I remember reading women’s magazines at the end of high school and after I started college so I could learn about clothes. Until the very end of high school, I refused to notice clothing or fashion. I wanted only to cover my body—the more covered the better. I wore loose jeans and oversized t-shirts and grandpa sweaters. I hadn’t yet heard of the term “body conscious” but I certainly wouldn’t have been interested, either. My standards in high-school were modest and utilitarian. The image I wanted to present (insofar as I was even aware that I was presenting an image) was that of someone who couldn’t be bothered to care about something so trivial (and sensual, and sinful) as apparel.
Just before I went off to college, I decided I didn’t want anyone to know I was poor. I don’t think I was motivated by embarrassment so much as by pride: I wanted to be ambiguous; I wanted it to be clear that I wanted for nothing even though I was not wealthy. I bought my first pair of pants that actually fit me and this was somewhat momentous.
Currently, I buy a little above my means. The clothing I want is just a little nicer than it needs to be. There is an image I want to present and it is important to me that others see or sense the image I want to project. I want to look Put Together. I want to be All Set. I want to look Appropriate.
It makes sense to me that I want, for myself, to be Put Together, All Set, and Appropriate. What is less clear is why it matters that anyone/everyone else see this as well. Do I really imagine that people will notice me and think to themselves, or tell their partners over dinner “I saw a woman on the street today who was very Appropriately dressed,” and that somehow I will earn credit for that acknowledgment?
Certainly what I want is approval. I do want credit. I want a grade. I like grades: they have usually been quite good and report cards full of As and +s are so gratifying. I want to be gratified. I want to feel as though I am making progress and succeeding.
This makes relationships hard. I don’t know what success looks like. I don’t know how to earn As and +s. I don’t know how to graduate from kindergarten to first grade, let alone from college to grad school. I do not know which skills to learn or how to learn them. In school, one starts at the very beginning with the alphabet and numbers and things. Amazingly difficult and complex concepts presented as though they were elementary. I suppose they are, but they are also worthy of abstruse disquisitions. But what is the equivalent to the alphabet here? Have I got the hang of the alphabet, though, and am I actually already ready to start writing words and doing simple addition? How do I know?
This feels even more difficult because I know I am not an easy person. I tend toward nervousness. I overthink everything. I make people uncomfortable. I am a little too intense. I am awkward and aloof and introspective but I am also bossy and opinionated and a know-it-all. I don’t pay attention or want to get involved, but I have a real salesperson/missionary personality. I can sell myself, but I don’t know how to give myself. Once I’ve convinced someone I am just the thing they need, I am surprised that they’ve bought my sales pitch and…I can’t deliver on the product. The pitch is the product and there’s nothing left to do but run away and try the pitch on someone else.
I have been hoping, without acknowledging that I have been hoping, that my future job will make good on my sales pitch. That I will have some Self to offer to others when I have a job. When I am self-supporting, I will be Real and will be able to back up my pitch.
It isn’t true, is it? Just like I learned over three years ago that I had to choose to be happy before I would be happy, and that no boy, friendship, doctoral position, job, book, dress, etc. would magically push me over the mental fence that demarcated where happiness was and was not; could and could not be. I had to move myself to “happy” first and then expect different boys, friends, jobs, etc. to come. And they did come. And I am happy about that.
I have a hard time believing myself to be likable because I don’t even believe that there is any “me” to like. At the same time, I want very, very much to be likable, and I feel strongly that others should make the effort. But when they do, I am not sure how to believe them: I know that they just bought a lousy sales pitch. How can I trust their judgment? That is precisely what I need to do: trust their judgment. There are some people who claim to want to spend time with me. I need to believe them. And so other peoples’ opinions can and do and should matter to me. Not about the dresses I wear, but about the reality of my existence.