Saturday, April 5, 2008

Who do I think I am? You tell me

It's been a busy week with Girlcook visiting and none of the quiet time I usually have on my own in the evenings. Nicely compensated for, of course, by some amazing meals. She made the best meatloaf ever one night (I'm thinking of asking her to guestpost and maybe share the recipe), a fabulous butternut squash and pear soup another (with enough leftovers for my lunch the next day), and an amazing multi-course meal (salmon tartare, boeuf bourgignon, and apple crumble layered with a crème caramel were the highlights) that she invited her favourite neighbours over to share. My son came up from Victoria for that meal as well, so I got double the fun.

That busy-ness, a few extra challenges at work, and a bit of sleep deprivation (once spring kicks in, I start waking with the birds and can't get back to sleep) had me really doubting what I'm doing on this blog. Somehow, my last post has me cringing at my self-exposure and wondering whether I should continue, and, if I do, whether I should move away from the clothes/style coverage. It's all too easy to imagine colleagues, students, or even friends and neighbours mocking not just the superficiality of my dalliance with fashion but worse, my assumption that I might know anything about it or that how I dress might be worth anyone's interest.

I'm not fishing here. What I'm trying to do is get back to one of my original goals for this blog -- writing to find out what I think, taking the space to register and analyse my feelings, observations, and responses. So I go back and look at my last post and try to think what it is that makes me cringe. First, there's the reaction many, if not most, women have to seeing themselves -- dissatisfaction with body size/shape. I zero right in on a waist that's shorter and thicker than I'd like. But again, not fishing, and for the most part, I'm getting better about accepting and even liking the way I look, and I try not to indulge thoughts to the contrary. No, I think that what primarily makes me cringe is the act of putting myself forward, as if for approval. What I imagine,and dread, when I look at the post again, is someone saying "Who does she think she is?" -- echoing the expression Alice Munro used as the title of one of her collections, an expression designed to keep people, especially young girls in Munro's tales, in their place. By posting my photos, I'm making a claim that I "think I'm something" or think I'm worth looking at or think my clothes combinations are worth sharing. Partly, then, I'm risking people thinking that I'm vain; in the uncanny synchronicity I've experienced before with Une Femme, she's written a thoughtful post arguing against the constraining accusation of Vanity and wishing for a word that somehow validated taking care with, and pride and pleasure in, one's appearance.

But if my cringing is not due to my usual dislike of the camera's truths about my body, neither is it simply a result of fear that people might find me vain. To get closest to its roots, I remember an incident from my teens. A late developer of whom it was once said in Grade 7, "Flat as a board and never been nailed" (by a classmate who I'm quite sure hadn't yet done any carpentry, despite considerable bravado, not to mention cruelty), I'd switched to a large (2700) public high school after doing Grades 8-10 in a small (less than 200 students) private all-girls school. Quite shy and intimidated, if intrigued, by the opposite sex after being segregated from them for years. One evening, walking home after work (a part-time job at the library, couldn't you have guessed?) down one of the central streets in New Westminster, I heard whistles from behind. I ignored them, but by the next block, there were more, and then more. Feeling a bit anxious, I just walked faster, wishing I could turn to see who was trying to get my attention, but positive that if I turned, I'd find a group of young men ready to laugh at me for thinking I was worth looking at. Not until I was nearly home did I hear my dad calling my name and chuckling, and I turned furiously to see that all along it had been he and my mom. I couldn't explain my anger to him because it was so confusing to me: a painful and humiliating combination of wishing that guys would find me attractive enough to whistle at and a conviction that no one would.

I know that I did not post photos of my dress-up game because I hoped for whistles, but there's a shy 16-year old deep inside who's upset that I'm drawing attention to myself in a way that might lead to ridicule. Her fears are compounded by my journey through late middle age where "Who do you think you are?" is phrased in warnings against Mutton Dressed as Lamb. At an age where women have tended to disappear from public view and/or consideration or, if they fail to do so, suffer intense scrutiny and criticism, writing and posting photographs about one's appearance feels uncomfortable, requires owning and wearing one's own supposed foolishness.

