Dress Shopping is an Exercise in Loving My Body
A few years ago I was shopping at a cute, trendy boutique with some friends. As we were rifling through the racks I spotted a sweet red dress, a halter that was short and flowy. As I picked it up my eyes went to the top of the dress, the part where there were two triangles cut out where the breasts should be. I sort of chuckled, looked down at my own, uh “ample” chest and put the dress back knowing that there was no way my girls were going to fit, or stay put, in that dress. At the same time, one of my friends declared that she was going to go try some things on, and two of us dutifully followed her toward the fitting room where an attendant was waiting. The attendant had watched me examining the red dress and, as we approached the fitting rooms, she looked at me and said “That red dress was pretty, don’t you think.” Having, what is probably considered, mild social anxiety, I sort of smiled and said “uh huh” while trying, awkwardly, to shuffle past her. “You should try it on!” She declared. “What size do you need? I will get it for you!” Now, I hate when I see people in stores being mean to the employees. Yet, I found myself blurting out, “Do you really think even one of my boobs will fit in that dress?” Suddenly I was extremely conscious of my body.
A similar situation happened last fall when I was out with family looking for a bridesmaid dress for my sister-in-law’s wedding. The first shop we went to used jumper-cable sized clamps to attach the dress to my bra, with the attendant noting that I am the bustiest person she has ever dealt with. As we tried on dress after dress at David’s Bridal, our second stop, the attendant began to get frustrated that my top half would not fit into many of the dresses without a lot of pulling, discussion of alterations, and pinning to show how the dress will look when the miles of fabric at the bottom are constrained to compensate for the lack of room on top. Every dress I tried on was met by a collective head tilt and comments like, “Huh… Well… If we take it in here… And move this there…” Then came, “Wow, you have a lot on top”, “Where do you find bra’s?”, “Well, we are just dealing with a lot of stuff on your upper region”, “Have you ever thought about getting them reduced before the wedding?” Ok, maybe that last line is a bit of an exaggeration. But what can I say? The lights were hot. I was sweating from being poked and prodded, and at some point I am pretty sure I said something like “Seriously, I cannot be the first person with boobs to have to be a bridesmaid.” I was feeling like I should be part of those old time freak shows, just put me in the middle of a circus and let people stare.
I tell you all this because it has taken me a while, and quite a bit of therapy, to realize that my body is fine, just the way it is. I cannot control what other people are going to say when they look at it, and I cannot control what I was given. I mean, my God. My mother is Italian, my dad’s mother was German and Irish. We are an ample people. The trick, or maybe lesson, is to realize that our bodies are overburdened by everyone and everything around us. We are conditioned to look at bodies, it is our culture. Which is why having tools for self-care is so important for moments like dress shopping (or bathing suit shopping, shoe shopping, going to class reunions, going on an interview, anytime when you are going to feel exposed). Here are four of my tips/ideas for coping.
1. Find the funny. Last week, when the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch made statements about only wanting the “cool” people to wear his clothes (and by “cool” he also had an ideal body type in mind) Ellen DeGeneres went on her show, said “Fitch, please!” and declared that beauty has nothing to do with how we look. When I was looking at the red dress, and the triangles on top, my first thought was “I will need much bigger triangles if this is even going to have a prayer of holding anything up.” When you try and find the amusement factor in how ridiculous the circumstance is, things start to feel a little less difficult.
2. Take a moment. Before I have to do something that makes me feel exposed I find that it is helpful to take a moment and focus on all the great qualities I have. I am pretty independent, I moved across the country into a new city (twice), I have great hair, I can do sun salutations like they are going out of style and I was the 1987 jump-rope champion at Riverton Elementary. Try anything that brings you out of your head and back to reality
3. Have a soundtrack. I have said this in a lot in my posts, but having a song or songs which you can use in these moments to get you through them is really helpful.
4. Find what fits you. Remember the scene in Legally Blonde 2 where Elle Woods utters the oh, so important line “If the fabric doesn’t work for you, don’t work with it. Don’t fight the fabric, change it!” Ok, maybe that is a bit of a walk down the cheesy trail. But it is true. I will never be able to wear a halter-dress with triangles and that is ok. If this is the most disappointing thing that happens to me in life, then I will be doing just fine. Find what fits you, not just in terms of clothing but in terms of jobs, partners, homes, places to live etc. And don’t fight something that isn’t working. Just be sure to not yell at random store employees, no matter how pushy they are.
What do you do to care for yourself in uncomfortable situations?
Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, PhD is the author of the forthcoming book “Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman: Female Fans and the Music of Tori Amos”, which is available for pre-order on Amazon. She studies emotions and music as well gender stereotypes in pop culture. Adrienne is a professor of sociology at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida.