Kelly Davio’s previous Waiting Room columns can be found here.
Driving home the other day, I was stuck behind a slow-going city bus bearing a large-format ad for a clothing store. The ad featured a man in a blazer being stared at (somewhat ominously, in my opinion) by a woman in a snug and elaborately style-lined dress, with oiled legs and flat-ironed hair. The text of the ad read “effort is back in style.”
I had to chuckle; dressing myself up the way that she did would take more than effort. For me, it would take a series of minor miracles.
Having serious muscular weakness means that, on tough days, holding up a hair dryer simply isn’t possible, and managing to get some mascara on without stabbing myself in the eyeball feels like a notable achievement. Putting on a dress with the zipper up the back, like the dress in the ad? Not going to happen. Send in the leggings, please.
Unhappily for me, my beloved leggings and yoga pants are favorite targets of public scorn at the moment: everyone wants a say on stretchy pants, including Montana State Senator David Moore, who believes that yoga pants should be illegal to wear in public and has introduced some legislation to better achieve his dream of a leggings-free Montana. Then there are the many school districts across the U.S. that have banned girls from wearing stretchy pants to school, ostensibly to shield young boys from the distraction of girls and their bodies. But Emily Dunnagan, principal of one such school in Petaluma, California, dropped the rhetoric about protecting those distractible boys; she was reported by Huffington Post as saying that the goal of the ban is simply “…to teach kids to respect themselves.”
Ah, self-respect. That was a term I heard quite a bit with regard to clothing while I was growing up in Protestant Evangelical Christianity. At my religious high school, we girls had to kneel and have our skirts measured by a joyless and terrifying administrator. Shorts and anything with spaghetti straps were strictly forbidden. Piercings were out, too, as were any “countercultural hairstyles,” whatever those were.
Our strict dress code was intended, I suppose, to cultivate this nebulous self-respect Dunnagan references, but the result was (at least for me) a cultivation of disrespect for others; I admit that I had, for a long time, dogged standards about not only how I should look, but also about how other women should look. When I was younger and healthier, I was so uptight about my personal style that I didn’t even own a pair of jeans. My wardrobe was all wool skirts, red lipstick, vintage sweaters, and heels. I looked down my not inconsiderable nose at women walking around bare-faced and in sweats or yoga pants. Have a little self-respect, I thought. A little dignity.
The problem with my mindset was that I assumed I could spot self-respect when I saw it in the wild. I assumed that it looked roughly like I looked.
I finally got a real education in self-respect this last July. In my doctor-ordered rehabilitation after surgery to remove my thymus, I was asked to walk. First for five minutes a day, then ten, then twenty. I was unprepared for how hard it would be just to stand, much less to get from my door to the driveway and finally to the sidewalk. I was equally unprepared for how difficult it would be to put on clothes—getting into a tee-shirt and a pair of yoga pants and finally lacing up my sneakers took a laughably long time, and the whole process was exhausting enough that I had to lie down as soon as I’d finished dressing.
Before long, I realized I could have one or the other: an appropriate outfit, or my prescribed rehabilitation. Screw it, I thought. I choose walking.
So that’s how I came to be the vision that I was, shuffling slowly thorough my neighborhood in my sunglasses and a pair of pajamas, my unwashed hair sticking up antennae-like as I eventually turned my twenty minutes of walking into twenty-five, then thirty. I could hear my younger self tut-tutting in the back of my mind. You slob, I could hear her saying. You can’t even stuff yourself into a pair of yoga pants? Show a little self-respect.
But here’s the thing: the me at age 32, subjecting morning commuters to my daily progress through the streets with my oily face, rogue hair, and pajamas has a whole lot more self-respect than did the me at age 22, with my full face of makeup and body-con outfit. My self-respect no longer hinges on how I look to others. Today, my self-respect means valuing my health, showing care for my body, and prioritizing my needs above the opinions of passersby.
While it’s true that I still feel my best when I’m in a snazzy little outfit, when my eyeliner’s perfectly flicked, and when my hair’s freshly cut, I’ve learned that I don’t need those things to feel happy with myself, or to respect myself and my body. I’ve learned that other women don’t need those things in order for me to respect them, either. And what none of us need? People like Moore and Dunnagan telling us what our self-respect should look like in public.
Kelly Davio is the co-publisher and poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013). She is the former managing editor of The Los Angeles Review and is a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Rumpus, and others. She earned her MFA in poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and is a freelance writer in the Seattle area.