To support my suspicion that gender and age play a part in my discomfort, I decided to compare "what I'm wearing/what I wore" posts on several other blogs (mostof my readers will already know, I hope, that this is a common feature across the blogverse, not simply a format I adopted to showcase my vanity!). What I found interesting is that the few men's blogs I looked at are characterized by Thomas's posts on what he's been wearing lately: the photographs feature his unsmiling, if well-dressed, self. Similarly, in the young women's blogs, I looked at Cuffington who posts an almost-daily snapshot of what she's wearing; generally, like Thomas, she's not smiling.

StyleBubble rocks out the poses when she photographs the outfits she puts together, but she's generally unsmiling as well. All three of these young bloggers, like the scores of others who post similar photographs, show top to toe, hats to shoes, with pleasant but not necessarily smiling faces. By contrast, I can find few examples of women over 40 who post full-length photos of what they're wearing. IndigoAlison occasionally posts photos of what she wore, but generally doesn't include her head, focusing more on combinations of skirt and top or necklace with top, for example. Une Femme cuts out her face or makes sure it's obscured by her camera or cut off shortly above her neck. And I seem to feel I have to smile, whether that's to look my best or to try to please, I'm not sure.

But it's something I want to pay some attention to, and I've decided that even if it makes me cringe, I'm not willing to carry on with the fears of a sixteen-year old, nor to let those fears become even more dictatorial as I age. I'm not looking for wolf whistles, but I do think I'm somebody! I'm somebody who posts pictures of knitted projects I'm proud of and photos of plants, leaves, and flowers I'm loving in my garden, and land-and-water-scapes I can see from my windows, and, yes, sometimes, outfits I'm happy about putting together either to share what I think of as a success or simply to try out an idea or even to tell myself a cautionary tale. Consider it my teeny contribution to expanding the perception of older women.

So with that apologia in mind, here are two more photos from my recent photoshoot with Daughter #3. The skirt below is from Tristan. In the top photo, I'm wearing it with a sweater from Banana Republic and shoes by Jeffrey Campbell (and less smile than normal).
And below, I'm wearing it with a white shirt (although for many years I was very sure I couldn't wear white against my face, positive that it washed me out). The black belt is detachable, but comes with the skirt. Can you tell how much fun I'm having as Meg gets me to play with swirling in front of the camera?


  1. I love that last picture; you've got a million dollar smile!

    Lots to chew on here.

    First, about the non-smiling thing, quite frankly I think that comes from imitation of editorial fashion shots. (That and the pidgeon-toed stance that young actresses and fashion bloggers are so enamored of.) It's a way of conveying, "I'm serious about fashion/style," even when they seem to be mostly playing or having a lot of fun with it.

    Second, I think it's great that we women over 40 are putting ourselves out there and refusing to be invisible. How we adorn ourselves is a part of who we are, just as much as what we're reading or growing in our gardens or otherwise creating. For those of us who enjoy style, including that on a blog is a way of sharing a piece of who we are. I've spent most of my life being very insecure about my appearance, and the fact that I freeze up almost every time a camera is pointed in my direction mostly explains my reluctance to show my face. So your doing so is, to me, a very brave act. You are somebody indeed.

  2. Well, I agree with Une Femme above, about the smiling and about refusing to be invisible as a woman over 40. In your case also, if I remember rightly from various posts, it seems you spent a couple of decades bringing up 4 children, then went back to your studies and have a great career now. You have the time (and perhaps the resources) to have fun with fashion now, and who can blame you? You deserve to indulge your interests and pay attention to yourself. It doesn't come across as vanity at all - your smiles are genuine and I'm sure your readers share in your delight when you put together a cool outfit. Besides, at our age, it's MUCH better to smile than not!! Patricia

  3. Please read this,,2257699,00.html or type model smiling into the guardian search engine.
    I think the article does a good job of lampooning the lack of smiley faces in fashion. Strangley I read the magazine Jackie a lot when I was a teen and the models always smiled so the transition to mean and moody must be quite recent. I have found the clothes part of peoples blogs so much more interesting than the false photoshopped world of magazines. the succes of wadrobe-mix I think is a reaction to this. It is just so much more refreshing to see what real people wear and how they look so we can sagely nod our head at their wise or wacky choices. I do not ever put my head on show firstly because I have always struggled with the reality of what I look like, but primarily because I am a teacher and so God forbid one of the little treasures ever found this blog I would be giving them little amunition to haunt/taunt me with. Please just enjoy the fun, this blog is for you and I promise we are always entertained! with you, not at you!

