baghead

July 23: Roadblocks and Brain-Invaders: When the Experiment Goes Awry.

Worrying about how I look has ruined many of my days. To express the depth of the problem, I give you this image of our family camping trip to Yellowstone National Park the summer after my eighth-grade year. Yes, I am wearing a paper bag on my head.

It rained that fateful week in Yellowstone, and I was concerned about my hair. The paper bag was my beautiful solution. I am sure my parents were mortified, but I would not be persuaded otherwise. The thought of being seen with bad hair by anyone at all, even perfect strangers (whilst on a camping trip, mind you) was too much for me to bear.

I remember people thinking it was kind of a zany, funny thing to do; I believe I was part of several other family’s vacation shots; I know I heard quips about the Unknown Comic. But when I posed with my beleaguered siblings in front of Old Faithful, I also remember how un-zany and un-funny it felt to me. Under that paper bag was a miserable girl, paralyzed by feelings of inadequacy so intense they kept me from enjoying all kinds of things. Such as parties and ski trips with skinny girls and the dumbfounding mystery of a geyser erupting on schedule before my very eyes.

In this fashion, over the years, I have sabotaged various social events, job interviews and personal relationships. A paper bag, a well-cut trouser, the perfect wedge heel or a neckline I thought flattered my bust: I have used many tools to hide my prodigious imperfections from the world and it’s all just a bit crazy-making in the long run. Thus, I embarked upon my year-long experiment in simplicity. My original goal, of course, was to spend less time worrying about what I wear and how I look. Along the way, I noticed that when I dress to be comfortable in my clothing, I am markedly more comfortable in my own skin.

If I am on a journey toward better self-acceptance, I have been cruising along nicely until the past few weeks, when I seem to have hit a nasty road-block. At the moment, my experiment is not going well.

Last month, I spent five jam-packed days in New York. The skort365 project served me well. I dressed 100% for comfort 100% of the time, even when it meant meeting dear old friends for dinner in Greenwich Village in a black skort and (so help me God) a grey Denver South High t-shirt. Unthinkable, even a few months ago. A rare in-person rendezvous normally brings out the fussiest of my fussing about what to wear. I could spend weeks contemplating the most flattering, current, beautiful outfit to don for such an occasion. Not this time. I threw on a danged t-shirt, went on my way, and had a wonderful time. (It is also significant that it rained all week in the City and I neither worried about nor ever really so much as brushed my hair. Not a paper bag in sight.) Only one month ago, I felt like I was getting it. I felt confident and strong. I had my priorities in the right places. Experiencing the City and the people I love is far more important than agonizing about how I look while doing it. I felt gently sorry for the young girls doing touristy things, like I was, in five-inch heels and flawless makeup and coifs they had labored over all morning. I was in the groove of self-acceptance, and I felt great!

jodie ang me

I don’t know exactly what has happened – has anything happened? – but I have to admit the feeling of confidence is gone. Lost. Slipped away. I look at myself in pictures and I am horrified. I see the purple bruises I get on my legs (because I am a very active and rather clumsy person) and I am ashamed to show my skin in public. I catch myself in the mirror and make frequent, fervent vows to spend much more time at the gym. I am so worried about how rotten my hair looks it keeps me awake at night. I think I look awful. Tired and fat and squatty and short and what the Hell Have I Been Thinking, prancing around without so much as a pair of Spanx to protect civilization from the horror of How I Look?

I know my appearance has not changed significantly in one month; it isn’t possible. I cannot have morphed from pleasant-looking, healthy 45-year-old woman into obese troglodyte so swiftly. In fact, I am technically a few pounds lighter than I was then.

So what has changed? Beats me. I know I prefer the Me of a month ago. I trusted I looked just fine, knew there were more important things to think about, anyway, and moved through the world accordingly. I resent the negative thoughts about myself, which have returned like noisy vagabonds, pitching tents, cranking up the radio and tossing beer cans into places I have so recently cleared of debris. I have enough distance from the whole thing to notice how I feel, which perhaps is progress. But at the moment, it is impossible for me to tell which vision of myself is true. Am I the healthy, happy, carefree image smiling in photographs one short month ago? Or am I the fleshy freak-show in my bedroom mirror?

