09 April 2005

What Not to Tell Me

It started last night at the Chowder House. A discussion of terrible TV ads – one with a husband reading the paper who murmurs yes without realizing his wife just asked if she looks fat, another where the husband shoves his second Twix bar into his mouth to buy time when his wife asks if her pants make her butt look big – to which my Dad unfortunately relates. Dad posited that there was no good answer to such questions; Mom and I immediately disagreed. I know that when my Mom asks about her appearance, she wants an honest answer, but I also know that my Dad fears saying the wrong thing and upsetting her (which is entirely possible). As it was, the conversation alone was dangerously close to upsetting her when I brought up “What Not To Wear” to demonstrate that a lot of people do not want to hear the truth about how their clothes look. I should’ve stressed that I understood her point of view and always give her queries thoughtful and truthful consideration, but I lucked out and the upsetting past offenses receded from her mind as a different memory surfaced.

“You can thank me for talking your brother out of submitting your name to them. He thought it’d be great if they got you in some feminine clothes,” she said.

“Oh yeah? Mr. Sweatpants with the long stringy hair thinks so? They’d make him buy a real pair of shoes.”

The first time I saw “What Not to Wear” was a couple of years ago during a marathon of the show on BBC-America at a friend’s house. I enjoyed the English accents and the advice they offered for bodies of various shapes. In each case, there was more to the transformation than new clothes: the subjects confronted flawed perceptions of body image, fears of change, and all came away with greater self esteem.

When the American version of the show premiered, it was not as good, but when I read in a recent alumnae/i magazine that one of the co-hosts graduated just a few years ahead of me, I watched another episode and found it had improved.

Shows of this nature intrigue me periodically – I’m in a phase of interest now – as I gauge how much advice is individualized and how much is based on a sort of fashion conformity. What makes something stylish other than an agreement amongst the fashion industry or a certain chunk of society? Do high heels really make skirts and dresses look better or have I just been brainwashed to think they do? There’s something to aesthetics, but looking at other cultures and countries makes me certain fashion’s not absolute.

This revelation of my brother’s intent slightly marred my enjoyment of “What Not To Wear” when I came across it on TLC later that night. As the hosts exchanged biting quips describing outdated clothes with TV and film references from the 80s, I felt bad for the subjects. Most of these people do not look like they have the money to fill their wardrobes with $300 pieces of well-tailored clothing, and I think the show’s portrayals can be a bit mean-spirited when it ignores this.

I know I don’t dress well: it’s both a conscious choice and a financial reality. $5000 isn’t enough to make up for harsh criticism and supplemental spy footage intended to make you look your worst on national television. In addition, even the most stylish people I know have grungy clothes for painting and yard work, and comfy clothes for lounging at home. No one’s throwing out my concert or film crew t-shirts. My typical ensemble is baggy cargo pants, a t-shirt, and Skechers: comfortable. When I’m dressed really sloppily, I still get more attention than I’d care for.

I have a few stray pieces that I believe would not get tossed by the “What Not To Wear” stylists (though I’ve yet to see them let anyone keep anything) that my brother has never even seen. Just who does he think I am now? And doesn’t he realize that he and my cousins effectively made it clear that femininity would be treated with derision when we were growing up? What is he judging me on when he sees me at most once a year with only a suitcase of clothes I’ve packed for comfort to choose from?

Most of all, I’m annoyed with myself that I’ve let him get to me again. Years ago, I mastered my reaction to the gleeful smile that spreads across his face when he is beating me at any type of game. I accepted what his reaction would be and stopped being upset by it; my satisfaction comes from knowing that he seems to enjoy his wins less now that my torment isn’t included.

He enjoys debate, and when we see each other, he baits me but often with topics I have no interest or background in. He provides one of the few circumstances in my life where I can dismissively concede, “You’re right,” even if I don’t mean it. All I have to remember is the precept: He thinks he knows everything, and it’s easy to thwart argument.

At least here, he won’t know he got under my skin, and knowing my own reasons and choices regarding fashion, I can let his judgment go. Ah, brothers and sisters.

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