  4. Pseu, Patricia, and Alison:
    Thanks for the support and the observations that help me think this through.
    I don't mean to criticize those who don't smile for their "what I wear" pose, but merely to wonder if the confidence to do that comes from youth or, for males, the freedom from expectations of pleasing "the gaze." If you're right in also associating this with fashion trends, my own smile could be read as dissociating myself from any claims to be model-like or any kind of fashionista -- again, a discomfort with just putting my face out there. (bottom line, I'm not unaware that mobilizing the wrinkles and the saggy chin into a smile camouflages them significantly)
    Alison: I hope you know I wasn't critiquing your decision not to feature your face -- it's just that there are so few of us "over 40s *cough* 50" and I think you represent our age's reluctance to put our faces out there. Many of us do have positions where we could be compromised by blogs, perhaps more than younger bloggers. Certainly, I'm just as anxious about some of my own bigger treasures discovering me grinning away in various outfits.

  5. Where to start!

    I love your fashion posts. As to smiling, what it conveys to me is that your interest in fashion is one facet of all the enjoyment you take from life. And that you are truly having fun with it, aren't a slave to it. You discuss many things here that you enjoy. That's never a bad thing. I find your joie de vivre infectious.

    As I told someone last week, I think the 80s were the last time I really thought about fashion. For a long time, I haven't liked the offered fashions. But more so, I don't take the time and energy to do so. Although I did wear a very 80s gray and purple striped cap-sleeve stretch top yesterday and felt very au courant :)

    Because I don't follow fashion, either current or individual, all that much, I usually feel like I don't have much to contribute on fashion-related posts. Although I may not comment, I read and enjoy each post. I can say I always think you look great!

    This post started me thinking about my mom, who had a great classic sense of style too. Someone who was always young at heart, as she went through her fifties, she expressed concern that her hairstyle and clothing choices could seem "not age appropriate". She was keenly aware of the social pressures for women of a certain age to look a certain way, but she really wasn't having it. The salon always wanted to cut her hair shorter, and she insisted on keeping a layered chin-length bob until the day she passed away!

    The deal was that if she ever showed up in something "too young" we'd (her 3 daughters) would tell her. We never did, because she never did.

  6. I love your posts and your pictures - it's makes your blog feel neighborly and gives it a "hey girlfriend" quality.

    Keep smiling. I hate the sullen hunched over pigeon-toed thing - it's so little girly. We over-40s, on the other hand, are grown up mature women with wisdom those girls can only dream about.

  7. Thank you for your blog, and for caring what I think about it.

    I am a lurker on your blog. I read it regularly, and have never responded, but today I sense you are at a crossroads. For me, the key questions posed by your post are:
    - Should you continue?
    - Should you move away from “fashun”, if you do continue?

    First, I hope you will continue. I enjoy your writing and check your blog daily. Your posts are like the obituaries in The Economist. I want to read them even if I do not know the people (or the clothes and shoe designers you mention, or the plants in your garden, or the knitting yarns, patterns, and methods). Your writing engages and educates me and gives me pleasure.

    Second, I hope you will continue to write about clothes, shoes, and fashion. You have rekindled an appreciation of these which I thought had disappeared from my life.

    You are brave to write as you do and it emboldens me to try to be more real and open to the world.

    Thank you.

  8. First, I love the last picture in this post--the one with such a genuine smile. Terrific! And the skirt with the white shirt has a very sophisticated feel I quite like.

    Second, I think the question of including faces in blogging pictures is an interesting one as well as very complex. I shall continue to mull it over before adding my two cents.