One moment I was considering restricting my wardrobe even further, to black tanks and skorts with super construction only, layered with jackets and scarves as conditions require. I was feeling so secure and so confident in this basic ensemble, the loud colors and frilly tops I once favored felt like superfluous costume. The next thing I knew, I was frantically trying on six or seven tops before I felt secure enough to leave the house. Conversations with friends were suddenly tempered by an old, familiar fretting about how my belly looked.

At the risk of being indelicate, I am pissed off. I am thrown off – off-course, off-kilter, off my center. I resent my vulnerability, despite the real work I am doing, to forces I don’t understand. Since we only get to choose our reactions to things, here is what I have done: I have stayed my course. I have worn a black skort every day, no matter how many people I might offend with the doughy white meatiness of my legs. I have eschewed any other costume which might feel safer and more secure. I breathe. I walk. I remind myself how much better I feel when I eat no sugar at all. I bend, stretch, stand on my head, think expansive, forgiving, grateful thoughts. I have meditated on casting off, like boats from a dock, everything that gets ahold of me. I launch all the negative thinking into the open water and watch it float away. I remain anchored, unaffected. I have acted as though I believe the whole thing is crazy. The very idea that I can feel so fine one moment and so pathetic the next – it defies the rules of logic. I respect few things more than the rules of logic, and the empirical evidence I have collected over these 45 years tells me to wait it out. My observation and experience point to cycles, phases, patterns. The ebb and flow of life in this broken but wonderful world. I feel pretty crappy now, but I’ll feel better again.

I am putting the practices that feel uncomfortable at the moment into a savings bank. I am trusting that all of it–simplifying my wardrobe, opting for comfort over glamor, exercising, eating right, working to accept that I am a-okay, just as I am—will pay great dividends when I am back to feeling confident and pretty again. I am trying to trust that I don’t have to do anything now to fix a problem that isn’t there. I am trying to ignore my obnoxious tenants, those old familiar negative thoughts. I hope they will become bored and move onto more interesting territory, where they can get a rise out of someone less sure of herself than I am.

I hesitated to write about this hitch in my giddy-up, because it’s kind of embarrassing. I am starting to believe, however, that I am not alone in any of this. I think a lot of women can relate to the fun-house-mirror aspects of our relationships with ourselves. So I’m writing about it. I’m hoping other women will share their secrets for staying centered when life threatens to knock them out of balance. I am even more hopeful about talking to the few women I know who do not suffer such a silly fate. The girls who feel confident and sure, who have healthy relationships with how they look and what they wear and how much they weigh . . . they are out there, and I am watching them, hoping to learn their secrets. Most of all, I am putting one foot in front of the other. Keeping calm and carrying on. Noticing the good stuff and un-docking the bad stuff, sending it adrift and un-moored and un-tethered from me and my life.

As my beautiful husband just said, when we were hanging up the phone after a discussion about our sometimes-difficult teenager (aren’t they all?!), “Well, we all shine on. Like the moon and the stars and the sun.” See why I married him? I am helpless before a guy who casually drops John Lennon into the convo just when I need it most.

Indeed. Amen. Shine on. I’ll let you know how it goes.

A Teenager with Great Perspective. Shine on, Maya!

July 14: If You Love a Pre-Teen Girl, Get Her This Book.

When it comes to young girls and their images of themselves, I am a preservationist. It’s a Thing with me (and if you’ve been reading this blog, it’s no mystery why). Preservation is the act of keeping something safe or free from harm or decay. It is the act of keeping something alive, of keeping the quality or condition of something intact. Have you spent any time with, say, a six-year-old girl? In almost every case, there is a sense of Self in a six-year-old girl I long to keep intact.

A six-year-old girl is fierce. She knows what she likes and dislikes and makes no apology about either. She dresses as she pleases and knows she looks fabulous. She is wild and free and unfettered, given to bursts of song or tears, impressed by physical feats and sure of her place in the fascinating, abundant world. By the age of twelve or thirteen, these qualities (and this girl) are often lost.

