I know it’s been quiet around this here freaky blog, but don’t worry—I’ve still been flying the ol’ freak flag. (Have you? I hope so.) Admittedly, I got a bit distracted by the launch of my first novel, and then there were all those holidays and vacations and family hoo-ha things to deal with. Then once the dust cleared and it was a new year and I was ready to re-engage, a new project snuck in, almost by accident, and distracted me further. It didn’t take long before I realized that the new project was a very FYFFH project, though…here, let me tell you about it.
So there I was in late January, dust all cleared, and it was my birthday. That morning, I was staring at my closet and trying to figure out what to wear for my “Celebrate Me” day. (I am one of those people who likes to celebrate and be acknowledged on my birthday, not only because I just like the idea in general that each person’s birthday should be their fully legitimate “all about me” day, but because for me personally, my birthday has a greater meaning: my 23rd birthday was the day I was diagnosed with cancer.) I wanted to wear something fabulous and awesome for my birthday: something that would telegraph, just by looking at me, that something special was going on that day. I certainly had lots of great choices—I’ve been a recreational clothes-shopper for decades now, and an organizer of women’s clothing swaps for at least a decade, plus I’d just gotten a couple of fabulous things as holiday and birthday gifts. I almost had *too* much to choose from.
In fact, as I stood there and looked over the eclectic variety of things in my packed little closet, I was also thinking about the fact there were so many things that I hardly ever wear, even though I still like them all enough to keep them around. What was going on there? Why wasn’t I wearing most of this stuff?
Several easy answers sprang to mind:
1) Simple laziness. If I wear what’s ready to hand in the clean laundry basket, I don’t have to put it away! Plus, if I’ve already figured out an outfit and know that it looks reasonably decent on me, I might as well repeat it instead of having to figure out and/or evaluate a new piece or combination.
2) Isolation. I am a work-from-home kinda gal now; I spend big chunks of my day alone in front of a computer. I don’t go to a workplace with co-workers who see me every day. I do go out for appointments or to run errands or volunteer at the school, and sometimes I meet up with friends at coffee shops or restaurants, but there are certainly days where no one besides my immediate family sees me (except possibly the mailman). And without an audience, it often feels pointless and over-effortful to dress in anything besides the same basic set of comfy jeans and t-shirts. This is related to laziness, above, but also related to context, below.
3) Context. I (like many women, I suspect) have a fair amount of clothing that is “context dependent”. By this I mean clothing that I, or others, would consider appropriate only for or in a particular context. For example: “workout clothes”, “work clothes”, “party clothes”, “casual weekend clothes”, “dress up clothes” etcetera, etcetera. The gradations of context can get really specific: “this will be great for a pool party” or “I would totally wear this on a warm, but not hot, spring day, when I go out to lunch with a girlfriend”. Often, though, if the situation doesn’t come up, I don’t wear the clothes. I find that I have a strong aversion to/fear of wearing the “wrong” thing (e.g. something inappropriate for the context). I don’t want to wear sexy clothes to a school function, or exercise clothes to a restaurant. But because there are so many gradations of context and such a huge gray area around how any given context could be interpreted (by me or others), I tend to stick with a smaller set of “safe” clothes that work for most contexts, while clothes that fall into the gray areas just sit unworn, or only get worn every once in a great while—even if they are flattering and enjoyable to wear in and of themselves.
And then several not so-easy answers emerged to the question of “why aren’t I wearing all these clothes?”, which I’ve been thinking about more and more over the last few months that this project has been going.
1) Body image issues. I am a short, big-busted, fat woman (or as I prefer to call myself, “zaftig”, which is a more complimentary Yiddish word that translates literally as “juicy” and means “pleasingly plump and curvy”). I never have been and never will be anything close to the current American standard of thin, tall, muscled beauty. Clothes are relatively hard to buy for me—there are only so many places that even carry my size, let alone things that fit and flatter my shape. Some clothes and some styles will just never work well on me, even if they’re actually made or sold in my size (which they often aren’t). Those I just shrug and don’t buy. Some clothes DO work on me, though, if and when I access the courage to get over some of my internalized body-hatred—things like tight pants, tops that show cleavage, or colorful or shiny things that shout “look at me!” I acquire these kinds of clothes on high self-esteem days, where I feel brave about my body image struggles and ready to give societal expectations the ol’ heave ho; but some days I don’t want to fight that fight, I just want to wear something “safe” that won’t make me stand out and won’t poke at my low self-esteem triggers. So the other clothes sit around in the closet, unworn.
