"How can a dress make you fat?": Judging my value by more than my clothes

Guestpost by Zwergin on Jun. 19th

Pink wedding dress close up

You don't eat your wedding dress, even if it looks this delicious. Photo taken by Dawn's Eye Photography.

Recently, I overheard a (rather curmudgeonly) acquaintance complaining, "These days, no one cares about who you are inside or what you do anymore: you can behave as hatefully as you want, as long as you wear the right shirt." At the time, I rolled my eyes, and he backed down from such an extreme example; but when I returned home and was fretting about wedding things again, his remarks came back to me.

In fact, his remark cut the Gordian knot of a wedding dilemma I'd been suffering recently.

At this point, let me emphasize that I totally respect goths, steampunks, rockabillies, and all others with great, creative, high-maintenance aesthetics: this post is just about how I, personally, dealt with the fact that I found some elements of the cultural narrative around weddings more difficult to escape than others.

You see, it is true that Anglophone media — especially publications aimed at women — often do assign women value based solely on the clothes we wear. Take the Mail Online (which reportedly has more female readers than any other newspaper): roughly 75% of its sidebar last week consisted of stories where women's value was judged solely based on the clothes they were wearing.

Admittedly, these judgements are often implicitly influenced by other factors — Kristen Stewart's appearance is "disheveled" when she is misbehaving and "sexy" when she's just released another blockbuster film — even if the actual content of her appearance has not been vastly altered. Nevertheless, it is significant that these judgements are only expressed in terms of comments on clothes. We can't admit that Anne Hathaway is an incredible actress and singer, we can only talk about her clothes.

Perhaps this focus on clothes stems from a reluctance to seem too judgmental about any significant life choices, or to celebrate particular talents at the tacit expense of those who do not have them. These are not necessarily negative impulses; however, there is a danger that by focusing solely on clothes, clothes are elevated to the sole measure of a woman's worth. If your clothes are the only things on which you can be openly judged, then women feel extreme pressure to get their clothes "right," because clothes have become the sole locus where value is openly placed and decided. You and your value are defined by what you wear.

Considering this gave me a wee epiphany about wedding planning.

I began to wonder if other wedding decisions were coming easily because I did not feel like I was being judged for those things to the same extent that I felt like I was being judged for my choice of clothes.

Recently, I had been fretting a little too much about my choice of dress, my choice of headpiece, my choice of everything appearance-related. My dress is not quite a sheath, but a bit more flowy: would that mean that I would look too frivolous? Will my friends think I am too ditzy? It's one-shouldered: is that too weird? Am I too weird? Will my fiancé wish he'd married the type of girl who'd wear a strapless dress?

By contrast, all the important decisions I had to make about the ceremony, or about how to furnish the house we're moving to in a few weeks — all that came easily. I began to wonder if those things were coming easily because I did not feel like I was being judged for any of those things to the same extent that I felt like I was being judged for my choice of clothes.

Perhaps this problem is unique to me: I can be extremely internally snarky about other people's clothes (so my own insecurities are richly deserved payback). Nevertheless, it is also fascinating to me how well my internal anxieties match up to the Mail Online's sidebar of shame. Perhaps social elites have conditioned my snarky impulses. Even though I try not to wear makeup and generally shun the mainstream media, I can't escape the billboards, and the articles people link. It's curious (and makes me think about medieval monks and their perceptions of social roles, etc, but that's another story).

In order to remember not to fret when silly worries about appearance and value weasel their way back into my thoughts, I've got my patient fiancé's most excellent responses to remind me of what's really important. Some men just don't seem to feel the same pressures or to put the same emphasis on appearance. Therefore, my fiancé has been able to bring some excellent perspective… for instance, when I make an offhanded comment about the possibility that my dress might conspire to "make me look fat," he replied: "How can a dress make you fat? You don't eat it."

I might judge my own value too much by my clothes, but it's nice to know that someone else is more concerned with what I do and who I am instead. Therefore, I'm going to try to stop worrying about cultural narratives about "The Dress" or "the most photographed day of your life." I'll try to remember instead that I am not what I wear.

Are you having fashion-related insecurities and freakout moments? Let's talk about 'em.