I imagine it can be different. I dream of a generation of women who come of age with their childhood self-confidence intact. A generation of women too sure of themselves to ever give themselves away, minimize their power, or ever, ever doubt that they are enough. I am honored to know several twenty-somethings who seem to be surviving with their sense of Self intact. They are my former students and every day I am inspired by their strength and spirit.

I am also encouraged by the wisdom of young people like Maya Van Wagenen, who spent a year contemplating her middle-school social life. Lucky for us, Ms. Wagenen chronicled her adventures (she followed, to the letter!, advice from a 1950′s guide to teenage popularity for an entire school year). Her book is a great read, especially for the young-adult audience who will relate most closely to her struggles. As we might expect, the author discovers that the secret to making friends is neither the cutest shoes nor the flattest abs, but a willingness to be yourself and talk to other people.

I tip my hat–only because I cannot tip my SKORT–to this young author, her year-long project, her ability to write well about it, and her fine example for her contemporaries. If you have any eleven- or twelve- or thirteen-ish girls in your life, POPULAR is a perfect back-to-school, end-of-summer gift. Get it today for the girls you love; it’s a light, lovely read for the last lazy days of summer, and nothing could prepare a girl better for facing the maze of middle school come fall.

The preservationist in me just loves it when a young woman takes steps to keep her very own self safe, free from harm and decay, alive, intact. Therein lies the secret to becoming strong and happy adults. Shine on, Maya Van Wagener and young girls like her who Get It at such tender ages! You give us all hope.

July 3: If I’m Lyin’, I’m Dyin’ – Skorts are SO on-Trend!

The following is a text message I received from a stylish, gorgeous, smart-as-a-whip former student. She and her cronies are 20-somethings who have the world on a string. and she honors me by keeping in touch throughout the years.

MY FRIENDS AND I ARE CURRENTLY DISCUSSING SKORTS BECAUSE MY ROOMMATE HAS DECIDED TO WEAR ONE TO THE BEYONCE AND JAY-Z CONCERT IN BOSTON TONIGHT. #skortisthenewsexy

Word.

Beyoncé knows what's up - Her version of a skort.
Beyoncé knows what’s up – Her version of a skort.
6-29-14

June 30: “Do the Opposite” (Summer Style Stuff)

It was a hot weekend. I had to be outside all day, both days. On Saturday, I did as I always do for steamy weather: I wore as little as propriety allows. On Sunday–burned a bit, kind of dehydrated, and just so leery of wilting–I channeled George Costanza, who changed the course of his sorry life by following Jerry’s advice, “if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

I did the opposite. I wore an SPF 50+ shirt with long sleeves, a giant floppy hat and my obnoxious big sunnies. It felt like donning a costume; it felt funny; I felt silly leaving the house. I worried I could not possibly keep from overheating in such a full state of dress.

As often happens in my life, the wisdom of Seinfeld prevails. I don’t know I why I ever look anywhere else for real-life advice. Costanza-esque, I did the opposite, and I swear to you, I stayed cooler in the sun. This shirt (and isn’t it really quite darling?) is the brainchild of a cool chick I ran into and who just happens to live nearby! I am a new and rabid fan of her newly launched business: http://www.boldbabespfclothing.com/. You’ve got to check this out!!

I am a sun-worshipper and a water-bug, but I overheat easily. Really easily. I have always figured next-to-naked is the best way to beat the heat, but of course I have noticed how our sisters in sweltering climates (such as India) layer in light fabrics. I’ve been intrigued, but it seems counter-intuitive and straight-up crazy to me, putting on more than a bikini in hot weather.

Along with my 45-year-old body (not so cute in a bikini), I guess, comes a bit of 45-year-old wisdom. My girl Kate (designer and proprietor of http://www.boldbabespfclothing.com/), along with my yoga instructor, and probably echoed by Common Sense, points out that the act of cooling the body down requires extra work in those sky-high temperatures. I know for a fact that my skin felt cooler on Sunday. None of that sizzling, surface-of-the-skin sensation that I always enjoy at first and which ultimately destroys me if I can’t find shade. I did not overheat. I did not burn or do damage to my skin. And look at that photo! Despite feeling costumed when I left the house, I think (in retrospect) I looked quite adorable, indeed!