2) Identity work and “passing”. Clothes are an outward declaration to the world of what group(s) we belong to and who we are (or want to be), and as such have always been one of the most obvious ways we “do” identity. Some days I want to declare my allegiances (“hey look, I’m an artist! I’m a burner! I’m a froofy sparkly girl!”) and show off my personal style all loud and proud, but some days I don’t feel like explaining who I am and what I do to the people around me. I just want to “pass” as the default identity expected of me: that most-easily-assumed-by-others identity of “stay-at-home mom”, which in my particular setting is signified by non-remarkable, super-casual, sporty clothes. (I could pass as a working mom, but neither my activities nor my wardrobe support office wear as easily.)
And here’s where the “What’s In My Closet Challenge” project was born: I decided I would make an effort to celebrate and appreciate all the cool clothes I’d collected by wearing something new every day—but in order to make sure I actually stayed with it, I needed some social accountability, so I’d also take a picture of myself every day with what I was wearing and post it on Facebook. And not just to friends and family…I’d make it full public disclosure. (This must have been a high self-esteem week…) I would literally come out of my own closet.
I’ll be honest, doing this *was* a challenge, a stretch; I was a little fearful at first. I was fearful of taking pictures of my so-not-a-traditional-fashion-model self and putting them out there for evaluation, fearful that people would sneer at my eclectic fashion choices, fearful that people might think the whole project was dumb and solipsistic and silly. In other words, I was fearful I might get mocked, belittled or ignored. I was afraid I’d be shamed, that I’d be “outed” as a…wait for it…freak.
But you know what? None of those fears have come true. If anything, I’ve gotten really positive responses from all across my friend spectrum (which gives me some confidence that this is a project that appeals to all kinds of people). I only get a small amount of likes and comments on each picture, but I have had many, many people pop in occasionally and tell me online or in person that they’re enjoying the project and want me to continue. (I really appreciate the encouragement—thanks!)
People’s comments and reactions to the project have been really interesting, actually. Often they are self-deprecating (along the lines of “oh I could never do that” or “I don’t like my clothes enough to do something like this” or “I hate taking pictures of myself”). I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of a whole lot of deep-seated social anxieties around expectations of women’s bodies, around shame and pride and how each of us navigates our public presentation(s) of self. The ex-sociologist, ex-academic, feminist analyst piece of me is fascinated. There is totally a dissertation or a book waiting to be written here.
The artist in me is also finding this fascinating, of course. I’m just now, for the first time, appreciating why the self-portrait has been such a compelling art form throughout history. It’s harder to do than you might think (see above re: fear and shame); but it also is a richer area to explore than I suspected—self-portraiture certainly provides opportunities for investigating both societal and individual expectations. Personally, I’m learning to appreciate the way I look and the way I dress, and the ways I have interacted over the years with fashion and trend (or not). And I’ve started looking at my collection of clothing in a totally new way…as an art collection, as a literal box full of self-expression tools, as an ongoing, multi-faceted, variable and remixable self-portrait.
Context, social expectations, appropriateness, identity, appreciation, shame, pride, presentation of self…after just a few days of posting pictures in the “What’s In My Closet Challenge” project, I realized (cue thunderbolt!) that what I was doing was a freak flag project, because it was so clearly touching on similar issues. Wearing what *I* want to wear, and showing the self *I* want to show at any given moment, in a public forum, is flying my freak flag high. It’s practicing being proud and public about my own multifaceted identity (or identities) through what I chose to wear. My clothes are the flag in this case, and the process of (and potential power in) reclaiming shame and appreciating my own uniquenesses is the same. And I feel like this new project is also a form of social protest, just like the original make-a-freak-flag project. By that I mean not only is the protest itself social in the sense that other people can see it, but social in the sense of protesting against inhibiting or prohibiting social restrictions around what we “should” look like or who “should” post pictures of themselves. (Not to mention who “should” have a closet full of clothes.)
So here’s the takeaway, the epiphany, if you will: the “Fly Your Freak Flag High” project made the phrase “fly your freak flag high” real. This new “What’s In My Closet Challenge” project makes the phrase “coming out of the closet” real. (Hmm, maybe I should rename the project to the “Out Of The Closet Challenge”.) Both are critical, transformative actions that could help make our world a better place. And you know what? Just like I think everyone can benefit from making themselves a literal freak flag to fly high, I think everyone should try the “Out Of My Closet Challenge”. (Wouldn’t it make a terrific internet meme? I mean, talk about a huge coming out party, whoooeeee!) Seriously though, dream with me for a minute: what if we all took and shared pictures of ourselves wearing what’s in our closets? What would we learn? How would we change (or not)? What could we come to finally appreciate about ourselves, and others? I think it’d be a lot. And it would be fabulous.