A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled "What's Your Style?" in which I explored the idea of "fashion vs. style" and suggested an artistic exercise for beginning to find and develop your own personal style. I loved your comments and the emails I received; they began a discussion about style, full of original ideas and inspiration. Thank you! One question I received over and over was from women talking about their ambivalence with their bodies and the difficulties of translating images they found in that exercise into a style that works for their particular "body type". While I appreciate the dilemma of projecting fashion images into our own lives, I think it might be more useful to look at all of this in a different way. I think what most of us struggle with is not our body type, but our body image.
It's true that sometimes it seems as if the fashion industry and the advertising surrounding us everywhere, every day, is the Pied Piper leading us only to torment; to our darkest feelings of inferiority; spinning a web of illusion; creating perfections and fantasies; inviting us to compare those illusions with our own multi-faceted, slightly 'imperfect' reality.
From personal experience I can attest to the effectiveness of this as a marketing strategy. During my years in the fashion business I have spent enormous amounts of money on "beauty" maintenance. At the highpoint of my career, what I thought of as minimum self-maintenance; hair, nails, gym, makeup, clothing, was in the neighborhood of $35,000 a year and I know many people who spend more...much more. In spite of all this, I assure you that I was still deeply susceptible to feelings of 'not quite good enough'. Especially when it came to my body image… There's plenty of self-imposed misery in my own past around body type.
Beginning the year I turned 14 my body — as I saw it — betrayed me. Until that moment I had been a skinny child. I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it and never gave it a second thought; unless I was hungry again. My mother and a series of physicians were always looking for the underlying cause of my extreme thinness. Then suddenly; overnight it seemed, I developed curves in all of the wrong places.
It's not as if I suddenly sprouted a beautiful bosom. Oh no! I was still flat-chested; so much so that I still remember the trauma of a particular evening when I was about 15 years-old and hanging out with the guys; a group of boys I rolled with in a platonic kind of way. There we were; sitting together in the bleachers at a basketball game when one of them snickered something sotto voce to another, and suddenly there they were; all of them entranced, mouths open, watching the busty girl walk across the room. And there I was looking down at my own flat-as-a-board chest; understanding clearly for the first time that although these guys all really liked to hang with me, they would desert me in a hot second if that girl so much as glanced their direction.
No...what I got was back; lots of back…. It was the 70's; era of Twiggy, soon to be followed by the era of "heroin chic" and before there was any J-Lo, Queen Bey, or Sir Mixalot to sing "Baby's Got Back". No one was proclaiming they were "All About That Bass”… certainly not me...
To make things worse, I was also an aspiring dancer, who had studied various forms of dance since I was six, and almost overnight that dream became a pipe dream although I persisted into my 20’s before I finally got it through my head that girls over 5'8" tall with lots-a-back were never going to become prima ballerinas.
Never being one to embrace reality too firmly, I then decided to go to work in the fashion business where I could spend a couple of decades comparing myself to those gorgeous freaks of nature known as fashion models. For the next 20 years it wasn't only my ego that needed me to be thin; it was also incredibly important to my career that I look good. So I spent many, many hours in the gym, many years developing a weird love-hate relationship with food; and with my body. Although I always had a strong healthy, high-energy body; I skied, I hiked, I swam, walked everywhere, worked out 3-4 times a week, worked on my feet, danced, ate a healthy diet; I spent years thinking only about how it was wrong...and how I was wrong for not being able to make my body conform to an ideal. Over the years I learned to work with my curves, but I never really made peace with them.
I am not the only one. I wish I had one dollar for every time I worked with a client who said to me: "When I lose weight I am going to….buy a new wardrobe, go on vacation, find a man, begin to enjoy my life..." whatever. These were intelligent, educated, accomplished, successful, gorgeous women. Over the years I noticed an interesting thing; whenever I was working with clients trying on clothes, I could watch them walk to the mirror and see their eyes go immediately to the area of their body of which they liked least. It didn't matter what their body type was or which area of the body it was: belly, butt, knees, arm legs, bust…their eyes would always go there first; focused on their own perceived imperfection. I have watched myself do this as well. It’s as if we are not aware of ourselves as a whole body; just a partial one, whose parts we don't like.
Eventually the craziness of this began to dawn on me. I am not talking only about women with figure challenges. I am also talking about fashion models and actors; people celebrated for their beauty. Because even these gorgeous people would point out their flaws to me. They were not delusional, I could see what they were talking about, and yet they were so minimal in the overall presentation that I would never have seen that if someone had not purposefully drawn my attention to it. Then I began to notice that this was true of all women - and men.