    But in the mean time, I truly enjoy your outfit pictures--as well as Thomas', and thanks for that rec., by the way--because it's so rare that one gets to see a real person thinking about clothes and the self those clothes both enclose and project in a way that bespeaks, NOT vanity, but mindfulness. And I think it's a wonderful way of bringing the mind and the body back together--the thinking about joins the being within. While I don't know that I have the confidence yet to do such a think, I'm really glad that other people do.

    It's all food for thought.


  9. Wow! I'm so honoured to have such a great, perceptive, thoughtful bunch of readers taking the time to comment.
    Jillian: Although you say you don't follow fashion, you have an unmistakeable personal style as evidenced in photos of yourself and your knitwear on your blog. Your mom taught you well! (I have three daughters who keep me in line as well, by the way.)
    Polly: I love the idea of giving off a "hey girlfriend" vibe.
    Weesie: Thanks for de-lurking -- I was feeling at a bit of a crossroads and the encouragment really matters. I can't help chuckling at the comparison to the obits in The Economist, but I know exactly what you mean.
    Puttermeister: You always drive me to think a bit further -- I really appreciate the notion of integrating body and mind through writing the material everyday of my dress. And yes, I think the smile/face thing is worth more analysis -- I've even been toying with the notion of working up a paper (or at least adding the idea to that long list!)

  10. Chiming in late to say, do keep up, Mater! I can't be as eloquent as your other commenters, or maybe as high-minded: As I stare 40 in the face, I'd kill for a waistline like yours. I was even thinking how slim you looked in that long skir with the wide belt! Unfortunately, having had twins (6 lb 10 and 6 lb 11) via c section at 37 pretty much puts me at a 60+ sedentary figure, no matter what I do. I had two people ask if I was pregnant this past week. Argh.

    Meanwhile, you know pretty much what my days consist of, with a job, a night and weekend working husband, and three kids under 5. Of all the things I've had to give up, dressing isn't one of them: I still need clothes. (different sized ones, too, dammit.) And for me, the style blogs (Pseu and Manolo for me) help me smile and give me a teensy thing to relate to, as I work to spend 30 seconds dressing in a way that says "thoughtful" not "drone." (or "mom.") I love the kids' (Jeanine, Susie) style blogs, but I can't be there with that attention anymore. And I find I need so much more function in my wardrobe now, which means no more heels or dry cleaning. So the question is, how do people who need to function, not just model, dress? You brave the elements and a commute to campus, and always look protected, comfortable, and as if you're having fun and not just wearing a uniform.

    It's a little funny to me that I gravitate toward the style blogs when I'm online, but what I've realized is that it's pure entertainment, a joy in what is also necessity. And as a professional writer, it's also a form of visual communication. So am I combining professional with the personal? Aren't we all, I mean, those of us who dress for work?

    I am also admiring of your cheerful openness online, and have often wondered if I could have a blog that would be as consistently thoughtful and showing the joy in daily life. Must eat; so let's hear about how you made it special. Must dress, so let's make it fun as well as functional, an acknowledgment of those who see us as well as our inner journey. You do it so well, with class, and are a wonderful style mentor. Love that skirt! Cheers!

  11. Aw shucks, Dana. Seems pretty eloquent to me, despite your protestations, but that might just be 'cause I like what you say ;-)
    Believe me, though, I know how tough it is to take any "me time" when you have little ones -- and I never had 3 under 5. That you can manage all you do and still bring style into your daily life (albeit without heels or dry cleaning) is also inspiring -- are you still rocking those great boots?

  12. It's been said that, as we age, art and life become one. Thus:

    "... any artist's first canvas is himself - or herself. We have 'three skins: our natural skin, our wardrobe, and our house.' And if we have any aesthetic instinct at all, we attend to each one."

    If you're fortunate enough to have and appreciate good taste, then celebrate it! There are enough slobs out there, no? Enjoy!

  13. Dear Materfamilias:
    I love that you are an academic and that you write about your appreciation of clothing. I did my thesis dissertation on the psychology of clothing and I initially met with me a lot of resistance, as clothing was not seen as important.

    In response to your self-questioning, please do continue your blog and, yes, please continue with the clothes/style coverage.

