I originally wrote this reflection in 2019, well before all our lives became so home centered with the COVID-19 pandemic. I happened upon it again recently and thought it was even more timely as so many of us are choosing the most comfortable clothing for the vast majority of our days spent at home. I do wonder if pandemic life will end up having a lasting impact on fashion. Will we be embracing more comfortable fashion in other areas of life beyond the home, or will there be a rebellion against seeing “home clothes” out in public and a longing for more uncomfortable, formal fashions? Time will tell.
I have this fleece coat. It’s not my favorite color. It’s this drab, greenish-brown color. I got it on sale when I needed a fleece coat when I moved to Alaska back in 2013. But it is oh, so comfortable and functional. I store my gloves, hat, and neck gaiter in the front pockets for easy access. This coat functions so well. I feel so warm and content in this coat.
Occasionally, I’ll catch a reflection of myself wearing the coat. It’s not flattering. All those handy items stuffed into the front pocket make me look pregnant. I haven’t been pregnant in over 6 years. It’s no fun to be mistaken for pregnant when you are not pregnant.
I’ve been turning over in my head why I want the clothes I wear to look flattering and conform to traditional beauty standards. Why I want to be seen as having a youthful, sexy figure in perpetuity.
The obvious answer is culture and the pull to belong. That’s ok, there’s nothing inherently wrong with those things. I think I just want to dig around a bit to see if those are things I choose to want.
What if I didn’t want those things? What if I let go of outward signals of my sexuality? Does femininity and sexy have to go together? How does this intersect with being a Christian?
Now, I know when a Christian woman talks about clothing we often immediately focus on immodesty. I might tread marginally into that arena within this exploration, but my thoughts here today are more focused on the possibility of letting go of sexy as a value in how I dress, as well as acknowledging that “sexy” is actually a value when I, along with many other women, dress.
It’s hard to discuss this without people feeling judged, because making a different choice automatically seems like a judgement on the choice you are not choosing. Mostly, I just want to take a moment to float in the “what if,” because honestly, I still wear clothes that make me feel attractive and sexy. For me, my “sexy clothes” are typically not as overt as what others might deem as “sexy,” but I still recognize my motivation.
I’ve often wondered about motivation when we think about the differences between men’s and women’s clothing, especially in the West. On a woman, we want to emphasize a small waist, the curves of the body, that the waist is smaller than the bust, that the hips are bigger than the waist. Emphasizing the curves of the breasts and bottom is certainly another area of focus in women’s clothing. There is also the tendency to show more skin: women tend to wear shorter shorts and lower cut shirts than men.
Now, this exploration is not a judgement on typical women’s clothing, but simply a recognition of typical patterns. As women, many of our clothing choices are pulled towards options that emphasize and accentuate an idealized female body shape over mere function of the clothing.
I’m often baffled by the claim that an outfit, which is overtly sexual, even by the merest standard, is worn by someone who claims that they wear it “for me” (for themselves). I personally don’t find those kinds of outfits very comfortable. If they are so good for the self, then why hasn’t that type of fashion transcended gender on a broad scale? Why don’t we find more men wearing those types of sexy clothes that women wear? We’ve seen how pants ended up crossing gender lines like this. However, I think the widespread use of pants has other motivations at play beyond comfort. Even so, the comfort and function of pants made them a more ideal crossover fashion. When I consider the prospect, the clothes I wear “for me” are more akin to pajamas, frankly. I don’t think it’s inherently bad to want to feel sexually attractive in what you wear, but I find it weird to deny that as a motivation. I sometimes wear sexy clothes, because I want to feel sexy. Let’s dig into that instead of pretending like that motivation doesn’t exist.
I want to feel beautiful and sexy, and I cringe when I see a pregnant looking profile of my non-pregnant body in my comfy jacket. Why is that? Is that something I can let go of? Is that something I should let go of?
When I lived in Saudi Arabia I wore an abaya whenever I left my home to go out in public. The abaya is a bit like a large judge’s robe you wear over your regular clothes. They do make abaya’s with belts to highlight a woman’s figure, but generally speaking, an abaya obfuscates a woman’s figure. The one I owned was very billowy and did not have a belt.
It was really interesting to live day to day life and not worry about how your stomach looks in this outfit or whether you need a more flattering bra for that outfit. My outward figure was, to a great degree, taken out of the equation for how I interacted with the world around me. I personally found the experience very liberating.