Kate has designed a sweet little collection of SPF 50+ shirts and dresses. They are cute and functional and really quite flattering. Since last weekend, I have hunted her down and purchased two more, because I plan to spend most of the July 4th weekend on the glassy, reflective surface of a mountain lake. It’s supposed to be super-sunny and warm, and we regret it when we do not respect the fry-factor here at altitude.

I encourage those I love (and who love the sunshine) to check out Bold Babe. I’m thrilled to support another local, woman-owned business, and I am captivated by Kate’s great style and warm personality, and I want to share the strange new joy of staying cool, comfy and cute in really hot weather! I also encourage those I love to Go Costanza once in awhile. Do the opposite. See what happens. We cannot help but learn something new when we swim against the current of our comfort-zone. Let me know how it goes.

"It's the Summer of George!"
“It’s the Summer of George!”

(***My “no-clothing purchases” rule had to be revised on Saturday when the sunblock-jacket I brought with me was purloined. I counted it as an “emergency” purchase rather than a “new clothing” purchase. The second one – the dress style – is activewear, so I am not counting it as clothing. The third I purchased for a friend. So there, Rules of the Project. I can justify with the best of ‘em.***)

burden image

June 17: Paradigm Shift–If Beauty is a Burden, Where Does That Leave Me?

I don’t know if the skorts are directly responsible, but I’ve had a few mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting insights lately. I don’t know if this experiment can possibly produce results so quickly, but two and a half months into it, I swear I have different (better, more mature, less crazy-making) attitudes about appearances and beauty and what to wear. I don’t generally like to jump to conclusions or make sense of things so swiftly—and of course there is much to come in the next ten months!—but here in my tangled brain, here in my formerly overstuffed closet, things, they are a changin’.

The greatest shift in my thinking started when I spent a few hours chatting with my cousin Nicole. She and I, without knowing it, have shared this lifetime desire: we long to be the Pretty One. We are both smart, funny, confident, capable. We are loyal friends and devoted caretakers. We love to have fun; we care about serving the world. But we’re short, stout girls with thick appendages and Fred Flinstone feet. Whenever we have heard other girls being praised for their beauty, we have envied them, admired them, and maybe considered some pretty serious deals with the devil. At certain points in our lives, it might have been worth our souls to get a little piece of that Pretty-Girl magic for ourselves.

My cousin told me her mother had recently chastised her for saying she had wanted to be the Pretty One. It seems her mother (who did grow up labeled a Beauty and resented every minute of it) brought this girl up with just the opposite idea in mind. “Why would you want to be pretty?” her mother said with scorn and disappointment in her voice. “You’re the Smart One,” she said with pride and respect. Her mother hated being the Pretty One; she felt diminished and misunderstood and never, ever really seen for who she was.

My cousin and I considered this idea together: can Beauty, indeed, be a burden? I’ve been chewing on the idea with my girlfriends. I’ve been asking beautiful women, who were aware of their beauty as they grew up, about the Burden of Beauty. Blow me down—I think it’s actually a Real Thing. The labels “beautiful” and “pretty” may stifle a young woman’s identity and development as much as feeling awkward and ugly and insufficient in the Looks Department.

Some beautiful women feel minimized by the label. They feel (don’t we all?) like more than the sum of their outside parts – they feel talented, or smart, or joyful or artistic or whatever the case may be – but the consistent message they get from the world is “you sure are pretty.” Some of these women, it seems, long to be treated just like everyone else. They resent the unwanted attention from men and boys who make them feel unsafe. They are often wounded by the jealous and petty behavior of other women, of mean girls who buoy themselves by sinking other people.