    I truly appreciate your willingness to share your joie de vivre and your passion for fashion/food/family/life. And it is even more meaningful and interesting that you are a mother, an intellect, a professor and a woman over 40.

    No matter what we do in life we are not one-dimensional and we have to show up to our life in clothing and we might as well do that dressed as well as we can --and hopefully smiling. I hope that you do not give up sharing with us what you wore and please don't stop with the smiling. I would really miss both. :-D

  14. Thanks, Anonymous, I didn't know this quotation by Friedensreich Hundertwasser and it's worth knowing. I'm not at all sure if what I have is good taste, but I do enjoy expressing myself through my clothing. (I wouldn't call those who don't slobs, but sometimes it does seem as if it's one big "What not to Wear" out there!)
    LBR: A thesis on psychology of clothing -- that's very cool. I did write a paper once on clothing in Joyce's Ulysses, but a whole thesis (and obviously, tons of research) -- sounds really interesting altho' perhaps not as lively as your blog ;-)

  15. Dear Fellow Struggler on This Path We Call Blogs,

    As someone who once very kindly took the time to write a hefty missive for my then fledgling blog, you and your family hold a particular place in my internet-reading heart. It is for this reason, among many others, that I once sent you cookies by post. And as a chief beneficiary of your kind words I feel I have a vested interest in your continued blogging. However, I will try and not let that colour the words that follow.

    Being several years older than many of my style-obsessed brethren I come to the blogging world with a particular outlook. I have kept two blogs in the past, both of which fizzled out from lack of focus and content and, to paraphrase John Hodgman, a lack of belief that people would possibly be interested in anything I had to say. As he points out, some people find it easy to believe that others want to read what they write, but those people tend not to be good writers, and are usually assholes.

    Since starting to write about fashion I have found - contradicting the prevailing belief that the fashion world is a cold, heartless place - a wealth of warm and friendly people who have offered me all manner of assistance and goods from around the world. Ten years ago I would never have had the confidence or the gumption to post about what I wore, mostly because I didn't really consider my clothing until very recently. Rather than my "youth" it was the sense that there was a very supportive group of people out here in internet land waiting to prop me up that had me taking that first photo, posting to that first flickr group, and writing that first outfit description. The lack of smile in the posts is neither emulation nor seriousness - it is simply my attempt to mitigate the possibility of "goofy face."

    None of this speaks to what the focus for your blog should be, and as I am sure you know only you can determine the answer to that. But I am a strong believer that the world would be a better place if more people spoke up and more people were heard, and the internet, for all of its myriad flaws, is a place where this can happen. So should you decide to not post about your outfits that is certainly your prerogative, but do not do so for fear of criticism or sense of propriety. Life is meant to be celebrated, and, as I have said before in a Scottish brogue, you are a long time dead. I have read all of your posts with interest and will continue to do so outfits or no, flowers or no, boats drifting to shore or no. (But there will need to be words. I cannot promise to continue reading if those go.)

    So then, what have I said? I don't know. Only that if one has words let one write them, and if one has pictures let one post them. And the world will either accept or reject as is the world's way. In any event, your a peach and I've enjoyed it all thoroughly.

  16. Thomas: Thank you so much for these thoughtful words. Knowing that I can sustain the interest of writers and readers of your calibre is so encouraging. It's also reassuring to know that other bloggers have some of the same hesitations and are also trying to avoid looking goofy (by not smiling) -- while I worry that I look goofy by smiling! I do believe, like you do, that the world is better if more of us shared, and the internet so far has been a great medium for me. And since I'm going to be such a long time dead, perhaps I'll just have to work through these fears. Meanwhile, thanks for reading, thanks for writing!

  17. Thanks Mater! I get self conscious writing for this audience, even as a commenter. You are all so bright and thoughtful and articulate. Meanwhile, I feel like I'm just typing away in a blur of consciousness.

    A wonderful black humored co-worker and I toss around the idea of blogging every now and then, and we've agreed that we'd both be worried about ending up divorced, fired, or sued! (mostly kidding) Of course, Thomas, we also want to neither be bad writers nor assholes. I love materfamiliasknits because Mater has a sunny, open honesty that comes through even in posts on less than perfect days.