However, even with that experience, once I returned to a place where Western style of dress was more typical, I pretty much went back to the expected Western style of dress. I still occasionally wear an abaya-like kaftan at home or wear one of my thicker abayas as an overcoat in the winter, but overall, I look pretty Western. Culture is loud and hard to escape, even when you are trying to be mindful of its impact on your choices.
But what if I just wore clothes that were functional, with pretty fabric, with designs on the fabric that I enjoyed, clothes that I found functional and comfortable to wear? How and in what ways would my clothing choices be different? What if looking curvy, skinny, and sexy were no longer goals?
I can almost hear my Christian sisters saying “what about your husband?”
Those of you who are Christian, or have engaged in discussions in Christian circles, may be familiar with the idea that a wife should strive to look attractive to her husband. I don’t disagree with this. Certainly in the privacy of your own bedroom, a husband and wife should feel free to accentuate their sex appeal for their spouse. The discussion here is about attire when out in public. I absolutely appreciate when my husband gives deference to my wishes and I strive to give deference to his as well. The implication with looking attractive for your husband is that, in general, a husband would prefer his wife to look attractive by conventional beauty standards. There’s certainly a great deal of leeway there regarding what each individual husband desires. Mutual deference while still adhering to modesty standards is the goal here.
However, it brings up the looming question for me of how concerned should a Christian be with outward appearance?
Outward appearance is used for signaling in our society. It signals the reverence or importance of a situation. Clothes are called “casual” or “formal” for this reason. Clothes can signal respect for a person, event, or process. Things in men’s attire like wearing a hat or not, or wearing a coat and tie or not are certainly used as social signals. Clothing can signal belonging to a group. I think the subtleties of clothing signaling are more complicated for the average woman, though. Heels or flats? Pants or skirt? Thigh, knee, or ankle length? Tight or loose? Belt or no belt? The list of choices goes on, and there is a great deal of additional choices in between those broad choices. I think a Christian should strive to be respectful of social norms that do not conflict with biblical teachings, in other words, give deference to the culture around them. However, at the same time, as a Christian, especially, I also strive to let go of the cares of this world as much as I’m able. I wonder how much I should see fashion as a care of this world.
There’s also the argument that healthy people look good. There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with striving to make healthy lifestyle choices. However, plenty of people “look good” without making healthy lifestyle choices. For very many years, I was one of those people.
I’ve explored social beauty standards in my own mind for many years. On one hand, I have a naturally high metabolism, which helped me to look skinny without much effort for many years. I also naturally have lots of dark hair on my arms and legs, which requires a lot of upkeep if I choose to remove it to conform to traditional female beauty standards. The genetic lottery giveth and the genetic lottery taketh. Is my self worth tied to those things?
If I stop regarding social beauty norms, is it a sign of individual enlightenment or simply a disrespectful disregard for our culture?
Certainly it’s not an all or nothing proposition. In my own life, I do strive to let go of as many traditional beauty standards as I can stand while still hovering somewhere near the social norm. I suspect I’m probably more likely somewhere slightly outside of the social norm, but close enough to simply be considered eccentric and not a pariah (by most, at least, I hope).
However, as I mentioned above: culture is loud. It is so hard to believe in your own self worth entirely apart from your visual appearance. This is especially true, I think, as a woman. It’s why I still cringe when I see my big belly profile, even though my actual belly is not that big and my coat with the accessories in my pockets functions wonderfully.
Sometimes, I think I just want to wear something less flattering and highly functional as sort of a gift to myself. I do this as an exercise in being ok in my own skin and as a reminder that I can find joy and happiness even when I don’t look like it on the outside.
So, the next time you see a woman who looks a bit frumpy and disheveled, don’t think about how much she has let herself go, but instead choose to wonder how much she has learned to love herself just as she is.
Two years ago I remember I wasn’t comfortable sharing the image of myself in my fleece coat. So I indefinitely put off sharing this essay, that explores letting go of traditional beauty standards, with a wider audience. The irony is not lost me. I’m happy to report that with time, I seem to have found a much more gentle and accepting view of that image. I just want to mention that to remind myself that I am often way more critical of how I look in the moment than most any other person I encounter in real life would ever be to me, as well as my future self would ever be, apparently. Remember to be gentle with yourself.