bottom of me, that’s just not how I’m built. So I put it on over my head and pulled it down. It fit nicely around my chest–right at armpit level.
The trying on of this bra marked a turning point in my life. I stood there with that bra in my armpits and realized that a big part of the problem was my own. I was a partner in this because I was always trying to find a polite way to turn away fashion suggestions, like pleading cost or lifestyle or length issues. I was tired of making my point that way. I should have just said that I like a bra with hooks and underwires and cups and stretchy adjustable straps, and so she should just leave me alone about any bra I could (shudder) sleep in.
I decided to stop ignoring and skirting fashion advice. I decided to start openly rejecting it.
This attitude helped me with another friend who really, really hated my hair. It’s long and I don’t color it. This friend, who works with me, found my hair horrifying. She started pestering me about it in my forties. She was devoted to getting me a smart, short, stylish haircut that I could keep properly dyed and, well, under control. She would say, quite firmly, “Don’t you want a cute short haircut? You’d look so much better with short hair, Karen.”
I am a tall, sturdy woman with strong facial features. I would look like kd lang if I had short hair. And though I admire kd and enjoy her music, I do not think her style conveys what I want to say about myself. I would express this. My friend wouldn’t let it die. She thought she was doing me a favor. I guess she thought that I didn’t know my hair was long, and I didn’t know it was going grey, so she had to keep telling me. Otherwise, you see, I wouldn’t be aware of what’s on my head. You know, like the people who tell you that you’re fat because the combined input of the scale, the mirror and the waistband of your jeans isn’t enough, you need helpful friends to let you know you’re getting to be quite a porker.
Discussions with this friend culminated in a heated coffee break discussion in which she said, “So, you have long grey hair that makes you look like a witch. Do you want to look like a witch?” I remember saying, quite emphatically, “Yes, yes I do. I want to look like a witch. That’s exactly what I’m going for, so please leave me alone about my hair.”
For the record, my New York friend wanted me to leave my hair long, but dye it dark brown while leaving two silver stripes at the front “like that chick on What Not to Wear.” This would have been a little too Elvira for me, and I told her that. Several times.
Everybody has opinions. No one seems to have considered that I look the way I look because I like it. I’m my own personal expert at handling the particular challenges of my chthonic proportions. I’m dressing pretty well within the bounds of good taste and poverty. I make missteps once in a while, but every single thing about my appearance is thought out and done on purpose. No one needs to tell me what to wear, or what not to wear.
I blame a lot of this on the show What Not to Wear. While it was on, everyone in America now considered him or herself an expert on what other people should wear because of that show, which I used to watch. It was initially hilarious to see the women on that show with their fashion missteps. We cringed at the breast-baring Ren Faire dresses, the quilted jackets made of hemp and misguided artistic intentions, the tiny club dresses that revealed personal grooming habits.
Yes, there were the overwhelmed moms who hated their post-pregnancy bodies so much that they were simply swathing themselves with whatever fabric was at hand, but they were not the majority on that show. Most of the women who were secretly filmed, humiliated at screenings, and bullied by their friends and families into going on the show, actually adored their clothes. They were wearing just what they wanted to, in just the way they wanted to wear it.
If you’re an astrophysicist and what you want to wear is a wolf t-shirt, a denim miniskirt and some bowling shoes, well, have at it, I say. Wear that, rather than the Clinton and Stacy Outfit They All Got. Which was this: a tailored jacket over a flowy blouse over wide leg trouser jeans, and heels. There were slight variations, but this was the look that Clinton and Stacy really believed in it, for every woman, all women, all shapes and sizes, this was IT.
Now, if you love this outfit, then have at it. Wear it every day. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to wear that outfit! You can wear what you want. Let your freak flag fly.
The funny thing is, Stacy herself has repudiated this whole wardrobe homogeny. Here’s an article called “How I Moved on From My What Not To Wear Style.” In it, she says:
When I look back, I realize the style I had while I was on What Not to Wear — the pencil skirts and sheath dresses, the floral and ruffled tops — does not reflect who I am now. It reflects the television persona I gave up a long time ago. It no longer “fits.” (Pun intended.) I dress much more androgynously than I did when I was younger. Frilly, girly clothes don’t have enough gravitas for me. I like suits and leather and jumpsuits, and I almost exclusively wear pants. I am pretty sure this change in my style happened quite naturally. But there have been times when I’ve worried this change won’t sit well with fans of my old look, that I’ve ostracized them, that I am no longer playing by the rules I prescribed to countless women over the course of the show. More than anything, I don’t want people who have believed in my advice over the years to feel I’ve betrayed them by no longer “looking the part.” The fact is, my public persona was only ever “part” of who I was to begin with. The Stacy I was in 2002 cannot possibly be the Stacy of 2016. Age is part of time, and does in fact change things.
