My life has been plagued by people telling me what I can and cannot wear. They tell me not only what is supposed to look good on my short, pear-shaped body, but more distressingly, what I have to wear to be “acceptable.” I’ve been living a life of “good girls don’t wear that” as a youth, to “successful women don’t wear that” in college, to “female ministers don’t wear that” today.
Some people don’t see clothing as an art form or as having anything to do with your identity. They therefore argue that clothing means nothing. Who you are doesn’t change based on what you wear, so they say we should just conform to what’s “acceptable.” However, those of us who do see clothing as an art form just don’t feel comfortable unless we wear something that fits our personality.
I remember having to wear huge, puffy-sleeved, long flowered dresses from Laura Ashley in the ’80s and ’90s. When I looked in the mirror, I never recognized myself. I felt stifled, depressed, and inauthentic. I hated myself. I hated looking at myself. I felt dissociated from my own body and as though my very identity were stripped away.
I remember the first outfit I was ever allowed to pick out for myself. My sister-in-law (then-fiancee of one of my brothers) took me shopping. I found my first dress I thought I could get away with but still express some of my own style.
It was still a long dress with flowers on it, but it also had some fun details. Part of the back was cut out, so there was a bow up closer to the top of the back, and then a small diamond shape cut out right at the bra line. Oh My God! I was going to show a few inches of my back! The world may come to an end! Plus, I had to get a convertible bra so the bra strap in the back wouldn’t show.
I loved that dress, and yet I remember feeling profoundly ashamed while wearing it because I knew that it was “bad” to show any skin.
Finally, in high school, I was able to choose a bit more of my own clothes, and I started wearing tighter clothes and shorter skirts. However, the more I dressed in what I liked, the more my character was attacked.
I was told I looked like a whore. I was told I was an embarrassment to be seen with. I was told I couldn’t wear certain things because I had a bad shape. Apparently, my butt was too big to wear anything but a full skirt. No pencil skirts for me because not only were they too tight, but my butt was also too ugly to wear them. I had to cover up my behind to be “presentable.”
I hated this. I hated the judgment of my clothes, and I hated being forced to wear things that didn’t feel like me.
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I loved clothing that made me feel like me. One time, I did try on a pencil skirt in the store and I loved it, but I never bought it. I felt great. I felt like I finally saw myself in the mirror, but I knew that wasn’t okay. I knew I should be ashamed of myself and my butt that was too big and thus ugly. I knew I should hate my body and dress in a way that reflected how I knew the ways to “make my shape work for me.” I knew I had to buy a different outfit in order to be worthy and acceptable.
Thanks to The Body Is Not An Apology and all the people I’ve met in the body-love movement, I’ve been slowly taking back my own style. However, I’ve had a lot of difficulty choosing to wear a short or tight skirt. Those would be seen as the epitome of inappropriateness as a woman and a minister.
Then in 2014, I read Jes Baker’s “I Wear What I Want” blog post. She had on a great skirt and, in fact, when I went on to meet her, she was wearing a wonderful short, tight metallic skirt that looked fantastic. I decided just to go for it and get a tight, short skirt.
That was when I had my butt epiphany.
I do not have an ugly butt. My butt is not something to be embarrassed about. My butt is not a shameful thing that must be covered at all times, lest I look like a “whore.” (Whatever that really means, because that whole stereotype is just wrong.) I ran around the house saying, “Look at my butt!” My husband and son thought I was totally weird.
[Image description: The photograph shows the author from the back. She is a white woman with dark hair worn in a french braid. She is wearing a black-and-white striped shirt, a black corset, and a red skirt. In front of her, rock, plants, and water are visible.]
Of course, my butt epiphany isn’t really about my butt. It’s about saying no to body shame and the idea that our bodies, particularly certain parts of them, are shameful and disgusting. It’s about claiming my own body for myself.
As a professional woman, I find that it’s also about saying no to the idea that I’m an object that must fit into a mold in order to be taken seriously.
If you are distracted by my clothes and can’t hear my message (always the argument people make for ministers dressing subtly), then that’s your problem. I’m distracted by many types of clothing, including the clothing that people say professional women are supposed to wear. If I let that get in the way of me hearing another person’s message or taking them seriously, that’s my problem!
It all comes down to a simple truth: when I choose to wear what I want, I choose to not give other people power over my body and my worth.
[Headline image: A fat woman with light skin and blonde hair and dressed in a dark tank top, rolled-up pants, and a purple and pink tutu splashes in a large puddle in a village alley near Toronto. Her back is to the camera, her arms outstretched in joyful abandon.]