The Pretty Ones long to be loved and understood for the human beings they are, their thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams, instead of for how pristinely they photograph or how nice their figure looks in clothes. They feel like prey, like commodities, like objects, like everybody wants a piece of them and their beautiful selves. Here’s the other thing: a lot of these women reject the notion of their own Beauty to begin with. The image society reflects back to them is strange; it does not match the image they see in the mirror. Moreover, they didn’t ask to be beautiful. An exquisite physical appearance is happenstance. It is an accident of design, a random collision of molecules. To the women who take it for granted, Beauty matters very little. The enthusiastic refrain of their lives—imagine, being celebrated wherever you go just for looking how you look! To me, it sounds divine!—doesn’t mean a damned thing to them. They smile politely, as they have been taught to do, and secretly wish the world lauded their accomplishments or their creativity or their sense of humor or their good works.

Isn’t it always interesting to cross the proverbial street, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, to see things from another’s point-of-view? I have been so consumed with lamenting my unhappy physical lot, so intent on trying to find the secret passageway to the Land of the Beautiful People, that I have never bothered to see these things in a different light.

No one likes to be labeled. My teenaged children remind me all the time—they are so passionately intent on creating an identity of their own, they bristle when other people categorize them in any way. They reject all labels, regardless of how pure and positive their intentions. They do not enjoy being called “talented” or “really good at math” any more than they like being called “lazy” or “absent-minded” or “punk-ass no-‘count teenagers.” Praise (and most especially praise for things they can’t control, like musical ability or quick-twitch muscles) is distasteful to them because it smacks of other people defining them. Thus begins the cycle of expectations and assumptions and limits and misunderstandings and bitterness that complicates the process of growing up.

Okay. World-view shifted. Beauty can be as toxic and limiting a label as any other. I’ll try to keep it in mind. I still suspect that, given the choice between a wispy, willowy figure and my own corpulent frame, I’d take the former. It might be the ultimate beautiful-people luxury to reject ideas of physical appearance. I know it’s not fair to tell a little girl, over and over again, how pretty she is—I know we need to tell those girls how smart and competent they are, and I do—but I can’t help thinking it wouldn’t really be all that bad. I think I could shoulder the yoke of having to prove my intelligence to others. I mean, sure, it would be a bummer, but it sounds less exhausting and less restrictive than the shackles of inadequacy and self-doubt. I might prefer to shoulder the load of being gorgeous than the weight of trying to compensate for physical deficits and convince the world that I’m okay. Just sayin’.

As my cousin and I discussed, this insight really does change our thinking. In spite of our lifelong obsession, our feelings that things would go much more smoothly for us if only . . . (if only we were taller, thinner, and on and on and on) . . . being the Pretty One is not all it’s cracked up to be. We can see her mother’s point. We can see why both our mothers raised us to be strong and smart and successful instead of decorative and vulnerable. For the first time, my cousin and I appreciate our mothers for raising us this way. What once felt like rejection and inadequacy (“You’re so talented! Why do you care about being pretty?”) we now understand was love, concern, protection and a solid foundation of self-confidence. Maybe now, after our glimpse of what goes down on the other side of Beauty Street, we can let some serious stuff go.

Longing to be the Pretty One is a lifelong habit. An unattainable ideal, a seductive mirage, a Siren song that leads me though an alluring maze of cosmetics, designer clothes, hair products and cellulite-reducing creams only to crash against the rocks of reality every time. Now that I have caught a glimpse of the depths of Beauty’s empty promises, it feels right to give up this habit. I will continue to appreciate and admire beautiful people, as I do the works of Rodin or Monet or Marcel Proust, but I will try not to confuse these feelings by comparing them to my own inadequacies. I will give Beauty less power, by focusing on qualities other than physical features. Of course, we all do this every day. None of us makes or keeps a friend because of the elegant curve of her neck or her thick curly hair. The beauty of our loved ones attracts us initially, but we know it is not what sustains a marriage and a life built together.

Beauty matters. I know it does. We seek scenic vistas and stare into golden sunsets and take photographs of flowers because beauty pleases us. But knowing there is a down-side to physical perfection reminds me that beauty isn’t everything. It is not the only thing. It is part of the world, and I am freer, more open and more able to take it in when I let go of worrying about it for myself. I can admire and enjoy the beauty of the natural world and the people I meet without feeling inadequate. Already I have been trying to put this idea into practice and I notice the change. When I can—without worrying how my thighs or my belly or my outfit looks–go to an event or meet an old friend or hike a trail to a spectacular waterfall, I enjoy everything more. When I am focused less on how my hair looks and more on the faces, voices and stories of my dinner companions, I have a better time. When I stop pursuing an impossible, unrealistic vision of myself, I feel much more comfortable in the very skin I was born with. And that, my friends, is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Cousins and Me . . . glad we're on the journey together!
Cousins and Me . . . glad we’re on the journey together!