So Stacy herself has turned over a fashion leaf, and now she looks like this.
Do you love it? I love it. It has nothing to do with me or my style, but I love it on her. If you don’t, well, go put on those wide leg jeans. Me, I’ll just be over here, brushing out my witch hair.
In my book Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, I have a character named Rhondalee LaCour who is absolutely insufferable. She’s a frustrated busybody who gossips and spies. She rains down storms of accusation and judgment on her husband. She pulls her granddaughter around by the arm, and possibly by the hair when no one is looking. She’s TERRIBLE. I can’t even describe how fun she was to write.
Now, not everyone can enjoy Rhondalee as much as her creator does, I understand that. But everyone who reads her identifies with one part of Rhondalee. And that is…
The Invisible Committee is a board that sits in judgment of Rhondalee’s actions, appearance, words, ambitions and marriage. Its existence is established during a very early scene in the book, while Rhondalee is vaccuming the courtyard of the trailer park’s clubhouse (it is covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting). “She ran the Kirby with ferocity, sucking up every trace of dust while laying our her thoughts to an Invisible Committee she’d mentally convened to hear her evidence and render a judgment as to her fitness as a wife and Tender’s failure as a husband.” The Committee hears her complaints, but stays silent as it becomes clear that Tender LaCour is indisputably in love with another woman.
I’ve been asked over and over who Rhondalee is based on, and the answer is, no one and everyone. She is a creation of my twisted sense of humor, written to satisfy the unadulterated glee I take in women behaving badly. But as distasteful as she is to so many readers, everyone seems to identify with her Invisible Committee. And why is that? Do we all believe there is some committee in the sky, watching and judging and issuing pronouncements on our lives?
After listening to my friends talk about it, I’ve decided that we do. It’s just located in different places.
Please understand, I was raised without the concept of Heaven and Hell. I was pretty creeped out when I found out about the idea at age eight. I remember sitting in a basement rec room, wood-panelling and all, with some Catholic friends explaining the lake of fire, and the Devil, and sin in great detail. I kept saying, “You really believe this stuff?” and shaking my head. You can’t imagine how absurd it sounded. The Devil was a Halloween costume, nothing more. And sin? The whole idea of sin? I went to church and Sunday school each week, I learned my Bible verses and sang my hymns, but I had never even HEARD of sin. But to my Catholic friends, this was all part of an invisible world, inhabited by unseen beings that included an utterly unfamiliar God; one who sat up in Heaven on a throne, watching and judging and somehow controlling the world with his judgment.
I am aware that a lot of people–a LOT–believe this way. I never could.
There is a modern, spiritual-not-religious alternative to the big man in the sky, which is the Universe. People need to listen to the Universe and these same people believe that the Universe speaks to them. The Universe is always trying to tell these people something, mostly around how important they are and how needful their endeavors are, be that a line of handmade stained-glass earrings or a CD of drumming and chanting or the like. The Universe isn’t as judge-y as some of our invisible committees, but it’s still out there–vast, concerned, instructive.
The Universe is infinite. I have a limited ability to comprehend infinity, but I know it’s BIG. I have a hard time believing that the cosmos is personally invested in my self-publishing endeavors. I remember watching The Tree of Life, a brilliant, baffling film that features the endless stream of prayer and supplication that pours from humanity into this cosmic infinity; all the guilt and hope and supplication and anguish we send up as a species, alternating with gorgeous shots of nebulae and stardust.
That’s the universe. I don’t think it cares whether or not I leave my e-books on Kindle Unlimited or not. But some believe the Universe is ALL OVER IT.
You don’t have to go into the Cosmos or up to Heaven to find invisible judgment. There are much more localized sources. In the olden days, in the fifties and sixties, the question was, “What would the neighbors think?” This concern seemed to spring up after the uproar of what Great Depression and WWII, when so many expectations were set aside in the name of survival. Women donned coveralls and made decisions and worked in factories and men were–gone. At war. Scarce.