This is the point. Unless we have been airbrushed for a photograph, none of us are ‘perfect', meaning; no one actually conforms to any ideal of perfection...unless our definition of perfection means healthy, well-groomed and as well-presented as we can be. It's that simple; a person who is healthy, well-groomed and stylish makes an over-all visual statement. A big part of that visual statement is self-acceptance and confidence. Style and confidence go hand-in-hand. Confidence is cool…
Yes, there are tricks-of-the-trade you can use to choose clothing which will enhance your look and make the most of your particular body and I promise to share them in future articles. But I don't want to encourage you to think about your body as if it is flawed in some way, because it is not. There are many people who bring style and an appreciation of their own unique beauty even to such things as prosthetic limbs, facial birthmarks, etc. Beauty exists in diversity, not uniformity and ideas about beauty are always changing. An artist can work with any medium, and your body is simply raw material. Style is your art. Think of fashion advertising images as merely suggestions, ideas and inspiration...not rules and standards. Let’s approach the idea of personal style as if we are all artists with open minds and love for ourselves. Let’s leave self-criticism behind and have some fun....
First and most importantly I suggest we all abandon FOWOT; fear others think. This is probably the least useful thought that will ever cross our minds and I am almost certain that none of us will spend the last few minutes of our lives thinking; “I wish I had spent more time worrying about what other people think…” That thought can certainly stop us from realizing our authentic dreams or having any real fun along the way.
Because I am a professional style consultant, I will - on another day - offer you many useful tips for creating a great look. But today, I want to recommend the practice I call; "Falling in Love With Your Own Body". This will be fun…I promise!
Choose a day when you are feeling well; rested, unhurried and alone. Take a long, candlelit, bubble-bath. When you get out, lotion your body, wash and style your hair and put on some make-up. Find a good lighting source --a diffused fixture with a little gold or pink tone is best, or a lamp with a scarf thrown over the top. (Be careful that you don't start a fire!) Pour yourself a glass of wine, turn on some music that makes you feel sexy. Take off your clothes or put on beautiful lingerie, stand in front of a full-length mirror and really look at yourself. I know the first thing you want to do is look at your thighs, or your ankles, or your knees, or whatever you like the least -- everybody does -- so go ahead and do it if you must. Then move on. Look carefully at everything else. Stand back and really look at your body from all angles. Find the parts you think are most beautiful. Instead of focusing on what you don't like about your body, concentrate on the parts you love and might want to accentuate.
Find one or more beautiful scarves and drape your body in various ways; covering and uncovering various parts; wrap it around your waist, hips, shoulders. Pay attention to what makes you look and feel most graceful and beautiful.
Do this exercise with acceptance and love for yourself. Do it more than once. Make it a practice whenever you look in the mirror to notice the beauty, the poetry, the wonderful gift that is your body. Pamper and care for your gorgeous body at every opportunity. When you feed it, bathe it, dress it, exercise...practice thinking of your body with love instead of criticism. Doing this practice will teach you about the best ways to enhance your own unique body and it will also make a profound, positive change in how you dress and feel about yourself. Loving your body will encourage you to take care of it every day and will inspire the artist within.
Go ahead....have some fun....
In the next few weeks we will talk about those tricks-of-the-trade... As always, I am grateful for feedback on this post, style questions, or suggestions about what you would like to see in future stories. Until then, enjoy the journey...Find Your Cool
Collette is a traveler, writer, stylist... After twenty-five years in the designer fashion industry, working for Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, she took a sabbatical and wandered away into the wide world to find adventure, to explore, meditate and learn. For a year she traveled alone; a container ship ride across the Pacific Ocean to Taiwan, China and Hong Kong; ferries and trains, busses and planes across Southeast Asia and Australia; eight days sitting in silence at the feet of Mooji; advaita Vedantist spiritual teacher; living and traveling for two months in Spain while studying Spanish -- which she hopes someday to master.
Returning to the US, Collette settled in Providence where, attracted by the beauty of the city, the miles of Rhode Island coastline and the crazy art vibe, she hopes to contribute to what she believes is a developing urban renaissance. In addition to 'finding her cool', she is currently a style consultant, freelance writer gathering new stories from life and the art around her and working on a full length book about her journey.