If you’re a regular reader, you might have read my recent post about my joy at finally getting a pair of skinny jeans that fit. A baby and hitting forty hasn’t done my figure any favours. I don’t particularly mind. I’ve reached a quiet acceptance that things aren’t going to bounce back as quickly as they used to. I’m okay with that as long as I feel good and I’m healthy.
Still it’s easy as a mum when you are exhausted and have little time for self care, to feel down about your appearance. You only have to look on Instagram of Facebook to see perfectly made up, well groomed period looking back at you.
You might not always feel as good as you used to and at some point someone has compounded it. It might have been an offhand remark that was meant to be “kind” or “encouraging”, but in fact was neither. This post is about one of those times, thanks to a “Colour Me Beautiful” type segment on a workshop branded as a women’s development course. It’s before I worked out that if I stick to a sweater dress or tunic, decent leggings or thick tights I’m generally happy and look reasonably well groomed. I originally wrote this back in 2013, when I was trying to get pregnant, and desperately trying to figure out where my future and career should head.
I’m stood in Next studying a striped top very hard to decide if it’s the right shade of green. I’m desperately clutching five similar tops, all in what I think is the right shade of blue, green, or pink. The coat hangers are cutting off the circulation to my fingers.
I already own incarnations of these creations, but they are all in the wrong colour. In complete ignorance, I’d bought beige, white or navy, just because I liked them. I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid. What if I get it wrong again?
I pick the top up, look at it, put it back on the rack and then do it again. I hold it up to me and look in the mirror. I’m not sure why as I appear to be completely incapable of dressing myself. Succumbing to indecision, I add the item to the bundle of almost identical items in my hand.
Of course, I don’t really have enough money to buy a “capsule wardrobe” but the woman delivering the session on personal brand in the “development programme for women” said it was essential.
I have no clothes. None of them must suit me as they’re all too dark, the wrong shape, and the wrong shade, not from my ideal colour palette. I should be in soft pinks, blues and turquoises. She even named a few colours I haven’t heard of. Not white though dear, or cream, or beige. Or essentially anything else I have in my wardrobe. The fact that I went into the workshop feeling great in my favourite navy top and smart jeans, means nothing.
Everyone else at the front of the room seemed to have got it right. I was the only one singled out at the front of the room who has got it blatantly wrong. I should probably be put before a fashion firing squad. How can I possibly not know that despite wearing bootleg jeans for the best part of twenty years, in complete comfort and with lots of compliments, they in fact make me look squat.
Of course the smart, middle aged lady whose outfit probably cost as much as my mortgage payment, doesn’t say anything directly. I just stood at the front, making jokes and pulling faces as if it’s all a big lark, while she draped swatches around me and makes me wear something that resembles that old toy from the 80’s,”Simon Says”. I braced myself in case members of the audience are invited to come in and touch the ruff of patchwork swatches around my beck, setting off a loud buzz when they make the wrong selection.
After the ritual humiliation, I returned to my table, telling those seated at it “that was so much fun, so useful.” In fact I wanted to pick up the thermos coffee pump and throw it over the woman at the front and her lovely Jaeger cardigan. I didn’t bother though, the coffee is the same lukewarm stuff that was served up in the morning, and it wouldn’t quite have the same impact. Besides, I’m wearing navy, which is very unflattering for my skin tone and I’ll look washed out on my arrest photos.
Instead, I chose to do nothing. I didn’t participate for the rest of the afternoon. I didn’t even pick up a leaflet to take home with me, so I know what to look for when I go shopping. I don’t need to. It’s all burned into my memory.
On the way to the till I spot a “statement” bag and a necklace which seem to go with the mint green themed wardrobe. I don’t like them anyway but I have to buy them anyway. Apparently I need two accessories at any one time and they have to go with my outfit.
I’m sure that men don’t have such a complex set of rules to follow; in fact I’m certain of it. At most we expect them to turn up clean and dressed reasonably appropriate for the event. For some reason, clothing as an outward presentation of our intents and capabilities is a peculiarity of the female species and something which we seem to burden ourselves with almost exclusively.
I’ve interviewed numerous men over the years and I’m far more concerned with their passion for the subject matter and their abilities to perform the role than I ever have been about their tie being the right shade of lemon for their skin tone. In fact, in 100% of cases I’ve given this amount of consideration to what they’re wearing…. a big fat zero.
However, society is laying it on pretty thick that as women we should be aiming to be a size zero and be attired in such a manner that we could go to a garden party or night club at the drop of hat (this causes some conflict for us), whilst simultaneously being able to perform in the kitchen or in a sex marathon.