When the men came home, America embraced conventionality like a religion. We invented the nuclear family–a great failed social experiment, in my opinion–and created suburbia. With suburbia came that old saw of a line, “What would the neighbors think?” Those neighbors didn’t have names or faces or any kind of distinct identity to add value to their judgment. But streets full of those invisible neighbors observed everything. Everyone was SURE of it.
I’ve read some beautiful, difficult books that deal with the judgment and oppression of early Suburbia.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – The suburbs can be lethal.
The Weedkiller’s Daughter by Harriet Simpson Arnow – This novel is a perhaps overwrought and cliche-ridden, but it’s trying to convey something about the smothering sterility of suburban life. I like the author more when she’s writing about Appalachia, but I still feel this one is worth a read because it took on the burbs fairly early, and from the viewpoint of alienation from Nature.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham – This heartbreaking book is about several women through the generations, but the runaway suburban mother just grabbed me by the throat.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody – A depressing look at WASPy alienation.
Three of these novels have been made into excellent movies. Then, there’s TV, specifically Mad Men. Who could forget the moment when Betty Draper went outside with the shotgun and started picking off ducks? Betty was such a casualty of suburbia. I waited through the entirety of the shown for her awakening, which never, ever came.
“What would the neighbors think?” was already more of a punchline than a true concern when I entered my teens. If you watch the movies of the era, there’s a general mockery of the idea. Some Bohemian young woman is always turning to her mother, to say, “Oh MOTHER, I KNOW, WHAT WOULD THE NEIGHBORS THINK?!?!?” Because this young woman with her center part and her miniskirt is liberated, and her dotty, repressed mother still cares, which makes her quaint at best and ridiculous at worst.
I always wondered who those neighbors were. I’m fairly certain that none of our many neighbors gave a damn what my family did when I was a kid, and if they did, we moved so often that we didn’t provide much interest for long. People my age would like to think that the women’s movement, the Watergate era and general consciousness-raising resulted in dismissal of conventional standards. And in some ways, things have changed. Though my novel The Iris Files is set in suburbia, nothing’s been the same out here since the 70s, and that’s a good thing, especially for Iris.
But our need to assume judgment never really went away. Because, now we have…
Welcome to our current social media parade, in which we are obsessed with how our lives come across to others: how they appear visually on Instagram, how eventful they seem when we check in on Facebook, how well our thoughts read on Twitter feeds. Why, some people even have BLOGS.
And for the first time, we have actual feedback, by way of likes or comments or replies. But we don’t know most of those people. They are not our neighbors, our coworkers. They are for the most part, invisible in our daily lives. All over the world, people are curating and preaching to and performing life for the eyes and ears of unseen, unknown strangers. The larger the following, the larger the performance.
It’s obvious to me that we crave the judgment of invisible others. If not God, then the Universe. If not the Universe, then the neighbors. If not neighbors, then the Internet.
Rhondalee is a middle-aged woman who manages a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. She has had her dreams crushed. Her life is tiny. It only matters to Rhondalee if her marriage falters, or her daughter never goes back onstage, or her community newsletter column goes unread. But when the Invisible Committee is watching, Rhondalee feels important. Her anger is forceful, her rage impactful. Her struggles matter.
I think so many people come up with the equivalent of an Invisible Committee because the alternative is humbling. The alternative to invisible judgment is your own invisibility. No one is watching you. No one has much of an opinion about how you live or who you love or where you shop or what you wear or drive or eat or consume for entertainment. No one outside your immediate family cares whether or not you have children. No one worries about when you’re going to finish your novel or make a success of your career or travel to New Zealand, or whatever metric you’ve set up to judge yourself against. No one is watching, no one is judging, and you are free to live your life just as large or as small as you choose to.
To some people, I imagine this feels terribly small and lonely. It’s just them, dancing for their dinners, trying to convince each other that their actions and opinions are terribly important to someone, somewhere. But to me? It is a calm, liberated place to be.
So if you have an invisible Committee, consider shutting it down. I am not sure what Rhondalee is going to do with hers, to be honest. She’s experiencing something like personal growth in book two. The days of her Invisible Committee might be numbered.