Love Me, Hate Me: My Body and Fashion
The way in which we view ourselves plays an integral role within how we interact with the world around and within us. It carries with it political, psychological, philosophical and any other “-ical” connotations that you can think of. In recent years, experts in sociology have been studying how the media can have an effect on our reflections of self and, in particular, the fashion industry has been subject to much scrutiny around the subject of body image.
As an ardent feminist (I’ve been known to cry with frustration when trying to establish with others how deeply sexist their last comment was) as well as a keen follower of fashion, I have naturally taken an interest within this particular field of thought. There is no doubt that countless studies have been made in how the images portrayed to us effect how we feel about our appearances but I am not writing today to wax lyrical about statistics and scholars. Instead, today I write about my own relationship with both my physical appearance and the fashion media.
First of all, let me tell you a (not so big) secret: I have recently put on around half a stone in weight. Horrified could not begin to explain how I first felt looking down at the bathroom scales. For clarification purposes, I would like to point out that I am still a UK size 8. The root cause of my anxiety? Looking in the mirror, I saw the beginnings of a pot belly. Images of people offering their seat to me on the bus because they thought I was pregnant sprung to mind.
This sudden weight gain happens to fall within the wider social context of “Bikini season” (because it can’t just be plain old summer anymore). I read magazines ranging from trashy weeklies through to monthly “women’s interest” publications and high fashion glossies. For several months now, there has been an overwhelming emphasis on getting one’s body ready for this particular season. Reels of images flood both print and online media outlets of celebrities flashing their washboard abs to the paparazzi in “caught off guard, but don’t I still look fabulous?” snaps from their seven star beach resort of choice. The jury is most obviously out: get flat or look fat.
And fat was exactly what I felt. Biologically speaking, at my height and weight I am nowhere near. However, this did not stop me comparing myself to what I thought was the norm for women of my size and, somehow, I felt like I was failing as a young woman for daring to gain a few pounds round the midriff. A few days later and I find myself at the beach. Walking around, the first thing I noticed was that I was the palest person I had see all day, although this comes as no surprise considering I have been described more than once as having an “alabaster” complexion. The second thing that I spotted, on the other hand, shocked me. There were women all around me of similar stature, sporting the exact same stomach as me. These lovely ladies looked fantastic in their swimwear, all feminine curves and smiles in the sunshine.
It was only then that it dawned on me how I had so thoroughly misled myself. Here are women – real, everyday women – in all their glory: wobbly in places, toned in others, but still looking like gorgeous human beings. I always thought before that somehow I was immune to media portrayals of normalcy. “I am intelligent,” I always reasoned. “I understand that the vast majority of these images cast women as objects of perfection and seduction and serve to make us mere mortals feel like poop if we don’t meet the standards.” This therefore convinced me I was liberated; free of the negativity that can shroud others. I was, however, painfully wrong.
Of course, these images only account for one small segment of a multi-billion pound industry. While some may argue that fashion is a business that thrives on us trying to medicate our deeply ingrained insecurities, a large part of me sees it as a way for us to channel our emotions, tastes and personality in an outward expression of self. Although it still often struggles to be recognised as such, fashion is an art form in which all can engage. The simple act of constructing an outfit each morning is much more than just throwing on clothes: it is a direct representation of who we are, how we feel, what we like and where we are going.
At no time is this more apparent than throughout the terrifying labyrinth that is the teenage years. I know I am not the only one who went through the various phases of being ‘alternative’ (a label that has annoyingly stuck ever since), going from goth through to emo, out again via scene kid and then settling somewhere a little less, well, teenage.
However, it’s very rare that any of us choose to stop there when it comes to manifesting ourselves through our clothes. Days and nights spent out make even the most sartorially challenged of us think about how we want to look, and in turn, feel about ourselves that day. Feeling chirpy? Yellow blouse it is! Want to get noticed? You bet I’m going for the leopard print. Just want to sink into the background? A black shift dress and no one will know I’m here. In its simplest form, looking good makes you feel good. Feeling good makes you look good. Ad infinitum.
So there it is. Whilst I was busy paying attention to belly bulge, I was also carving out my very own piece of artwork: me. You know what else made me feel great about myself that day at the beach, other than the realisation that I am both totally normal and worthwhile? The new denim playsuit I picked up at Primark the day before. Love it or loathe it, fashion in its purest form carries a plethora of ways to improve and express your personal self image. It is the complexities behind it, and the greater social concepts surrounding the objectification of women across all media outlets, that causes the greatest harm: not the clothes nor the trends themselves.