I collapse in a sweat over the till and handover my credit card to spend money I don’t have on clothes I don’t like. A mild sense of hysteria overwhelms me. I still have three minutes to get back to my car before my parking ticket expires. I’ve won!
As I drive home I convince myself that I’ve had a successful day! I’ve learned how to set career goals and also that my wardrobe makes me look short, washed out and a completed failure. It doesn’t matter how many performance awards or recognition I’ve received, how many hours that I have put in or how many projects I’ve delivered. I’m essentially a pale shadow of my potential, and probably judged as a failure by all around me, because I’m wearing the wrong shade of blue.
I spend the month following this experience spending money and getting rid of practically every piece of clothing I own. The charity shops in the surrounding area do very well out of my cull, I expect they have lots of apples or pears or rectangles who suit my cast offs very well. They’ve probably all got promotions now. One of them is bound to have discovered a cure for cancer. That Nobel Prize should have been mine – if only I’d been wearing the peplum jacket and not that boyfriend cardigan that I love so much.
The episode culminated with me fighting back the tears in the security line at Bristol airport, telling my husband that “I don’t have any clothes and….and I have to keep buying clothes because…. because everything makes me look like shit. I’m too short and a weird shape and nothing fits me. I look like a bag lady.” It’s meant to be an honest, offhand comment but the confusion and mild distress in his eyes, tells me that I may as well have said “I have to as I’m a three foot too, eighteen stone ogre, who lives under a bridge. Also, I like to eat goats.”
It was indeed an alarm call. I didn’t used to feel like that. I used to wear my boot cut jeans with pride. I wore long boots and skinny jeans with T-shirts with Animal from the Muppets on. I didn’t pay any attention to what other people wore. I felt like Wonder Woman…. constantly! All through my twenties I wore whatever I liked and felt great, whether it was a pinstriped trouser suit or those awful purple leather trousers (I loved them so much I even had a matching purse… my pink furry purse… yes I know…).
Then I remembered the message that this development course had meant to be imbuing, and to be fair it was one that the extremely charismatic, engaging and talented trainer was clearly delivering. I forgot about the guest speaker who was all about managing your image. I accepted the general principle of support – wear what makes you look your best; but I decided that there was nobody better placed to judge what makes me look my best that me! What makes me look my best is what makes me feel my best.
I stopped and asked who am I? Do I want to be judged on my appearance, or would I rather feel comfortable in my own skin? Perhaps people will think less of me because I don’t wear a suit to work, but as I look around me, very people do, including those much senior to me. The spirit of the program I’d signed up for was “Be you, the best you, you can do anything.” I remembered the strong women speakers – the women who were so inspirational that I felt my chest burn just listening to them and their stories.
So recently, I went through my wardrobe again. I packed up all the things I hated about my “capsule wardrobe”. I gave some to charity, and sold some on EBay. I had about 20 things left to cover a whole year, a whole range of weather types, and a whole range of occasions. Then I went shopping. I bought things I loved, irrespective of colour or shape or style. The only caveat I had was to ask myself if it really fitted, and did it make me feel like ME…
And what am I sat in now? Probably the anti-wardrobe – my comfy wedged boots from Clarkes, my old Levis which actually cover my squishy tummy and a top which would probably send the image consultant into orbit. Its purple with metal stud things on the shoulders.
But you know what? I can sit comfortably at my desk, labouring away for hours at a time, teasing the creative ideas out of my brain and committing them to paper. My husband can comfortably watch a film with me without me squirming to cover up my stomach or readjusting the trousers which my bottom is chewing.
Ultimately, the only person who should care about my image is me. Women, it goes for you too. Let’s stop putting out these artificial and unattainable images of what a “well groomed” or “successful” woman looks like. If you’re clean, comfortable and are able to run for a bus if you need to, you’re already there! If you are getting the opportunities you want out of life and you are happy, you are already an incredibly successful woman. If you want a promotion, great, if you don’t, that’s good too. Want kids, don’t want kids, like travel, don’t like travel – it’s all good. We should be celebrating our differences, our minds, and our potential – not whether that pashmina comes from Jaeger or Monsoon.
So, colour me beige, purple, green… whatever colour of the rainbow you choose, but don’t judge me if I choose to ignore you, because I’m certainly not going to be judging you.
On 8th March, it’s International Women’s Day and I’m going to be joining the #SayNoToShiny campaign to celebrate how diverse women really looking. Successful women from the blogging community have already got behind this to feature in the promotional video, including me. Please join us on International Women’s Day and post a photo of yourself on social media using the #SayNoToShiny hashtag.