 

 

 

keaton book cover

June 6: Is No One Immune? Self-Doubt and Style, a la Annie Hall

Diane Keaton hates her hair.
Thus the lifetime of hats.
Diane Keaton does not like her face.
Thus the wide brims on all those hats.
Diane Keaton thinks her eyes are too wide and droopy.
Thus the ever present, often tinted, spectacles.
And all that menswear?
Those classic turtlenecks, those wide belts, that inspired, iconic STYLE?
Diane Keaton herself calls it camouflage, protective armor, an impenetrable fortress. To hide arms, hands, legs, feet.

But, but, but, but, but . . . !

When I learned I needed eyeglasses, the first thing I did was search online for images of Diane Keaton. Who else? Nobody wears a pair of specs with more style, more elegance, more understated flair.

Every single time in my adult life I have donned a hat, I have secretly (who hasn’t?!) channeled Annie Hall.

And while I have never tried to emulate Ms. Keaton’s androgynous fashions (because my figure is less statue-esque and more Oompa-Loompa-ish), she has perennially inspired me. She strolls confidently through my interior montage of trends and tastes, fads and crazes, always singular in her Good Taste. Always herself. Always different but never shocking, never offensive. Always beautiful, stylish, stunning,  whimsical, smart, fun and funny. Absolutely everything I long to be.

This memoir of hers is great. Funny, poignant, warm, personal, wise. Empowering, even. But it is heartbreaking, somehow, for me to learn that the sense of style I have admired for so long was borne of fear, self-loathing, self-doubt. Heartbreaking, but also maybe it is comforting. I suppose it is always comforting to feel understood. The shock of writers giving voice to my private, unformed ideas drew me to literature in the first place and keeps me coming back. Like a junkie needing a fix, I open books, hoping to score that glorious moment of recognizing and naming something about myself there among the words penned by strangers.

Diane Keaton’s memoir certainly satisfies my jones. It’s a great read, the kind that makes you wish you could call old Diane up and chat with her for a bit. And while I am shocked to learn about her personal brand of insecurity, it does comfort me and make me feel less alone. It also pisses me right off. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we all—even Diane Keaton, for God’s sake!—wrestle with ideas of beauty and worth and being enough? How is it that our culture simultaneously celebrates individuality and conformity? What is it that stops us, arrests us, and causes every single one of us (as far as I can tell) to doubt ourselves?

As is so often the case, I am overwhelmed, Holden-Caulfield-style, with the desire to catch all the children careening toward the brink of losing themselves. Most six-year-old girls I spend time with are fierce and funny and wild and completely sure of their place in the world. How I long to protect them all. How I wish they could grow up without being sabotaged by self-doubt.

Instead, all the free and wild and self-confident girls of today will run the societal gauntlet and lose a little something of themselves along the way. Let us meet them at the other side with the wisdom of middle-age. Let us show them by example that the beauty of being comfortable in our clothing is the most beautiful thing of all. Let us help them realize (a little earlier than we have done ourselves) this Truth: shedding the dictates of What Others Think is the best form of freedom. Let us celebrate and not chastise all our children when they assert themselves, form themselves, make decisions and choices that fuel their very own, unique, life-giving sense of fulfillment.

And let us treat them (and each other) with tenderness. Even the most beautiful, successful, talented, prodigious among us (Diane Keaton!!) feels lost and insecure and ugly and not enough. Let us use this knowledge to build bridges of connection and not walls of isolation. Let us honor the free, wild, self-confident little girl in each of us, and tell her just how beautiful she is. Just as she is. May she never have reason to think otherwise again.

We live in hope.

GOAT
Me, Free and Wild, 1976