    And now it is time to rock the Dansko and Kork Ease sandals -- or it would be, if the weather would ever get warm and stay there! Oh, what to do in that odd season between boots and sandals?

  18. Also, Mater, thanks for sharing your seventh grade story. That's a terrible time of your (anyone's) life, especially as a geeky girl. To take Twisty's turn on it, catcalls and whistling are harassment. Heck, she'd probably say assault. I know as we were growing up we were supposed to take it "all in good fun." Of course your folks didn't mean it any way but teasing. But it's a frightening thing. What kind of culture sets up a compliment wrapped in the threat of violence?

    I hope today that catcalling is not as prevalent (or maybe I'm just not whistle quality anymore). Of course, I've also learned when and where to/not to walk, and I don't even think about it anymore. The patriarchy has done its job.

  19. Dana: I'm sure you'd be a great blogger, but yes, there are risks. My daughter came very close to losing a job because of hers and it's scared her off for now (altho' she's offered to guestpost for me occasionally, and I might take her up on that at some point).
    I'm not quite ready for the sandals yet, partly 'cause it's not warm enough, but mostly 'cause I haven't managed the pedicure yet.

  20. I have always found what you write hits a tender spot in my heart, and my history. I went to a small, private all-girls school, too, where I was long-sheltered from the outside world. As mean as some girls were, there was still a sense of safety. Plus the uniforms and strict appearance codes kept the competition levels to a minimum.

    But there are so many stories that make my cheeks burn and eyes smart when I remember them. Stories of feeling embarrassed and ridiculed, and these stories stick. I still have to convince myself in the morning to wear something a little more bold or colourful, and to shush the voice that says others will judge or criticize or not understand.

    I still find feel nervous when I'm uploading photos to post, or even when I ask Thomas to take a photo of my outfit. And the amount of wondering "What am I doing?" and "Who cares?" is not even measurable.

    I'm not suggesting that we're twins or anything, but I did want to express that as much as I have doubts about my own blogging, I always find your writing insightful , interesting, and honest. And your warmth shines through in your photos.

  21. What a lovely lovely post. I have been a lurker for a while here, since my friend Gina introduced me to your blog, but don't believe I have commented. Shame on me.

    I don't think I can begin to express how your post touched on various issues that I had been pondering/questioning about my own relationship to my sewing blog, the internet, and the world at large. Please now that your writing and your worldview are a bright spot and I am always eagerly looking for another post.

  22. Sm: Thanks so much for your comment -- We might not be twins or anything, but you sound as if you've shared some of the experiences I have and still experience some of the same apprehension -- and that phenomenon of the cheeks burning and eyes smarting at the mere recollection, years after an adolescent humiliation -- you've got that down! I've been enjoying your blog, by the way, and applaud your bravery and creativity, in the photos especially

    Mardel: Thanks for de-lurking. I went over to your blog and read your latest post -- wow! we really have been thinking on the same wavelength. I tried to comment over there but was a bit deterred by the sign-up procedure -- I love the thoughtfulness you brought to your decision to put yourself in front of the camera, and I think the results were pretty successful. btw, I don't think that last shot is frumpy at all -- the long sweater and the scarf combine to create a long line, and I think you look polished and casual at the same time.

  23. Thank you for the comments on my blog and the heads-up on the comment feature over there. I had a problem with an onslaught of spam comments last week and was trying to prevent that, but this was not my intention. I LIKE Comments and don't want to scare people away. Thanks to your input I have fixed that.

  24. I'm late to the post -- you look absolutely gorgeous in that second shot! You look great in your other photos, but this one is particularly wonderful because it's not posed. It's 100% real and 100% delightful. That is absolute beauty!

    I see that Mardel has de-lurked!

  25. Thanks Gina. I love that photo too, especially 'cause I think it captures something of the goofy fun one of my daughters and I have together (girlcook, that is). The photo shows me through her eyes and I'm so happy she can see me that way.
    And yes, Mardel has de-lurked and it's great to hear from her.


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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